This first posted at Skhye Moncrief’s blog on March 19, 2010. Thought it could be of use to many of you!
As a writer of contemporary romance /women’s fiction my research tends to be limited to the types of work my characters do, a medical situation, news, world events, etc that may take place within the time and place settings of my fictional towns. That said, I still like to think I don’t shirk on details when it comes to any of the areas I need to learn more about.
Characters: I’ll start with using what I know about a given profession or job then compare it to information gathered from any/all the following.
Deal with those that do directly, a great way to insure your work rings authentic. Friends can be a great resource. Someone’s husband or sister or cousin is a police officer, doctor, teacher, etc and most people are happy to talk to about what they do! In my current (debut) release No Matter Why, my lead male character, Billy Jay, enters the police academy. A friend’s (then) husband answered so many questions about every aspect of the run from entry to graduation to field work. I stopped enough police officers just to ask whatever question was on my mind at any given moment. You should have seen the look on an officer’s face the day I stopped her in school, introduced myself and asked about death benefits for officers killed in the line of duty—not the best way to initiate a relationship, lol.)
The best was the night I started talking to a man in the food line at our town’s newly dedicated bocce ball court. Turns out he was a SWAT team member AND a childhood friend of my brother’s, which gave me impetus to ask even more questions, lol. He fed me tons of information on large vs. small-town squads, lateral moves within a precinct, salaries, weapons, techniques; I went home and typed up at least four pages of noted from our conversation—still in the reference file and soon to be put to use in my current work-in-progress. I’m currently looking for a detective’s wife to interview.
A trek to the local big-name bookstore or local library where I can grab a text and take notes works well, too. Fiction authors are probably allowed some liberties that other writers aren’t. (Some will clarify that at the beginning of their work.) Still, make sure you can come up with at least one fact to back up your fictional situation. (I made sure at least one place in the country—San Francisco—allowed field training during a police academy run. Most field training takes place after the six-month academy stint is finished.)
Okay, websites: somehow, I always end up starting at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page). WebMD (http://www.webmd.com) is another good place to start, and 1st Turning Point (www.1stturningpoint.com) is one of the best places I’ve found whether you’re getting your promotional feet wet or seasoned as one gets.
Finally, throw a virtual stone and chances are you’ll find a specialty Yahoo! Group. There’s a wealth of info at Crime Scene Questions for Writers (http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/crimescenewriter/), dedicated to questions involving pretty much anything crime or law-related. A great plus here is the medical personnel who are members, too! I’ve had a multitude of questions answered in detail about various topics from professionals active in a relative field: organ donation, terminating life support, pediatric cardiac conditions, DNR vs. advanced directives to name a few. (Special thanks to Erin, Cheri and Priscille for a wealth of information!) I’ll copy and paste the e-mails into a document then pick, choose and tailor the information in the way that works best for my story. Best of all, I’ve gotten a few on-line friends out of the deal, too!
Places: Start on the net—at least in the USA, every state and major city can be found on the web. Go to the state’s official site, Chamber of Commerce, etc. Take virtual tours when available. (Though I haven’t looked into this personally, bet some travel websites can put you in front of some really exotic places!) And visit friends’ or familiar authors’ blogs—many post personal and/or research-related photos of places they’ve been.
When traveling, grab brochures from rest stops—a great springboard for ideas of more places to look!
Technology: A little off-topic but related just the same. (If the computer’s out, chances are the writer is too!) Talk to your techie friends and acquaintances and ask them to “show” you what to do; “telling” doesn’t get me far unless it’s a very simple procedure. Just like you take notes for everything else, take notes for every procedure you learn—chances are you’ll need a reference point and those notes will be invaluable. (I ask a gazillion questions and handwrite the answers into a spiral-bound notebook as my techie friends do their magic. If the computer goes down again, my notes are always handy. Something to be said for ye old pen and paper, huh?)
Reading those manuals and taking tutorials is sometimes TMI for my tastes. Those, however, have their place too. Recently, I needed to format the hard-drive on both my home units. By starting with the computer’s manual, I was able to repair one by going to the internet on the other to look up information as I went. (Microsoft—www.microsoft.com—is a great place to start. Almost every computer-related company too, has a forum or online community ready to help. Just be ready to sift through a lot of posts.) Later I flagged my neighbor, who taught me how to reinstall drivers and deal with the appropriate anti-virus software. When it came to dealing with my laptop, I was pretty much ready to handle the task (almost) alone. Not only did I save at least $300, I feel empowered and ready to deal with the next virus that comes my way. NOTE: I strongly suggest NOT going this route unless you have a pretty good sense of what you’re doing, someone to fall back on or $ to dish out should your ministrations not work. I was lucky enough to guess right but my knowledge of computers has been building over the years.
Scientific? Not very but these methods work for me.