I ran into an interesting situation this past week while writing. I put my character into a bit of a pickle, as is proper, but then didn’t know how to get her out of it. The problem wasn’t related to plot. The problem was that I was ignorant about the solution. Enter research.
(These pickles brought to you by freedigitalphotos.net)
Here’s the pickle: the protagonist lives in a converted building. The bottom floor is retail space. The upper floor was originally built as office space, but the owner made it into a couple of apartments: one for his family, and one for the protagonist. But he didn’t get permits for the remodel, the city found out people were living in the space, and an inspector arrived to check it out. The scene ended with the inspector telling the protag that her apartment didn’t meet code, and she’d have to move out.
It was a highly stressful moment for my hero. And for me. What would happen in real life if this scenario were to play out as I wrote it? I had no clue.
So I opened my phone book, looked up the Community Planning Department, and called. I told the receptionist what I wanted. She connected me with a man named Ryan. I explained to Ryan who I was, what I was doing, and the scenario in the book. Oh, the building I set my story in exists in real life. He knew the building and that section of town. He seemed to get a kick out of helping a local writer. He spent quite a bit of time telling me what would happen if it were a real situation. When his knowledge ran out, he transferred me to a man named Jeff. I explained all over again who I was, what I was doing, and that Ryan had connected me. Jeff also seemed pleased to help me out, explaining all the building codes that would have to be met or exceeded to bring the building into compliance.
I had a great time talking to these two guys, they seemed to enjoy helping me, and best of all, my scenes will be truly authentic when I’m finished. But the fun didn’t end there.
Another one of my characters is a Community Corrections Officer (that’s the fancy title for parole officer). I don’t know a ton about these guys. So I called the Department of Corrections and asked to speak with a CCO. I was transferred to a nice lady named Mary. I told her who I was, that I was writing a novel that had a CCO for a main character, and then I asked if I could come down to her office and have a fifteen minute interview. She agreed! I showed up at her office with a list of questions, I recorded the entire interview on my phone, and I got a tour of the facility. I even got to sit in the lobby with a couple of parolees waiting their turn (not as scary as it sounds). The part that surprised me the most is that Mary, an ultra-tough woman with a badge, a gun, and the training to kill me with her two little fingers, was nervous about the interview! But I made her feel at ease, and we had a lot of fun with it. It ended up lasting nearly a half hour, but she didn’t seem to mind. She walked me through what she did on typical days, told me how she interacts with her clients, how she keeps emotional distance, all the interesting things I needed to know about how a CCO lives in and out of the office. Now I know my CCO character will be realistic.
The lesson here is not to be bashful and think you’ll waste someone’s time. Call the expert and ask for an interview. The worst they could do is say no. If that happens, call another one. I’ve made dozens of phone calls over the years in the name of research, and I’ve never once been turned down. Most of the time, the person I interview enjoys speaking about what they’re good at. Deep down, all people want to feel necessary, special, and knowledgeable about something. There’s no greater boost to the ego than to have a total stranger call and ask for an interview.
If you’ve interviewed someone for your novel, share your results in the comments section. We’d all love to learn from your experience.