I recently met the rector of a local church to discuss a zealous missionary character in my WIP. I want the missionary to be extreme, but not a caricature, and I wanted the rector to confirm I've gotten it right. Soon, I plan to talk to a reporter who whose recent non-fiction book relates to another topic in my WIP (prostitution). Before I type "The End" on this novel, I'll have talked to at least half a dozen experts.
When I started writing fiction, I never guessed I'd become so exacting.
"Aw, is it a learnin' movie?" This was my daughter's response when I announced we were going to see Food, Inc. She comes by it genetically: I'm not one of those stop-at-all-the-historical-markers moms. I’ve been known to refuse to do math on weekends, and may have referred to reading non-fiction before as “too much work.” After logging several hours at a mentally taxing day job, plus another hour or two writing, the last thing I
want to do is use my brain. Kismet! I saw this photo in the hallway, en route to meeting
one of my HD experts at the U of Michigan hospital.
Or so I used to think. So, when I set out to write my first novel, about a woman with Huntington's Disease (HD), I planned to do a minimal amount of poking around online, acquire a tiny smattering of facts about HD, and rely on artistic license to make up the rest. But the thing is, it only takes a minimal amount of poking around to discover how devastating HD is, and once I did, I quickly decided there was no way I could breezily invent details about such a terrible illness. I had to get it right.
Warning: writers in an expert’s email inbox may remain as insignificant as they appear. After months of researching on my own, I looked for HD experts willing to provide a big-picture, clinical overview. I located one who seemed perfect and emailed to ask if she’d speak with me. I warned her up-front that I had neither an agent nor a book deal, so while there was a miniscule chance she could one day see her name in an Acknowledgments section, there was a far greater likelihood she would squander her time advising me on a manuscript no one would read.
And then I waited to be ignored. Instead, she wrote to say she’d love to help.
Only persons named in Acknowledgment sections of fictitious works need apply. By the time I finished the book, I’d spoken to five HD experts, plus six others who advised on other subjects raised in the novel, from foster care to infertility to criminal sentencing. Some came on board after I’d been lucky enough to acquire an agent and a book deal, and I could promise they would see their names in the Acknowledgments. You can never tell, though, who will be lured by that sort of “fame.” After all, what does a wunderkind M.D. in charge of a department at a major research hospital need with a mention at the end of a novel? It’s hardly CV material. And then there’s the nursing home employee who wrote long answers to my questions about her industry,*after* telling me she’d rather not be mentioned in the book.
A good Scout is always prepared. A happy takeaway from this is that people--even very busy, very important people--are more willing to help than you might imagine. Maybe not every time--several of my emails went unanswered--but don’t let that deter you. And when you find someone willing to answer your questions, here are some things to keep in mind:
Aw, this ended up being a learnin’ book. My first novel is so much richer for its (heartfelt attempt at) accuracy that I will never again contemplate artistic license as a substitute for research. Incidentally, the reporter I mentioned above is a very big deal, and I’m not. But when I asked if he’d be willing to talk, he responded immediately, saying he'd be happy to.
Julie Lawson Timmer lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she precariously balances writing, lawyering, parenting four teens, and whining about how sore she is from CrossFit. She could do none of this (other than the whining) without her wonderful husband Dan. Her debut novel FIVE DAYS LEFT is coming soon from Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin. You can find her on Twitter @JulieLTimmer.