One of my standard jokes around historical authors is that I write contemporaries because no way on God’s green earth would I ever get caught doing research. Of course that’s a bald-faced lie because you can usually tell a poorly researched character/setting/plot/mood/situation by its lack of affect on the whole book. I hope that’s one thing I’ll never be accused of, LOL. Others????
Well, that’s another blog post, my friends!
In this day and age poor research is pure laziness. Quote me on that. Really. I mean it. Quote me. I think we should consider t-shirts, with that as our slogan. One of ‘em, anyhow. With the advent of Internet access to almost anything and anyone, expert advice is a push of a button away…
But what about BEYOND THE INTERNET. Historical authors can blame their sources for misinformation or plead lack of information, or variances of region. When you’re writing contemporaries, an expert's glimpse at your info might be just one reader away. We get one chance with that doctor/nurse/computer tech/daycare provider/geologist/cop/evidence tech, etc. One chance. And if we blow it, don’t think they won’t talk. Nothing bugs people more than an author messing up their profession, so let’s examine how to get it right the first time.
Bragging moment: Re: my phone call with Wendy Lawton when she agreed to be my agent, then suggested it might be nice if she actually READ something of mine. I sent the opening chapter of "Winter’s End" and she called me right away and asked if I was a hospice nurse. When I said no, she wondered how I’d hit it so exactly. Wendy had gone through hospice with her mother the year before. I had no way of knowing that. I had gone through it with my mom twelve years before, but twelve years is A LONG TIME. STOP AND THINK HOW MUCH YOU’VE CHANGED IN TWELVE YEARS, AND I’M NOT EVEN TALKING WRINKLES…
Enter Kathy Kennel, VNS, Rochester and Monroe County. When I decided Kayla would be a hospice nurse, I snail-mailed the VNS. I was unpublished but not afraid to laud my contest wins/places and whatever else I needed to grab the necessary help. I used the same technique with the Philadelphia Police Department for “Neither Race nor Creed” a contemporary romance about a police captain dealing with an inter-racial romance that would set his extended family reeling and a serial killer stalking University City. Detective John Moore of the Southwest Detective Bureau got in touch with me and acted as my expert, my advisor and a cheerleader by the time we were done. I set up a time to meet with him personally in Philly (I had two boys go to school there) and I took him fresh homemade cookies and my thanks. I used that same method this past month to procure an appointment with a pediatric cardiologist, a doctor who is probably way too busy to meet with me, but in the interest of accuracy agreed to see me this coming Thursday.
Here's a sample letter:
My name is Ruth Logan Herne and I am an award-winning local author. I am as yet unpublished but agented.
RUTHY NOTE: Do not say that if it isn’t true… sheesh… but that first line is where I sell myself. And if you don’t have all that much to sell yet, then fake it ‘til you make it. Don’t ever be afraid to respect yourself as a professional writer regardless of your current status. The office or professional you’re approaching does not know that two judges creamed you in the Genesis or that the Lonestar asked you politely to never, ever enter again. Sell yourself.)
I am currently researching a contemporary novel that pits the expertise of an off-the-cuff suspense novelist against the wiles of a somewhat jaded but totally hot police detective.
RUTHY NOTE: Get what I’m selling here? This is where I pitch that A: I know what I’m doing, and B: My work is savvy enough to hold a person’s interest beyond 2.7 seconds.)
Part of my job as a novelist is to accurately portray the chosen professions of my protagonists. To that end I need your help, or the help of someone within your department. (Unit/building/site, whatever fits the chosen profession) I have a short list of questions…
RUTHY NOTE: it doesn’t matter if it isn’t a short list, people love to talk about themselves and their jobs, at least the ones that volunteer to do this kind of thing do, so just call it a short list for brevity’s sake, okay?
…that I need answered, and would like to be able to contact my advisor by either e-mail or phone as I complete the work. Properly representing the NYPD is very important to me.
