Monday, November 16, 2009

Field Research--How do you handle it?

First, my definition of field research: Any kind of research an author does that involves speaking to another human being.

As an unpublished author who is somewhat of an introvert, it seems I have two strikes against me. One, my shyness causes stress in itself when I'm required to introduce myself to a stranger, much less ask them specific questions regarding my needed research for a novel. Two, how serious is a stranger going to take me, an unpublished writer, when I attempt to gather information for a novel that may or may not ever get published?

I don't know about you, but where I live authors aren't the norm. Never in my life have I ever heard anyone mention that they'd been interviewed, or their brain picked, for a novel in progress. It just doesn't happen around here.

So I'm asking those of you who have done research in person before, are you upfront, and explain that you're gathering information for a proposed novel, or do you gather your information incognito? Any ingenious ways to build self-confidence before venturing into field research, or even better, how to avoid having to do so without sacrificing the authenticity of your work? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated, friends!

Surrendering to Him,



Tabitha Bird said...

I gather information behind the scenes. Or I write an interview or article on the person for a magazine and go about the information gathering that way. But I don't do it this way because I am too shy to just come out and say ask, I do it because I find people are more opened and honest when they are just giving information for the sake of your interest. Though, that said, when I do interviews people are usually really nice about it and could care less if the article actually gets published. Most people love the chance to talk about themselves and their interests. Try it out. you'll be fine!

VR Barkowski said...

Even though we're coming at the topic from different directions, I just posted a short piece about research on my own blog, and I got a little chill when I saw this.

I'm shy too and hate approaching strangers. If I can get information any other way, I will. I've done two interviews, one with a waitress, another with an attorney. I explained I was writing a book, I had my questions written out in advance, and I requested an interview. They were both flattered. I also offered to deliver a copy of the book once it's [eventually] published. And of course I will credit their contribution in the acknowledgments.

As for confidence, I have no advice. I trembled through both interviews even though my subjects couldn't have been kinder or more forthcoming.

Gwen Stewart said...

Hi Eileen. I'm introverted too, by nature...but in this, I find that I can just ask. I say, "I'm an unpubbed author but I've completed ** novels and I hope to be published one day." (I also include my agent's info, if I think the person may understand agenting.) "I'm looking for some basic research for my novel about **. I'm not asking you to read the book, nor am I expecting lengthy or detailed explanations. But could you tell me about ***?"

Guess what? I get mostly bites. :) Most people are very immersed in their world (naturally) and love being asked about their profession. I have found the most success when I make it clear that I won't demand much of their time.

I'm writing a book about a songwriter--and recently received a lengthy email from the top copyright attorney in Nashville, who gave me detailed info on copyright law for my novel. (not that I'm going to break it, but because it happens in my novel. LOL)

Best wishes!

Jody Hedlund said...

Hi Eileen,

I haven't had to do field research yet, mostly because most of what I need I can find in stale, old books and internet research. But people who are experts in certain areas may be thrilled to have someone consult them. You'll build relationships and they might even possibly join in your marketing efforts down the road!

Rebecca Nazar said...

Oh gosh, I'm a huge introvert. I find librarians to be the sweetest and most approachable people on the planet. They assist me greatly.

In Maine we have this great library search engine/inter-library loan system that helps me attain any book I desire all from the comfort of my home.

I hope you have something like that too.

Jennifer Shirk said...

I've done field research, but on my own brother since he's a policeman. So it was a piece of cake. LOL

Amy DeTrempe said...

I haven't had to ask anyone face to face anything, except my sister. Since I write historicals that take place in France and England, most of my research is done through books.

Jessica Nelson said...

I completely understand the shyness. That's why I recommend the phone. :-) The more you ask,the easier it'll be. I had to do interviews when I freelanced for the paper, and one thing I've learned is that people love to talk about themselves. :-)
I did call a few places for the manuscript you just read. I called a lawyer and a jail. I just said, "I'm writing a book and I had a few questions. Is there anyone there who'd be interested in talking to me, or has about five minutes?"
So far, no one has turned me down. :-)
Make sure you write your questions in advance, and write as you talk.
In person interviews, those are tougher.
Have fun!! Like someone else said, most people enjoy sharing info and stuff, so I think more than anything people will be intrigued that you're writing a book.

