Some of the most common questions I encounter about the writing process involve research: Some version of “How do I find out about . . . ?”
We’ve talked in this space about ride-along programs for police agencies and other emergency response groups. There are some great conferences (when conferences are allowed to happen again) like Writer’s Police Academy, and many writer’s conferences feature tracks where technical professionals share details with the assembled group. But let’s be honest. The programs that have been cleared by the public affairs office are probably not going to give you the real scoop that you’re looking for.
Most people are afraid to speak on the record these days, especially to a writer. The fact that I’m not a journalist–people are never on the record with me–doesn’t necessarily loosen tongues, especially because the kinds of things I usually want to know are the things that public affairs offices specifically don’t want me to know. Still, I have a Rolodex filled with the names of Special Forces operators, federal agents, cops, intelligence officers, ex-cons, doctors, politicians and a host of other interesting people who will answer their phones when I call.
I thought I’d share my strategy for collecting sources.
Be 100% Trustworthy. I cannot emphasize this enough. In fact, I list it first because it is the only element of my research rules that is inviolable. These folks take a risk when they share inside scoop, and trust is as fragile as one misplaced word. I never drop names among my friends, and the Acknowledgements pages in my books never include sources who helped me unless I have received specific permission. More than a few of the names provided for those acknowledgements are are different than the ones I know them to be, and I never ask which is the pseudonym.
Try to meet everyone. True confession time. My personality meets the clinical definition of an extrovert. I enjoy meeting people and getting to know them. So, this bit of advice comes more easily for me than it will for many writers who exhibit the more typical introverted tendencies of an artist. But it’s doable.
Here’s the secret: Everyone is the hero of their own story in their minds, but most folks get few opportunities to talk about their jobs and their hobbies. And in my experience, most people are delighted to be asked. Just recently, I needed to get a document notarized on a Sunday evening in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The only notary we could find was one of the local bail bondsmen. I realized that I knew nothing about that business, so I started chatting him up. Given the hour and the day of the week–he left an evening with his family to help us out–I took a business card, gave him a challenge coin, and got permission to call him later if I had any questions. Two weeks later, he spent a half hour on the phone with me, explaining the ins and outs of being a bondsman. Fascinating.
When I chat with folks, I always tell them that they should free to push back if I ask a question that makes them uncomfortable, and I make it clear that we are never on any record–I’m just interested in what they do. With the exception of a couple steps too close to national security issues, no one has ever pushed back. (And there are ways around the national security push back, too.)
Avoid the cliches. Say you’re meeting a mortician. If you start with, “Eew, how do you work with dead people all day?” the conversation will likely be short and shallow. When I shared a hotel bar with a mortician a few years ago, I asked him why, at the last funeral I’d attended, the decedent’s fingertips had started to turn blue. He explained that there were several possible reasons, and that led to a broader discussion of embalming best practices. I’ve never had occasion to use any of that, but I still have his card, and I send him an email every time a new book comes out. I presume that if I call him sometime in the future, he’ll remember our chat and he’ll talk with me.
Hang out at the bar. When life returns to normal, find an excuse to hang out at a local hotel bar. Not the local watering hole where you know everyone and everyone knows you, but a bar where transients bide their time between the work day and bedtime. Sit at the bar–not at a table–and start a casual conversation. Something like, “Where are you from?” or “Stay away from the fried shrimp.” Sooner or later, if the spark of a conversation turns to something real, you’ll get around to “What do you do?” Bingo. You’re in.
They might not have a job that’s earth-shattering, but there’s something interesting to glean from everyone. Years ago, I was at a bar with a nurse who was attending a conference, and I asked, “What’s you’re most disgusting bedpan story?” It caught her off guard, she laughed and she shared an unprintable tale that involved geriatric incontinence and a slippery floor. I doubt I’ll ever put in a book, but at least I was more entertained than if I had sat there by myself.
Listen more than you talk. Back when I had my Big Boy Job, and more recently as I tour, I’m usually alone. Many others in a hotel bar are not. They are either part of a crowd, or they’re waiting for someone to go somewhere else. When two or more people are talking, there’s nothing wrong with eavesdropping. If what they’re talking about is interesting, don’t hesitate to say, “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhear. Do you all really work for Space X?” They’ll either shut you down or be complimented. In my experience, there’s not much middle ground.
On the other hand, if the people having the conversation are very engaged with each other, and telling interesting stories, become invisible. A few years ago, I attended a week-long class in Arizona on pistols and carbines. The sessions were all taught by former Special Forces operators from various agencies, and after they got a few drinks down their gullets, they started reminiscing about past operations they’d been on. They were aware of my presence, I suppose (I was sitting in plain sight, after all), but they’d either forgotten or they didn’t care. The stories themselves were interesting in their own right, but those weren’t my big take-away. I absorbed the banter among these guys, and how much they adored what they did–and some still do as private security contractors.
Never take notes. Unless you’re a journalist, there’s no reason to take notes on a casual conversation. The presence of a tape recorder or a note pad is a quick way to get vectored back to the public affairs officer. You can always make notes to yourself after the fact.
Take the long view. The main point I’m trying to make here is that the best research is often passive. You don’t have to limit your efforts to the project you’re working on. Rather, always be in data collection mode. Never be afraid to learn more about people and what they do–who they are. Use your accidental audience with interesting people to talk about things you would never find on Wikipedia or from the public affairs folks.
Hand out and collect business cards. Back in the days of my Big Boy Job, I carried two sets of cards. If I was doing association business, I only handed out that card–even if the inquiry was about my books. I’d tell them to visit my website for more information. In every other event when a card exchange seemed appropriate, I exclusively handed out my I’m-a-writer business cards.
Lock in the contact with a friendly email. At my first opportunity after meeting an interesting person and collecting their card, I write them an email telling them how much I enjoyed learning from them, and I double down on my intent to maybe one day call them.
What say you TKZ family? Any research tricks you’d like to share?