RUTHY NOTE: And it should be, no matter how small or unnoted the job. If you’re giving it credence as your H/H’s profession, then take the time to comb the incidentals, even if there’s very little of it you actually USE, the background basis in knowledge is a huge part of presenting a realistic setting for the job/position and actions and reactions involved in your setting. With the exception of Tchaikovsky, (who used too many notes on a regular basis), each harmonic ping of a good song adds credence and depth to the listening ear. The same is true of a well-drawn novel. Tiny snips of professional background help augment the realistic nuances of your story. Remember you’re not using this to LAYER or OVERWHELM a story with boring, yawn-a-minute detail. You’re researching devotedly to be able to seamlessly weave pragmatic bits of the profession into the story so that it doesn’t feel like a twelve-year-old’s paint-by- number Christmas project. I’m just sayin’.
I’ve been able to find several credible sources through Internet and personal research, but I sincerely feel that true accuracy comes from going straight to the source.
RUTHY NOTE: This shows that you’ve already researched the job/profession and aren’t a complete dufus. No one wants to hold your hand, but most professionals are honored to be asked to act as an advisor on a project like this. And if they say no, you move on to the next prospect.
I will be happy to note the assistance of the NYPD and my advisor in the book’s acknowledgements. Looking forward to hearing from you, I am,
Ruth Logan Herne
To keep the letter to one page and not overwhelming, I put my name, address, phone, e-mail and website in the header. That leaves me a full page to play with including their business address in the upper left-hand corner of the letter. (Which is still good protocol.)
Not all research professionals need the formal approach. When I met Joan Marlow Golan in person in December, she’d just finished reading "Waiting Out the Storm" (which we're giving away TODAY, and is a really sweet book, have I mentioned that lately??? No??? My bad!!! Leave me your e-mail in your comment, 'kay????) and when she complimented me (YAY!!!!) on the story, she asked if we’d always raised sheep on our farm.
Nope. Never did. I don’t think I’ve ever even TOUCHED a sheep. Okay. Maybe once.
Was I a vet technician, she asked?
Then how did I know so much about sheep? About sheep farming?
The answer to that is fairly simple. I like to annoy people, (HUSH, CONNEALY)only some of them aren’t annoyed. Some actually like to have gab-fests and act as my experts. I found Mary Jarvis, a helpful sheep farmer and Maremma owner/breeder from Wisconsin via the Internet and used her for certain aspects of the story. I found Nancy Wood at the Marathon, NY Maple Festival, and then she introduced me (JACKPOT!!!!) to Al Ostrander (you can see Al and Rita’s B&B HERE) who ran the STAR program (an accelerated breeding program for innovative sheep farmers that I was featuring in the story) for Cornell University.
Al took me through the sheep barns, answered questions, showed me his personal sheep farm operation and helped me make sure that Sarah Slocum would be able to handle the work I attributed to her as a woman farmer, working alone most of the time, right down to the type of fencing she'd be able to use for rotational pasturing.
Ask everyone. Do not take ‘no’ personally. Ever. If that’s one thing my sales experience taught me is that ‘no’ is just a word that means you haven’t asked the right person.
Ask and ye shall receive. Eventually.
Knock and the door will be opened.
Remember, most people are honored to be asked. Those that aren’t are probably not the best advisors anyway. It’s better for both of you for you to look elsewhere.
Strong stories begin with characters who go more than skin-deep by the very definition and delineation (had to get a big word in there somewhere, sorry…) of their profession and professional setting. Remember, once it’s in binding, there is no second chance to get it right.
I’m here all day today so if you’d like to throw your requests, letters, ideas by me, post ‘em. Do not ever be embarrassed in Seekerville. We’re here to help.
Well. Mary’s here for the food, but she PRETENDS TO HELP…
Grab some coffee and some sweet bread (NOT THE ITALIAN BEEF BULL-PARTS KIND, THE LIKE REGULAR SWEET BREAD... LIKE FOR DANISH, KIND... and let's figure out how to lasso in those experts together. Great minds think alike. Or maybe they are just better at conniving. :)