Writer Research – Contacting Real People Instead of the Internet

I haven’t even edited the second book yet, but I’m already looking ahead to the third book (yes, the THIRD booK!) in my Traveling Society series!

Because you know me, I like planning ahead of time so that my stories are realistic. That everything is perfect to the last detail so there are no major plot holes. I may not have tons of readers yet, but hey, I like making sure everything is well thought-out!

So in this third Traveling Society book, I am taking the girls on the biggest adventure of their young adult lives: college.

And without giving much away, I can tell you that the nature of the stories is going to be changing. They’re all going to be in very different places (one of them won’t even be in North America), and then the question will be whether they all stay together or not. (Ah the eternal question of twenty-something friendships, isn’t it?)

But I’m getting ahead of myself!

Since each of the girls are going to very different colleges, I knew I had some research ahead of me because they are all attending schools that are out of my area. Some of them aren’t even in this region. One girl is getting experience as a vet tech so she can go to a competitive vet program at Virginia Tech. So she’s staying in Virginia.

But the others are going to places as far flung as New York City, England, and California.

Since I know nothing about college life in any of those places, I knew the Internet was going to be a HUGE help for me. And it was! The Internet helped me with, I’d say, 90% of my research. And when I say “research,” I’m talking about course descriptions, campus life, where are they going to live while in college (I learned a LOT about looking for off-campus apartments in Europe for one of the girls!), and the general area around the college. Is there a lot of nightlife? Crime? You know, the usual things.

I didn’t have to write to anyone to ask any of this info, it was all easy to find.

However, one of my characters required a little bit more research than what I could find with the click of a button. 

She wants to be a photographer, so I did some Internet sleuthing for art schools with photography programs. Many of those kinds of schools are outside this region (as I thought they’d be), and I found a school that looked really interesting!

But finding a course catalog or even a clear explanation of what was in their photography program proved to be elusive. There were lots of things about how awesome their program was, that’s for sure!

So I took it upon myself to fill out a contact form with my e-mail address and phone number on that college’s website. I had hoped there would be a field in the form to explain that I was an author doing research and not a prospective student, but there wasn’t. So I kept in mind that if they were to contact me, I would explain that to them up front. I didn’t want to lead them on. I just wanted to talk to a real person about that college and what life is like there, etc, for my book.

The very next day, they called me! I was unable to answer the phone and was too busy to call back, so I made a mental note to return their call the next day. They even e-mailed me to say they tried calling but there was no answer.

Day 3, about an hour or so before I was going to call them, they called me back! So I began mentally preparing my spiel about being an author and how I contacted them to ask for course descriptions, etc for my book. I thought that I was nice and enthusiastic (which I was! I was excited to have my character going to such a cool school!) and, more than that, honest about my reason for calling them. I didn’t want to lead them on that I was planning to actually go to that college, I just wanted more information for my book to make my story more realistic.

I could practically hear the balloon deflating on the other end as I talked.

As soon as I made it clear that I wasn’t planning to go to that college but that I was an author doing research, I was persona non grata. Rather than returning my enthusiasm, the person I talked to was evasive. I was told that there were more prospective students to talk to that day so there’d be no way I could find out what I needed at that moment, but there was a course catalog on their website (really? I didn’t see one, that’s why I called you in the first place) and I’d receive a copy in a little while in my e-mail inbox.

And indeed, I did receive a PDF in my inbox. The e-mail body, however was empty. Just an attachment and a fancy e-mail signature. That enthusiastic “I look forward to talking with you about our school” attitude from the first e-mail was nowhere in that second e-mail with the course catalog.

It was very unfortunate to be treated like that. Especially when my past experiences in talking with people for real-world research has been far better.

A few years ago, when I started writing my Wash Woods series, my husband took me to Knotts Island, one of the places mentioned in my books, so that I could visit the church and even talk to some of the people there about life on the island and Wash Woods.

It was just my luck that someone happened to be there cleaning the church. When I introduced myself as a local author doing research on Wash Woods and Knotts Island for a book, she was more than happy to talk to me about life on the island. I’d say she was absolutely thrilled! I came away with so many details to put in my book. We must’ve stayed there for about two hours as she talked to us. I listened to how she called a Christmas tree a Christman tree, the history of the Knotts Island Methodist Church, and even took copious pictures of articles she had cut out of the local newspapers with interesting stories over the years.

When I contacted that college, I was hoping for an enthusiastic response like the one I got from that woman at the Knotts Island church. It’s unfortunate that I didn’t. The lesson to glean from that unfortunate experience in calling that college is that I should still continue to be up front and polite about what I’m looking for. And if someone takes it the wrong way, that’s not my problem.

At least I was honest.