Researching To Write A Novel, by Phillipa Fioretti
Reading a book is like immersing yourself in another world. Researching and writing a book is as much if not more fun because you get to look closer at this imaginary world and those who inhabit it. From all this research I have a wealth of information about illegal fishing in the Mediterranean, Italy-to-Australia extradition procedures, organized crime and the construction of ghost hotels, corrupt Chinese art auctions, how best to give an audition performance, the market value of vintage couture, how to steal a mosaic, and much more.
There is a huge amount of information available for writers on the internet but sometimes you have to go to a real person and interview them if you want the inside view. I have a friend who is quite senior in the human resources department of a big multinational company. I asked him what would happen to an employee accused of planting porn on a colleague’s computer leading to that colleague’s dismissal. He said if it couldn’t be proven then nothing could be done officially, but that person would be passed over again and again in favour of others, shunned at the pub and become so isolated they would eventually leave. Hmm… that’s a tasty little nugget to store for possible future use. I have never worked in such an environment, so I don’t really know what goes on there and I need the nuances of real human interaction rather than the public face.
At a writing conference a few years ago I attended a session given by a senior police superintendent. The idea was that he would talk about police procedure for writers. He replied to a question about writers accessing information on procedure with the answer, ‘You don’t access it unless you get to know a police officer.’ At this point I felt a certain smugness, as I knew a police officer – a homicide detective, no less. His boy and mine played soccer. There is nothing like a windswept soccer field in the early morning to foster friendships.
He’s a hard looking dude. He makes you want to confess straight up or offer your DNA on spec. However, he was very kind in answering my pesky and endless questions about police procedure. In fact I’m surprised he didn’t put a block on my emails. I’m very aware of the irritation factor I could present, so I don’t harass too much. But I need to know.
Other soccer friendships include a chemistry forensics professor, an international law specialist and an academic nuclear physicist. I have doctors, lawyers, scientists of various types, artists, actors, singers, teachers and more on my private sources list. Invariably, these experts shred my imagined scenes or plots with precision and leave them lying in a heap, and I have to keep re-working and re-thinking.
For example, I wanted a character to be in a long coma but be revived unharmed, and I wanted to put him in that coma with opium. No can do, comes the advice. You can have your coma but not without brain damage and the opium won’t be detected as opium, but as morphine. A spanner in the crucial spoke of the plot. Fiction provides room for creative license but not to completely contradict reality. Besides, factual errors rarely escape the All-Seeing Editing Eye.
The big test will come when I want to research a character or scene and I don’t know anyone in the field. I like to think that with the right approach people are happy to share the facts about their occupations. I have favourite café near the law courts where barristers come to drink the excellent coffee. Some of them sweep in, briefs under the arm, hair swept back, as if the café is their courtroom and we are the awestruck jurors. They order and talk loudly and are generally very pleased with themselves. I sit like a small, alert parasite in the corner jotting down every move, every gesture. But would I approach one? Yes, I think I would if I needed to. Because I know these guys would just love it.
Always be polite when asking to delve into somebody’s professional life, and take a refusal graciously. Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you can access all areas. Assure them they will not be identified as a source unless they want to be and if that’s the case then full acknowledgement will be given. I like to interview then go away and think about their answers and return, if possible, for specific details. Flowers, wine, chocolate, jam, books or a combination of two or three are always good gift to have about your person when interviewing sources. And when it’s all over, a signed copy of the book as a token of appreciation.
Phillipa Fioretti’s author website: www.phillipafioretti.com.au
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