When I first started writing in high school I would often find myself restricting my stories to the only subjects I understood: family life, adolescent girl cliques, suburbia. I did this because the idea of pretending knowledge of a subject I didn’t understand inside and out—like, say, the police force, or scuba diving, or ballet school—made me terribly nervous, and the things I would have to do to research such topics seemed impossible. I was the girl who would never raise her hand in class, who was too shy to call the pizza place, who would go on to switch programs in college because of the number of required oral presentations second term. How could I possibly cold call a hospital and ask if I could talk to someone about what it’s like to be a patient on a psych ward?
When writing about the same old boring things became, predictably, intensely boring, I panicked. How would I ever become a great writer when the only things I knew anything about were fighting with my sister, how to program the VCR, and which stores at the mall sold the best quality long-sleeved t-shirts? I’d learned from the movie Little Women that the key to writing well was to “write what you know”—even if the story about corpses did buy Beth a new coat—but what if what I really yearned to write about were all the things I didn’t know? What then?
The answer—which I already knew but had been steadily avoiding—was, of course: Learn to research. In an effort to help timid writers everywhere get over their researching block like I did (sort of) here are my five researching tips for shy writers.
The Library Is Your Friend
The biggest obstacle to researching for me was my reluctance to involve other people in the process. I didn’t want to have to call around looking for the person who had the information I needed. I didn’t want to conduct interviews, or talk my way into a restricted cave (which had to be described in my book), or interrogate a junkie about his drug paraphernalia. I wanted to do my research quietly and independently. So, I went to the library.
Sure, there’s lots of information on the internet these days. The internet is always a good starting point. But if you’re looking for details about the layout of rural homes in 13th century England, a text from the library is your best bet. There isn’t a place on earth more conducive to the independent search for knowledge. And as long as you obey those pesky hours of operation, you can literally spend as much time as you want taking copious notes and tracking down every detail you require as obsessively as you please. You might even be able to get in and out of the place without speaking to a single person. High Five!
Watch It On TV – But Remember, It’s TV
Sometimes the information you need can’t be found in a book. For example, the main character in the novel I’m currently writing is a third-year surgical resident. I need to know things like whether or not a resident at this stage would be doing those crazy 24-hour shifts, what procedures she would be doing on her own (if any), how many surgeries she might assist on in a given week. The easiest way to get this information would be to find a surgeon, preferably a young one who remembers their residency clearly, and interview them. But I have no interest in conducting interviews. So, naturally, I’ve been watching a lot of Grey’s Anatomy.
I’m not saying that watching a fictional television show that depicts your topic of research is a good way to gain all the knowledge you need on the subject. That’s obviously ludicrous. TV should never be your only means of research, especially fictional TV which may or may not be adequately researched itself! But there is something to be gained from watching a show like ER if you want to learn about the life of emergency room doctors. At the very least you’re giving yourself an overview of the concerns and challenges your own characters might face. You’re learning words like “Whipple procedure” and “haemothorax” and “embolus.” You’re getting a broad understanding of the various stages of the residency program. If you’re writing a historical novel, watching a movie or reading a book set in that time period will do the same job. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in your subject of research without actually physically being there.
But never forget the information you’re gathering is unreliable. Never take note of the way an actor on a TV show is holding a scalpel and describe it in your book. Sure, the average reader won’t be able to tell the difference, but you’ll almost certainly be giving real doctors a laugh at your expense. If you let your shyness lead to lazy research, you could just as easily have made it all up. The result will be the same.
Email The Crap Out of It
If the idea of conducting an interview with a stranger on a topic you know very little about leaves you short of breath, here’s an easy answer for you: Email then instead. An email interview takes all of the on-the-spot stress out of this social interaction while still getting you the information you need. This alternative also has the bonus of giving you as much time as you want to tweak and perfect your questions ahead of time.
The downside is that not everyone out there is a writer like you. Even if they say they’re interested in being interviewed, your subject may not answer your questions with as much detail as you’d like, or they may not directly answer the question they’re posed. Follow-up questions will have to be emailed back, and it’s not guaranteed that you’ll get a reply right away, if at all. Email interviews are easier for you, but more of a hassle for the interviewee, so keep that in mind.
Just Go There
There’s a lot to be said for seeing things in person. Sure, writers pride themselves on their imaginations, but if you want your descriptions to be accurate and full of pertinent detail, you might want to just get in your car and go to the place you’re writing about. This isn’t always possible—most of us can’t suddenly fly off to China or Italy, and there’s no way to be present in Egypt circa 1910—but if you’re writing about a hospital, a fire station, a boarding school, or an old church there’s no reason you shouldn’t go check them out in person. Even if the church you’re describing is in another country, you might be able to find one with a similar feel and look nearby. The upside to this kind of research is that it’s completely independent and hassles no one except, maybe, the person you’re forcing to drive you around.
If you really need to know what a certain place looks like and you absolutely can’t get there in person, try Google Maps Street View. I once used Street View to follow the exact path my character would take from school to her apartment in a city I had never been to. It worked like a charm.
Always Be Prepared
Let’s face it, if you really want to research properly it might not be possible to avoid doing an interview either in person or over the phone. If you’re writing a book about a teenage boy growing up in a Hasidic Jewish household, talking to a person who’s been there is probably your best bet for accurate details. If you’re lucky you’ll have a close friend that you’re comfortable with who fits these exact characteristics, but if not, you’ll be interviewing someone you know only casually, or not at all.
My best advice to get through your interview is to be über prepared. Write down every question you want to ask, and follow-up questions, and obscure he-probably-won’t-even-know-this questions. To avoid embarrassing yourself by asking something ridiculous or inappropriate, give yourself a healthy overview of the topic ahead of time (see Watch It On TV – But Remember, It’s TV). If you’re nervous, it’s natural to want to hurry through the questions and hang up, but if you want to make sure you don’t have to call back with more questions, which can be equally nerve-wracking, remember to take your time and give a thorough interview.
I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with research. I still balk at the idea of interviewing experts and I’m perpetually nervous that not knowing my subject well enough will lead to my writing a scene that’s preposterous and completely inaccurate (though this has less to do with shyness and more to do with my general neurosis). When I have these worries I like to remind myself that most readers won’t know and won’t care that my character is watching TV a year before they were invented. There’s no law that says every person living in my fictional version of Venice has to speak perfect Italian. And if anyone ever calls me on one of my mistakes I can always chalk it up to artistic license. In the world of my book I am God and I can do whatever the heck I want, even change the date of when man walked on the moon, if I want to. Which is a handy thing to keep in mind, not just when researching, but really anytime. I might just get it printed on my business cards (Shayna Krishnasamy – Writer, God).