A friend once asked me what my favorite part of being a writer was and I surprised him when I said it was the research that led up to the writing. It’s not the actual storytelling that I love. I need to tell the story, but I also need to let the voices out of my head. I mean, write down those thoughts.
Anyway, new writers often misjudge how much research they can do. If you think your information access is limited to Google search and Wikipedia, think again. Many of these sources are free and quite a few will probably heap data upon you if you ask politely. Pro Tip: Always ask politely.
Source 1: Government Agencies
Most government entities (this includes the military and intelligence agencies) have what is known as a Public Affairs Office. They usually deal with press inquiries and such, but they also work with authors. Public affairs or public information officers are gold mines for information. They can send you documents (usually free if digital), arrange for you to speak with subject matter experts, and even conduct research visits. The Air Force PIO I spoke with when researching Antigone’s Fall told me that if I had a published book, they could do anything up to a ride on a plane. Plane rides took more pull/prestige than I had, but who cares? Often these new contacts will be willing to answer questions, then check your manuscript for errors.
Source 2: Academia.
University professors are fantastic sources of information. Like public affairs folks, they are usually happy to talk to writers, provided you’re respectful of their time and have done your background work. Don’t call up Professor Snape and ask him to teach you everything about potions over coffee. Call him up and ask him to verify that you do need three drops of claret in your veritaserum. If you’re new to a topic, however, academics can often recommend some background reading until you’re able to converse intelligently on a topic. Also, if they refer you to a graduate student, do not take offense. Grad students are invariably up on the latest literature, are conducting their own research, and probably welcome contact from someone who isn’t an undergrad asking if Homo Habilus will be on the next exam.
Source 3: Other Writers
What? You’re shocked? A thousand years ago when I was trying to break into writing Star Wars tie-in novels, I had a huge box of West End Games RPG books, just like every Star Wars author. What I also had, however, was the idea to talk to some of these writers. Vonda McIntyre once fielded a cold call from me, and was kind enough to answer questions for twelve minutes. Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston likewise answered emails and provided advice, answers, and encouragement. Rather than send the same queries to Bantam Spectra, their information helped me craft totally original queries that failed on cool new merits. Good writers that we’re all apprentices at one point. Great writers remember that we still are. Don’t be afraid of asking writers for some help, but do your research, respect their time, and thank them.
Source 4: Classes
If you’re reading this, you can take classes from top universities–for free. edX is a resource for free courses offered from schools like Harvard, UCBerkeley, etc. In addition, some schools, such as MIT, offer many of their materials for free. It won’t get you anything official, but it’ll make you smarter about your chosen field.
- Always be polite in your conversations and correspondence. You’re asking for something. Be humble and grateful.
- Do as much on your own as possible. Look to experts to refine your questions rather than save you a few weeks in a college classroom.
- Reciprocate. It may not be with these people, but at some point another writer will come to you for help. Give it with a smile.
- Google and Wikipedia are fine places to start your research, but never enough to stand on (*cough*Dan Brown*cough*).
- Show some initiative. Storytelling is an art, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know your stuff.
That’s it. Go forth, learn your stuff, and tell your tales.