Issue # 3: 04/01/01
A Theory of Alternate History
The best writers, both of fiction and nonfiction, know how readers hunger for verisimilitude. Consequently, such writers provide readers with sufficient background to make them feel comfortable, but don't overload them with details.
How to Write Like an Expert About Anything
Writer's Digest Books
this age of the Internet, its reasonable to believe that all the
background information any writer could ever need is out there,
somewhere. Given patience and a good reference librarian, writers should
never lack for facts to add color to their worlds.
a comforting illusion, but it isnt true. The original details that
make fictional worlds come to life cant (always? be found in books.
No matter how much time you spend researching mortar composition and the
compressive strength of brick, youll never understand the
satisfaction the bricklayer feels as a wall climbs steadily upward.
you ask. As a reporter, Ive found that people love to talk about
themselves and their work. Give them half a chance, and theyll gladly
share all the funny anecdotes and obscure trivia that their friends and
family dont want to hear anymore. The problem, usually, is figuring
out how to get out of the conversation once you have all the information
you need. To preserve as much of your time for writing as you can, make
sure you know whom you want to talk to and what you need to know before
you pick up the phone.
an interview subject is subtler than it seems. After all, if you want to
know about heart disease, you try to set up an interview with the chief
cardiologist at the nearest hospital, right?
necessarily. Dr. Cardiologist can certainly tell you about the latest
treatments, but you can usually get that from other sources. Unless
hes had a heart attack himself, though, he cant tell you about the
crushing chest pain or the fear. On the other hand, a heart attack
survivor cant necessarily tell you about the moment when a surgically
repaired heart starts pumping on its own again. Decide what you need to
know as precisely as you can.
you can decide who has the information you need. Identify the type of
person you need to talk toheart surgeons, heart attack survivors, or
families of survivors? Then think about ways to get in touch with
specific individual people.
youre planning to portray a specific job title in a more or less
positive light, your job is easy. Simply call a local organization that
hires that job title, ask for the public relations office, and explain
what you want. Be sure to explain that youre working on a novel and
wont be quoting anyone directly, and show that youve done your
homework by having a list of specific questions ready. Theres an
excellent chance that the PR person will know exactly whom you should
talk to, and will even help you set up the interview.
your portrayal is going to be mostly negative, or if the person or
information is more obscure, youll need to be more creative. The
details will depend on what youre trying to find, but a few general
principles may help you get started.
look at organized groups dealing with the subject youre after. A
local athletic club might help you get in touch with marathon runners. A
local universitys anthropology or materials science department could
help you find people who are duplicating traditional bronze smiths
methods. If you cant find an exact match, find an organization
network as much as you can. Ask your own doctor to help you find a
talkative cardiologist. Ask your neighbor who runs if he knows any
marathoners. Ask the museum where you volunteer to put you in touch with
the curator for Central American bronzes.
though, that networking is about relationships. Dont drop your
neighbor like a dirty sweat sock if he cant help you. Stay and talk
about running. Listen. You may get useful background information anyway.
More important, youll make a friend and help smooth the path for the
next curious writer who comes along.
always explain what youre looking for and why. Detailed questions
make it easier for other people to help you. An expert might suggest
completely different answers to your plot problem, saving you hours of
research. Explain youre working on a novel, and people wont be
disappointed when a story about them isnt in the local paper the next
say youve found an archaeologist whos built a replica of a West
Mexican bronze forge. Hes thrilled that youre interested in his
work, and hed love to talk to you. Now what?
youre geographically close to your interview subject, try to set up a
face-to-face meeting. A visit to his workplace or home would be ideal,
allowing you to see whatever it is hes explaining. Even a chat over
coffee (which you pay for, by the way) lets you see his eyes light up or
his face get tight. Youll get a much better sense of the emotional
content of the situation in a personal interview.
remember to be prepared and have a list of questions. You dont need
to be an expert, but the more background you have the more smoothly the
conversation will go. If you already know why bronze is easier to make
than steel, youll be able to move on to the similarities between West
Mexican and Peruvian bronzes. The more knowledge you have, the more
interest youll be able to project, and the more enthusiasm youll
get in return.
set a time limit, and always stick to it. Respect the value of the other
persons time, and theyll be much more helpful if you need to call
them again. If the conversation is going wonderfully well, you can
always schedule a second appointment.
send a thank you note. If you promised a copy of the story or book, send
it as well, even if it doesnt come out for three years. If you
promised to introduce the West Mexican archaeologist to your neighbor
who runs, do so.
youve followed all of my advice so far, you now have fifteen pages of
notes on West Mexican bronze forging, including three paragraphs
describing the smell of molten metal and the sound of hammers striking a
stone anvil. All of which gets cut down to two sentences in the scene
where your hero gets his armor mended.
okay. As with any world building, the details add depth and color even
if they dont appear on the page. You needed all fifteen pages of
notes to know exactly which two sentences to include.
better, you have now done more than enough research for a non-fiction
article about bronze working. It might appear in Archaeology,
or Smithsonian, or the
house magazine of your subjects university, or all three.
non-fiction is much too involved a subject to go into here. In general,
there is more demand for article-length non-fiction than for
story-length fiction, and rates are generally much better. Writers
Market caters primarily to non-fiction writers and is an excellent
place to start.
When repurposing an interview in this way, however, you must contact your subject and explain that you also want to use the material in an article. Many people will say things off the record that they will not repeat for publication. If you publicly embarrass your subject, theres an excellent chance that youll get sued. You might lose, too, because you lied about the purpose of the interview. At best, responsible editors will blackball you, your source will spread the word, and future interviews will be more difficult to arrange. You wont get much sympathy from other writers, either. That kind of unethical behavior poisons the well for everyone. Many thousands of words have been written about reporting and interviewing. This article is just a sample, but I hope its enough to help you make your stories come alive.