Liars Club

How do you get all that information?

by Jonathan Maberry on January 17, 2011

in Advice for Writers,Liars Club Philly,The Writing Life,The Writing Process

Burning Question: Readers’ most frequent questions, answered!

“Your novels always have such great research.  How do you get all that information?  Does it ever get tedious to do all that legwork?”

I’m a research junkie.  I’ll admit that right up front.  I love doing research.

I’ve only been a novelist for six years.  For over twenty-five years before that I wrote magazine feature articles, how-to articles, technical articles and college textbooks.  I’ve sold more than twelve hundred articles and thousands of columns and fillers, and a couple of dozen textbooks and mass-market nonfiction books.

It helps that my training as a writer was not in creative writing but in journalism.  Even though I never became a newspaper writer, I learned the tricks of getting information quickly, identifying reliable sources, doing interviews and combing through the information for unique bits that make your article –or, in my case these days, my novels—come alive.

Here’s an example of how I do it.

When I was writing THE DRAGON FACTORY, the second of my Joe Ledger science/action thrillers, I had a subplot involving cloning Neanderthals for use as a slave-labor force.  I know general science theory (hey, I read Popular Science) but I’m a long mile from being a scientist.  However I know that cloning is a hot-button topic.  So, I plugged the words ‘cloning’ and ‘controversy’ into a Google search and looked at the news articles that popped up.  Every one of those articles (as all good articles should) includes comments from noted experts.  By scanning the articles I was able to put together a good list of experts on cloning.

Then I did a similar search on ‘cloning’ and ‘Neanderthals’ to see if anyone was talking about that.  One irrefutable fact: someone is ALWAYS talking about something.  I found articles in which experts discussed the viability of cloning Neanderthals, of recovering Neanderthal DNA, of the ethics of cloning a race of sentient beings, etc.  All great stuff.

Now…a disservice to my writing would have been to read the books by these experts and use that material as my sole scientific basis.  I never do that because if it’s in print it’s already old news.  So, I do searches on the names of the experts to discover where they currently work.  Scientists are often with universities, R&D companies, corporations, etc.  Every one of these companies has a ‘CONTACT’ option on their webpage; and most have staff directories.  So…I send emails directly to the experts asking if I can interview them for background material for my novels.

Most say yes.  In fact, very few have ever said no, even before I was a best-seller.  These guys love to talk about their fields.  After all, their families are tired of hearing about it; their colleagues already know this stuff; and who else is there?

So, I ask if I can do an email interview.  A handful of questions via email are a lot easier than a phone call where you then have to transcribe.  To heck with that.

I do my research well in advance of my writing, largely because experts take their own sweet time getting back to you.  They could be involved in something time critical; they could be on a dig, or on sabbatical.

Along with the basic questions for my topic, I often add questions like: “What question don’t I know enough to even ask you?” (They’re amused by that, and they ALWAYS have a good answer) or “What’s the coolest thing happening right now in your field?”   Variations on those sorts of questions often bring the most surprising answers, and very often this information is something that has not yet hit the public radar.  As a result, when THE DRAGON FACTORY hit bookstores, the very same month a team of geneticists published an article in ARCHAEOLOGY TODAY about their plans to clone Neanderthals.  Not, thank God, for slave labor!

This kind of research fast-tracks you.  You can send out dozens of interview requests well in advance of having to write the book; and as it comes in, you collate, follow-up, and so on.  Some experts are so generous with their time and opinions that you can go back and forth with them in order to really dig deep; or hit them with another project down the road.  I have experts I’ve used for four or five books now.

One crucial thing: thank every expert in the acknowledgments page of your book.  Make sure you get them to give you their current credentials citation, and for God’s sake spell their name right.

Occasionally I look for experts in unusual fields by posting on Facebook or Twitter.  Over the last year or two I’ve gotten terrific info in areas like mortuary science, supermax prisons, chemistry, firearms, autism, 1970s muscle cars and more just from my friends on Facebook.

And, because turnaround is fair play, I’ve been tapped many times as an expert in my particular fields: supernatural folklore, martial arts and self-defense.  It’s a very nice two-way street – and everyone is an expert in something, whether it’s transgenic science or using an iPod.

Jonathan Maberry is a New York Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award-winner and Marvel Comics writer.  His latest works include THE DRAGON FACTORY (St. Martin’s Griffin), ROT & RUIN (Simon & Schuster), WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE (Citadel Press; with Janice Gable Bashman), and the graphic novels DOOMWAR and MARVEL UNIVERSE VS THE PUNISHER (Marvel Comics.)  He is a co-founder of The Liars Club, founder of the Writers Coffeehouse, and a frequent keynote speaker and/or guest of honor at conventions for writing, science fiction, horror, crime fiction and thrillers.  Visit him online at www.jonathanmaberry.com

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Bobbi Carducci January 17, 2011 at 11:19 am

Great article. Thank you for sharing. I know I’ll use this information and I’m sharing it on my blog.
Bobbi

Jared January 17, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Awesome, it’s good to hear that best sellers can use the internet in such advantageous ways. Research has always been a topic of pondering for me since many people consider the internet an illegitimate way to procure information, but the more it’s used, the more it becomes accepted.

Julie Long January 17, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Great article! I’m sharing it via the PW Conf facebook and twitter page. Love the email interview question, “What don’t I know enough to ask?”

Kathryn Craft January 17, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Great advice, and pushes most writers a step further than they would have gone on their own. Thanks, Jonathan!

Carol Silvis January 18, 2011 at 11:46 am

Thanks for the tips, Jonathan. You always offer good advice for writers. Hope to see you at the Pennwriters conference in May.

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