Writing-Specific Research

From Google to expert interviews

The author needed a great deal of writing-specific research on soil pathogens for her women's fiction set on a spaceship.
When the FBI knocks down my door because I’ve been researching how to use beets as murder weapons, “I’m a writer!” is a solid defence, isn’t it?

Writers are known to have suspect search histories. We are also famous for “talking through” our writing issues. My running group contains a fantastic cross-section of careers, cultures, educational qualification, backgrounds and perspectives, and aside from our families, jobs, hopes and dreams, what else do we have to talk about while we run six to ten miles, three times a week? Writing-specific research can start with a simple conversation.

How it began

“I’m researching soil diseases,” I explained to Micki, another writer, while panting up the hill behind her. I’d been trying to find a good way to kill off an entire spaceship full of people. “I found it!” I crowed to her the next week, same hill. “The bacteria that kills my beets is a real thing! And it can be triggered by what happened on board already! Everything is falling into place!”

Novel-specific research is like wedding planning or pregnancy. Nobody else wants to hear about it.

Turns out, almost every “fictional” premise I dreamed up to throw at my protagonists was (with some tweaking) somewhat plausible. In my excitement, however, I got carried away. In trying to create a life-threatening condition, it grew out-of-control (yay!) to the point that it could no longer be killed (boo!) and my crew was in serious danger (yay!) with literally no chance of survival (boo!). The other problem was, at the end of the day, nobody I know (not my writer friends, running friends, friend-friends or any of my children) wanted to hear me talk about plant pathogens. They just didn’t. Novel-specific research is like wedding planning or pregnancy. Unless you’re the one getting married or having the baby, nobody else wants to hear about it more than once.

My scientist husband (there “may” be some autobiographical details that made it into Ground Control) told me that it was my own fault for creating something so malevolent, and to either make it less insidious or choose a different pathogen. “Just make it something you can kill off.”

“You don’t understand.” I patiently explained that it wasn’t just that I didn’t want to rewrite my entire book, but that I didn’t create this pathogen. It mutated because of space radiation and microgravity, and I just wrote it down.

Start with Google

Whatever you’re writing, be it an article or a novel, you will need to perform research, unless you’re WIP is completely anecdotal. Generally, the more thorough research you do (and, depending on how naturally you can weave your learnings into your piece; this is a fine balance), the more realistic your scenario will feel.

I have an entire spreadsheet of links to the various objects, settings and programs in my novel, with short summaries beside each. Some are about NASA’s real programs, others about actual cobblestone streets in Copenhagen. Most of them concern my plant pathogen: some from government agricultural and horticultural sites, others for gardeners, and about fifteen from referenced scientific studies. It’s fun stuff.

Did I mention that nobody wants to talk to me anymore?

The voice of experience

Another writer friend, who is not only a publisher and author (with four very successful novels under her belt), but also a great listener and generous with very useful advice. I mentioned my plant-bacteria-in-space issue to her, and she responded immediately. When writing her second book, she told me, she reached out to the Canadian Institute of Nanotechnology. The scientist she spoke with was happy to chat with her, give her feedback on the pages that concerned nanotechnology and gave her suggestions for future books!

Obviously, she’s brilliant. Not only did she stop me from trying to bounce plant-pathogen solutions off of her, she focused my efforts onto someone else.

What did I have to lose? I went through my folder of bacterial soft rot research (page turners, every one) and found the names of two Canadian scientists who had recently given a presentation that was posted online. With the wonders of the internet and a public listing of government email addresses, I was ready to send the email within minutes.

I kept it light — when you’re asking for advice on how to control a mutated plant pathogen on a spaceship, you have to be a little self-deprecating — and respectful, and asked if there was any way I could ask either of them a few questions, or if they could refer me to someone who would be willing to talk.

One of them responded to me within two hours, and set up a call the next morning.

All the internet research in the world won’t get you the same insight as an hour-long conversation with your expert.

The call

I prepped my list of questions.

I had the incredible opportunity to ask for clarification and bounce what-ifs off a real-live expert in my pet pathogen, and add a new level of research and plausibility to my novel… while talking to someone that actually wanted to talk to me about bacterial soft rot! I didn’t want to mess it up.

I tell you, it was amazing.

He not only talked me through, in detail, the known ways this pathogen spreads, but also several real ways to manage it: naturally, with genomic sequencing or with nanotechnology. And he was enthusiastic about it! In 50 minutes of conversation, I had learned enough to recover a bit of hope. It might be possible after all to save thousands of (fictional) lives.

It comes down to this: if I had just used my imagination and made up a solution, it would have fallen flat with my intelligent readers. And, if I had called the expert before doing preliminary writing-specific research, it would have been a waste of time for both of us. Because I had done my own digging, though, I entered the conversation already with a basic understanding of the disease, its propagation and management — stay with me here — in short, enough knowledge to identify what I didn’t know, and what questions to ask my expert. He even offered to read over what I wrote to make sure it rings (somewhat) true.

My advice

  • Do your research first, enough that you can converse intelligently on the subject.
  • Prepare your questions. Figure out what you’re missing; know what you don’t know.
  • Don’t be creepy. Be transparent: tell your expert where (specifically) you got their name and contact information.
  • Be humble, respectful and grateful. An expert is giving you the gift of their years of experience. Send them a thank you. Put them in your acknowledgements.
  • Enjoy the conversation. Chances are, your expert will be excited to share their knowledge with you. And hey, you’ve finally found someone — maybe the only other person on Earth — interested and passionate about your thing, which saves your friends and family from this sort of conversation with you, at least for the afternoon.

What has been your strangest writing-specific research topic? What was your expert interview like?

Love to write? Love to read about writing? You might want to read my post on Writing by Discovery.