Joanne said...

I haven't done any field research, but maybe you can break the ice first with an introductory email and see what type of response you get? I do find that so many people enjoy talking about their occupations, education, craft, and would probably be intrigued with sharing their knowledge for a novel.

Linda Kage said...

I'm in the same boat as you. Too shy, plus who knows if the story will get published? But I love some of the tips you've been given!!

Tana said...

Your pictures so darn cute, it's a bit distracting really ;) I haven't done outward in touch with people research before, but it seems like a great perk for authors don't you think?

Georgiana Daniels said...

What a fun question!

Let's see....I think I've done it both ways. When I was researching what kind of car I wanted to use in Table for One (I had to be specific) I actually went to a few dealerships. HAHA, the car salesman was sooo excited to see me...until I told him why I was there. Oh the grimace on his face was worthy of its own chapter :D

I say, just go for it! You are a novelist, be proud!

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

You know, I've never actually picked anyone's brain before. I'm a lot like you. Talking with people takes a lot out of me! I've been "lucky" to write about things I know or can easily research online. I'll be coming back to read people's tips!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

I've only ever interviewed people I know before and those definitely weren't formal interviews. I know when I had to do interviews for newspaper articles when I was younger, it really, really intimidated me. But asking was always the hard part. Once the interview got started it almost always got easier.

Erica Vetsch said...

Since I write historicals, I'm usually interviewing museum curators. I've not found it difficult, because I'm asking someone about something they are already passionate about and rarely get to talk enough on.

People like to be interviewed, I've found. It makes them feel special. :)

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Eileen, you would be amazed at how kind most people are to writers, even unpublished writers.

I've had to ask several people for help and information, because the real family in my first trilogy is not very well-known. I even asked over the phone for a hardware store guy to go smell some linseed oil for me and tell me how it smelled. He thought it was hilarious.

I've had people send me packets of stuff in the mail and volunteer to take pictures for me. Some of those photos now hang on my wall. I called these people up almost at RANDOM. I called the fire department in one tiny Ohio town and asked the guy on duty whom I should call to ask questions about town history. He gave me the home number of this sweet elderly couple. They were so patient with me when I asked them questions like: "OK, is the bottom of that creek bed muddy or full of stones? Big stones or little stones? How fast does the water flow? Is the creek valley wide enough to hold a farm?"

As you can see, I have no fear. I'll ask anything.

Try it! You will love the response.

Ava Walker Jenkins said...

Eileen, I couldn't believe the subject of your post today. I was researching my heroine's career on line yesterday, but realized there were still questions that only a professional could answer. YIKES! I would now have to talk to a stranger face to face???!!!!! I am hopeful to read about the positive experiences that others have had. And when you turn it around, wouldn't it be flattering to have others want to interview us?

Susan R. Mills said...

I had to tell the mother my son's friend that I was writing a novel. I really didn't want to, and I was so nervous, but I had to find out some things from her. She used to live withing fifteen minutes of the town where my story takes place. I was pleasantly surprised by her encouraging reaction. I haven't been near as nervous to ask for research help from others since then.

Julie Dao said...

I haven't ever done much field research, but I understand how you feel perfectly. I'm also pretty introverted. I wouldn't say that I'm very shy anymore, but it takes me a while to open up to people and talking to strangers is still somewhat uncomfortable. I don't think I would mention that I'm writing a novel, because sometimes people have a funny reaction to being interviewed by a writer. It's like being interviewed by someone in the media - they're afraid their words will be put into a public work and be twisted somehow. So unless they ask, I probably wouldn't tell them. Good luck!!

Jill Kemerer said...

I feel like a complete weirdo when I ask people questions like that! I find that spreading the net among my friends, who may in turn know someone else, is a less difficult path. At least I can say, "so and so told me you're a..."

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Eileen -

I'm more on the outgoing side of the equation. Yet, I still have shy moments.

