Help, I Need Somebody/Help, Not Just Anybody - Using Experts To Enrich A Novel

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:  

 

  1. Try not to be intimidated. Imagine you’re at a party and the host introduces you to Dr. Big Shot of Very Important Labs, Inc. Do you clam up, stutter, forget your words? No. You say hello, ask the doctor about his work, and talk about yours. The same applies here.
  2. Research first, ask questions later. Don’t ask an expert to explain things you can learn on your own. Save their precious time for questions about conflicts you found in the research, or ask for anecdotes that breathe life into facts.  
  3. Offer a choice: email or phone? Don’t fire off a list of questions via email and expect detailed written answers. Many people prefer to talk by phone.
  4. There’s no quota on expressing gratitude. Start and end the call with sincere thanks. Follow up with a (snail mail) thank you card. Later, if you have updates--you got an agent, sold the book, have a pub date--send another card to share the news.
  5. Admit up-front any uncertainty about publication. Don’t wait until “later” to reveal you’re without an agent and/or book deal. Some people will care, some won’t. But nobody wants to feel misled.  
  6. Keep your promises. Follow through on any commitments to send signed copies, list names in the Acknowledgments, etc.Related: only list someone in the Acknowledgments if you have their permission, and be sure to get titles and spelling right.   

  

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

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Comment by Yehudit Reishtein on August 14, 2013 at 5:23am

The first time I was advised to call an expert, I stalled and out if off over and over again. I was a nobody and she was a well known and widely published researcher and theoretician. When I finally made an email appointment and then called, I was astounded; Dr. World-Famous spent two hours on the phone, giving me details about her work and offering to send me unpublished information. And then, before completing the call, she asked me, a neophyte bumbler, about my work, and gave me a couple of suggestions that were very helpful. I was shocked, to say the least.

People with a passion for something are always ready to share their passion and to encourage others to take an interest in it. Just as Dr. World-Famous did with me and do with those who ask me for help.

Comment by Julie Lawson Timmer on August 13, 2013 at 1:26pm

Great story, Susan. Some good karma there.

Julie - I agree. I'm not unforgiving by any stretch, but if facts in a novel are way off, I definitely enjoy it less. 

Jeanne - I do think people with a passion are happy to talk about that passion. Until this process, I really didn't realize people with a passion would be so willing to talk to *complete strangers* about it. Nice surprise. 

Nicole - That's my strategy, too. Learn as much as I can first, run my plot ideas past the expert and make adjustments according to new information they give, or corrections they make to my understanding of the material.

Lori - Thanks. :) 

Comment by Susan J. Elliott on August 13, 2013 at 12:24pm

I was writing my Master's thesis on grief when I called on Dr. Therese Rando, a leading writer (esp in academia) in grief recovery.  In those days I wrote via US post and she answered within a week, saying my project sounded great and she would love to participate.

I've been called on as an expert many times after my own book was published. I have never declined an author or article writer no matter how big or small the article is or how far from being published a book might be.  I was recently quoted by two people who had done some research but misinterpreted what they read about the grief process.  They did their research, fleshed out a few theories and then bounced it off me. They had missed their mark by a mile, but I was able to help them slant their article in another direction.  

The two authors were very grateful that they spoke with me as the article would have been so off base had they gone forward with their hypothesis.  Although it first appeared in a small publication, it was soon picked up by the wires and landed on some major websites and then more mainstream people were calling me and then larger organizations.  

From that one article, I was featured in an article in the Sunday New York Post, and my book enjoyed a significant bounce in those few weeks.  So there is something to be said for being a generous expert, and I think most experts get that.  It always helps to help.  Sometimes it leads to bigger things and sometimes it does not.    I encourage writers to ask for help when writing an article or a book and think that most "experts" are more than happy to help.  I've been on both sides, and I truly believe that helping others comes back to me, often in much larger fashion than I could anticipate.  

Comment by Julie Luek on August 13, 2013 at 11:48am

Once, when I kicked around the idea of a book, I did a little digging and interviewing. Actually, that was my favorite part of writing fiction!  I loved how willing people were to talk to me and how the facts would have added authenticity to my story. I've read books where authors should have done a little more research. Readers are smart and can tell. 

Comment by Jeanne Estridge on August 12, 2013 at 6:34pm

Like you, I've received wonderful support from all kinds of people. Most people are happy to talk about their subject of expertise. And even though I always warn them that I'm unpublished, they're usually impressed that I'm even trying to write a novel. 

Comment by Nicole Amsler on August 12, 2013 at 11:57am

I particularly like "Research first, ask questions later."

I have done extensive research on diseases, crimes, or scenarios, after suddenly deciding to switch directions. It helps to do basic internet research for the outline, write at least part of a draft, and then address specific questions to an expert, as you mentioned.

I also like the advice "write from the overflow." By over-researching, I can massage accurate information into an original story. Thanks for your helpful and wise advice.

Comment by Lori Nelson Spielman on August 12, 2013 at 9:00am

Terrific stuff here, Julie. It's so easy to become intimidated by the experts. Your advice was so helpful--especially #4, There's no quota on expressing gratitude.

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