Romancing the Phone

Virginia Kantra

Write what you know. From the fictional Jo in Little Women to jockey/mystery writer Dick Francis, writers have found success obeying that command. Wherever our stories are set, whatever our characters do for a living, we can follow the same advice by writing from our hearts and with our senses. But sometimes our stories demand more. Maybe it's specific knowledge of police procedure or custody law. Maybe it's some nitty gritty detail about cattle brands or burn medicine. If the knowledge you need isn't knowledge you have, what's a writer to do?

Research. Historical writers can go to old diaries, portraits and letters to learn their subjects. Contemporary writers rely on how-to books, travel guides, biographies and newspapers. Some writers swear by the Internet, where thousands of resources are a click of a mouse button away. Unfortunately, print materials can only take a writer so far, and it can take a heck of a lot of clicks to find the information you really need. So I prefer another resource perfect for a contemporary writer: the telephone.

Did you know most life insurance companies will pay out for suicide if the policy holder has paid premiums for one-to-two years (depending on state)? I didn't, but my insurance agent did. That battered women who return to their homes get the telephone number of the nearest shelter on an unmarked slip of paper, called a shoe tag? The emergency room director of the nearest hospital told me that. Did you know that because of North Carolina's structured sentencing system, a first time offender convicted of a felony may not serve any time? I didn't, but the assistant attorney general for NC set me straight.

The purpose of these stories is to make this point: DON'T ASSUME FACTS AND DON'T MAKE UP DETAILS. Assuming facts can mess up your plot. Making up details can rob your story of the richness of real experience and alienate a knowledgeable reader. So, call.

I have made more cold calls to sources than I can count, and my stomach still flip-flops each time I pick up the phone. But almost every person I've talked with - from an arson investigator for the sheriff's department to the owner of a local restaurant - has been helpful. People are surprisingly generous with their time. Experts like to show off their knowledge.

Yes, at times I absolutely have been put off, shut down and generally rejected. (Hey, as writers, we're used to rejection, right?) But most of the time I have been treated courteously and professionally. Why? Because I'm as courteous and professional as I can be.

Here are my tips for getting the most out of your phone interview.
1. Preparing to call
Read first. Don't take an expert's time away from his or her primary job by asking for information you could easily get from a trip to the library. Read in the field: cop books, doctor books, gardening guides, whatever. Personal narratives are good because they give you a feel for a profession. News stories are great because reporters have a knack for summing up and making information accessible. As you read, be aware of attitudes as well as procedures. Jot down details your story may need that are not covered in your written materials.

Most people are happy to share their expertise and experience with you, but you can't expect them to guess what you need to know. Prepare a list of clear questions that relate to your story.
How is _________ done?
Could __________ happen?
What could go wrong if _________?
Don't forget to ask for sensory details you can use in your scenes, especially if you can't arrange an on-site visit. How do things look, smell, sound, feel?

If this is a deep background call, ask a few open-ended questions.
What's your favorite/least favorite part of the job?
What qualities make a good (insert profession here)?

Of course you can use contacts you've made at workshops and conferences or through mutual acquaintances to choose your interview subjects. When I was researching THE PASSION OF PATRICK MACNEILL, before I had sold a single book, I started my interviews by calling the Univeristy of North Carolina hospital switchboard and asking to speak to someone "who could answer a few questions about pediatric burn medicine." (My heroine was a burn unit surgeon.) My call got passed up the hospital food chain until at last I had the director of the burn center on the line! He talked me through both of little Jack's operations and arranged for a private tour. For CLOSE-UP, my upcoming single title release from Berkley, I called eight different sheriff's departments in western North Carolina until I had several sources who could answer my questions.

2. Making the call
Respect yourself. Present yourself as a professional each time you get someone new on the line. "My name's Virginia Kantra. I'm a writer doing background research for a novel, and..."

Write down the name, number and address of your interview subject. You may need them again: What if your heroine does something unexpected in chapter ten, or the copy editor has some pesky question? And in any case, you'll need the information for your thank you note.

Respect your source and their time. Make sure this is the right person and a convenient time. "...and I was wondering if you have fifteen minutes (or ten, or twenty, but fifteen seems less intrusive, and you can always follow up) to answer a few questions about..." Offer to call back at another time if necessary.

Use your list of prepared questions, but don't be afraid to depart from them if, as frequently happens, your interview subject gives you an intriguing new direction to follow.

Ask for printed materials, tours, or names of other sources who might be able to help you.

Ask if you can call back to confirm details or with further questions.

3. After the call
Always thank your interview subject profusely.
Follow up with a written note of thanks and, later, with a copy of your book - or, if you're not yet published and they were wildly helpful, with some other gesture of thanks. (I baked cookies for the UNC burn unit staff.)

If you did arrange to go "on site," be on time, bring a camera and maybe a tape recorder, and remember to express your appreciation again. Ask to see things. Ask how things work. Things that are unexceptional to your tour guide may be wonderful bits of detail for your story, like the sound a baton makes when it's extended in self-defense or what the different colors of putty mean in the occupational therapy room.

Your research is intended to inform and enrich your story. Do justice to the people who have shared their time, expertise and insights with you to craft unique characters in a freshly imagined and fully created world. Use specific, significant detail in your writing. But always remember that the characters carry the story, not the research.

Happy writing!