I approach research as normal conversation. My friends and family all know I'm a writer, so it's easy to pick their brains. Most people are happy to share their experiences or knowledge.

Another good way to get information is through the ACFW loop. I see a lot of folks ask research questions.

Susan :)

Kara said...

I agree it can be hard. I usually pick a person't brain without them knowing it. I tend to talk to just about anyone and I ask lots of questions to file away, even if I'm not writing anything at the moment that they could help me with. Of course my poor hubby always wonders why a quick trip into the pharmacy turns into a long ordeal, but if someone is willing to talk to me I try to get as much information out of them as possible;)

quietspirit said...

I am sort of an introvert. I need to ask a friend a question or two about her nursing days for my WIP. I'd rather ask her than a total stranger. Problem is she is scheduled for surgery in January. SO, this time, I'll be emailing her.
I sometimes ask my husband about some farming questions, since he grew up in a farming community. But I do it on the sly.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

Eileen, I noticed your words are at 30,000 for the NANOWRIMO. I gave up after 3000 but got a good start on an idea. I will try again next year. This year I signed up two days before it began. I need to be more prepared than that.

Now to your topic, I am shy too. When you decide to interview in person, have your questions ready but first just chit chat, people like that. Be sure to ask questions that open ended or there will be a lot of silence. :) The only thing that I have researched was my thesis and I stopped the program, but still love the subject and plan on going with it on my own someday. It did get me in the door by explaining what I am doing. Most people aren't going to care if your published yet or not.

PS You look confident and not shy. :)

Stephanie Faris said...

The Internet has changed a lot of things. There was a time when authors had to make phone calls even to find out the most basic of information. Now you can find it out there or, if you can't, e-mail someone to ask. I've done limited amounts of in-person research and have found that people LOVE being asked questions about what they do and who they are. Even if you aren't published...even with the author thing aside, actually...they usually just love it that someone's interested in listening to them talk.

Jessica Nelson said...

Eileen, I gave you an award! :-)

Heather Sunseri said...

I've always been intimidated by field research as well, but I think, like anything, the more we put ourselves out there the more comfortable we'll be. You'll have to let us know how it goes once you try it.

Faith said...

Wow... the comments on here have been super interesting! I haven't had to do any in-person or interview-style research for my fiction (yet!), but I've often wondered whether I had the courage to interview people for the sake of writing non-fiction articles for magazines. I haven't tried it up to this point, as I haven't quite known how to go about getting information from people... but these comments have been great! Maybe I'll actually gather the courage sooner than later... :)

Carla Gade said...

Typically I don't like to tell people I'm a writer, but I've been learning to stretch my wings. I do so much of my research online. But if I know someone who has an area of expertise I'll just strike up a conversation about it. They are usually flattered if you mention you are researching for a novel. Sometimes I find websites, such as museum, etc. and email the experts for their two cents. It's less intimidating that way.

Keli Gwyn said...

Eileen, I've found that people like to share what they know. Since I'm asking them about something that's important to them, my questions give them an opportunity to talk to a person who is obviously interested, so it's a win-win situation. They don't seem to care that I'm not yet published.

When I wanted to know about horses, a friend from church invited me to her ranch for an up-close look. When I was preparing a scene for one of my historicals in which the hero teaches the heroine how to fire a revolver, another friend gave me a lesson using his. I asked yet another friend how she felt after having her ribs bruised so I could accurately depict my character's pain when the same thing happened to her.

Whatever the question, I seem to have no trouble finding knowledgeable people who are happy to help--as long as I'm willing to overcome my introvert tendencies and ask.

Reesha said...

I'm also unpubed so I usually just ask people the questions I need to ask them. If there's a need to explain to them I'm doing research for a novel, then I'll openly tell them.

The reason my first approach is incognito is not for fear of people thinking I'm weird. Just the opposite, people often think it really cool I'm asking THEIR advice. If they know it's for a grand project, they tend to fluff up facts, ramble on about tangents, desperate to keep my attention once they've run the depth of what they know on the subject.

I tend to do this myself. So I usually just ask people and only clarify if I need to.