Tuesday, October 04, 2005

I've Never Held a Gun, But I've Read About It

I know that if I really wanted to be true to my craft, my research would involve actual contact with people who live and work in similar worlds that my characters live and work in. So, for example, if I'm writing about a heroine who is a botanist, I'd maybe find a real live botanist and interview him or her. Or if my hero is a NASA engineer, maybe I'd haunt the internet until I found an honest to goodness NASA geek and make him my bosom buddy so he could answer all my NASA techie questions.

Except, the idea of approaching complete strangers and asking them if I can pick apart their lives and professions is about as appealing to me as going on The Fear Factor and eating live caterpillars while allowing a hundred tarantulas to crawl all over me.

When I was in college, I took a journalism class in which I had to interview someone and write an article about his or her unique profession. My cousin was, at the time, a mortician so I decided that was pretty unique and also extremely easy because I could interview him. Problem was, my cousin didn't live in my college town, and I quickly realized that in order to do a thorough interview, I'd need to meet with someone in person. I called the local funeral home, spoke to a very nice woman who agreed to let me interview her, and things worked out even better when she gave me a tour of their facility. I might even have gotten an A on the assignment.

But, dang, I hated every second of that experience.

Same way I hated making cold calls when I interned for an advertising agency. Same way I hated calling new vendors and asking for bids on big projects when I worked in the design industry. I don't like calling complete strangers and asking for things.

Heck, I don't like calling my neighbor to ask to borrow a cup of sugar. I'm so thoroughly independent, even asking for help in the department store means I've pretty much exhausted every avenue of helping myself. And it takes me a full week to work up to calling a babysitter so the hubby and I can have a night out.

I have no idea why I am so freakish. I blame my parents because, well, I don't know. Maybe they were too normal. Maybe it's because they didn't beat me or smoke or get divorced or force me to eat liver and brussel sprouts.

Anyway, this personal affliction means that talking to people in the professions chosen by my characters is slim to none unless someone in my life happens to also have that profession. If I need a CPA, I'm covered. A lawyer? Got that one. Nurses and teachers galore. No problem. Even a mortician, a farmer, and a former television newscaster.

Except, the careers that appeal to me, and thus, my characters, are kind of over the top. Not your run-of-the-mill, lives next door and attends the back to shool ice cream social kind of work-a-day bloke.

In other words, since I don't already personally know a Navy SEAL/AF pararescue jumper/Delta Force operator/ex-CIA operative, I'm not likely to be able to talk to one.

Oddly enough, a woman who used to be my neighbor and who was also in a book club with me for six years has a daughter who is dating a Navy SEAL. I see this woman at least twice a year at various parties (she comes to my house for my annual Christmas cookie party), and this very daughter used to babysit my kids when she was in high school. She's the nicest young woman; works in the local bookstore during her college breaks and always greets me with a great big smile and a hug. So in other words, I know both of these ladies very well. I could, conceivably, call the daughter and say "Hey...you're dating a Navy SEAL, aren't you? Well, it just so happens..."

But I am mortified by the idea of saying "Hey, Susie (name changed to protect my paranoid self), do you think you could introduce me to your SEAL boyfriend so I can pick apart his brain and learn every single detail about this life that I find fascinating and want to depict in a wide variety of fiction, including romance novels?"

OMG. Where are those tarantulas?

Instead, I've learned everything I know about all of my characters from books and movies. I'm probably the entirity of the Military Channel's females ages...well, their entire female demographic, actually. I've seen more action flicks and war epics than any one with breasts should ever have to see. Although, I admit this is not a hardship as I generally enjoy these shows. I know under what call number all the military books are shelved in my library, and I've sat through hours of video clips for every single basic training program offered by the US Military branches.

I figure I have to compensate for lack of a living, breathing example by becoming a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. My husband doesn't like to watch fictional military shows with me any more because I'm constantly saying "No, they'd never do it that way. They'd never attack during the day, out in the open like that." We watched the pilot episode of E-Ring together, and he got annoyed because I was rolling on the floor in laughter. (BTW, the second episode of E-Ring was much better. I'll give it a bit more time.)

So, am I the only one who has a hard time with the concept of interviewing real people? Am I just extremely shy and I need to get over it? Or can books be written convincingly if the writer studies the topic well enough?

I sure hope so.


PBW said...

If I need to speak to someone I don't know for research, I'll write an e-mail or letter introducing myself and making the request, and politely ask them to write back or call. I also put in professional references/contact numbers so they can verify my identity (this is important to do with cops, FBI agents, and others in law-enforcement who don't take anything you say for granted.) 99% respond positively.

I also interview by phone as much as possible. Phone interviews can be done at any time, and the responses to questions tend to be more open and candid than when you're face-to-face or e-mailing interview questions. Also, people on the other end of the phone are usually feeling more comfortable, too, so they will volunteer information they might not if they were looking you in the eye.

AE Rought said...

Well, I haven't gotten to the interview stage yet. But, if you do ever need a gun expert, I can put you in touch with my husband. :) He is a licensed firearms dealer.

Nicole said...

Reading your post was like reading about myself. I feel exactly the same way! Right now, I am writing a novel about a soccer player and a baseball player... and I'm pretty much just guessing about the details. I do some internet research, but professional athletes aren't exactly easy to reach... not that I would if they were. I find email extremely useful, because a) I don't have to talk and b) they can respond in their own time or leisure. Of course, you've got to find some emails....

Long story short, I know what you mean!