A common piece of advice given to writers is to ask questions of professionals in the field – if you’re writing a story about a woman who works in an animal sanctuary, then you find an animal sanctuary and ask questions. “People love to talk about what they do. Tell them you’re a writer and you want to get the details right, and they’ll be more than ecstatic to share what they know with you.”
My experience has shown me a different side to that assertion. In my medieval masking research, when I would reach out to those professionals, I only received a 30% response rate – which was 100% more than I’d anticipated, but one thing irritated me:
Every last one of the respondents (with the exception of 2) assumed I was a grad student working on my dissertation. Every last one wanted to work with me on my “interesting line of research,” until they found out I was not associated with a grad program. Having a father with a PhD means I know why – they were hoping I would publish, with their names attached to my work.
I get it, they’re busy people – classes to teach, obscure manuscripts to dig up and not a lot of free time to spend with a dilettante on obscure traditions – but I’d have much rather they just ignored me than gush about how they’d love to help me with my dissertation in exchange for being listed in my work and just who else was involved, when was I defending, they’d love to read it and add an introduction if I’d like and are you publishing through Oxford or another press?
I suppose I should be flattered that I can write well enough to fool a PhD, but it’s still irritating.
In my fictional writing, I’ve tried to do similar things – I have idea X, but I need to understand how to make it work. There aren’t many books on the day to day running of an animal sanctuary specializing in predatory birds. The nearest one to me physically is a four hour drive. When I contacted one, explaining that I was looking for the dirty work details (Are there special procedures for feeding chicks? How does one ensure the bird doesn’t bond to the caretakers?) for the purposes of showing it accurately in a work of fiction. I was told:
A: What’s in it for the non-profit I was contacting? What were my projected sales numbers? How much money was I willing to guarantee would be sent to the sanctuary in exchange for this information?
B: I was asking for information that would take at least an hour to 2 hours to generate an accurate response in email form – far too much time to commit to my questions if I wasn’t willing to promise a gross percentage cut of at least 15% of sales or $3000 a year.
C: A complete outline of the fiction was required to be given in order to determine whether or not non-profit bird sanctuaries would be represented in a 100% positive light. That meant not a single worker could be portrayed as being at all an asshole.
As you can probably guess, I was having thoughts about portraying a certain contact for a non-profit bird sanctuary as an asshole.
I get it – they’re busy, understaffed and underfunded. I understand that. But honestly, I’d have rather been ignored than given that kind of a response.
Recently I reached out to a group of writers, asking if any knew of resources I could utilize to get an accurate idea of late 1800’s New York. Almost all of them said ask your local librarian.
I guess their local librarians are better than mine. Before asking this group I spent an hour on the computer catalog at my library, throwing out every search term I could think of and pulling up nothing. When I finally gave up and found a librarian for assistance, I asked “Could you think of any other search terms I could use or is there a section I’m missing?” not “Can you give me a complete listing of all books pertaining to this subject matter that are owned by the entire library district?”
I may as well have asked the second question, though, because she glared at me and said that I should try using the computer catalog.
That I’d just spent an hour at. In front of her desk.
I get it – librarians are also busy people. There’s more that goes on than just glaring at people who are being disruptive and re-shelving books.
Fortunately, someone on the group pointed me in a direction that was actually useful to this line of research and I ended up buying a small truckload of used books that I’m slowly working my way through.
Perhaps folks get irritated by the “I’m a writer and I’d like to ask-” questions. I understand what that feels like. I cannot count the number of times people have asked me about item X, and I’ve said, “Well, there’s these books here, and there’s a group over there that does this kind of thing as a hobby and then there’s this internet link hither-”
“No, Katty. I just want you to tell me. I don’t want to have to read all that junk myself.”
“You’re asking me how to card, spin, dye and weave wool into a blanket so you can bounce off and do it yourself. I can’t boil that down into a 20 minute session with meaning.”
I’m more than willing to give people all the resources I know of so they can drill down as deeply as they want to go at their own leisure, but I’m not willing to do the actual research work for them.
Perhaps that’s how I came across, more leach than interested to learn on my own.
Sadly, the result of these interactions have made less interested in asking people. I’ll scour wikipedia and trace back footnotes to the original publication, or cruise through forums that haven’t been properly secured against non-member viewers before I’ll ask a single thing, now.
This means research takes longer – I have no one who can point and say “Yes, verily, look at the stack of books yonder.”