Monday, October 26, 2009

My Work in Progress - Adventures in Research

Let me tell you a little about one of my current works in progress. It’s called “Twice in a Lifetime” and it’s a time-travel about an old man who is visited by an angel who offers him a chance to go back in time for a second chance at love. The angel (who is my angel Angelica from “Burning Love”) takes Frank Brennan back to 1944, to wartime Plymouth, England, just before the D-Day invasion.

This is my first attempt at an historical. And I’m finding the research somewhat daunting. First of all, this is a setting I am not at all familiar with. I have never been to Plymouth, and certainly not in 1944. I know a fair bit of the history of World War 2, but I’m not an expert. And I’m really not an expert in military affairs. My character Frank and his friend Cal are members of the 116th regiment of 29th Infantry, which is an actual American regiment that fought in World War 2. They were some of the first troops to land on the beaches of Normandy. I don’t have a military background so a lot of the terms are unfamiliar to me. I also need a fair bit of medical information and history.

I actually started this story a few years ago. I love the idea of a person being able to go back in time to “fix” the mistakes they made years ago. But I got bogged down and scared off by the amount of research needed and I quit writing. I have no qualms about reading books or searching on the Internet for information. My problem is asking real live people, experts in their fields, for advice and information about the things I need to know. I interviewed two policemen, one RCMP and one Winnipeg City policeman, for my romantic suspense “Seeing Things”. I had to force myself to do both of them. I was nervous, shaky, sweating. They both turned out fine and I got a lot of good information, but I was glad when they were over. I think this fear stems from lack of confidence. It’s hard for me to say “I’m a writer and I need this information.” I think people will say “Really? You? Who do you think you are?”

But I’ve decided I’ve got to get over this. It’s holding back my writing. So after finding the website of the 29th Infantry and emailing their historian, I was a little nervous when he emailed me back and invited me to phone him. It was with shaking hands that I dialled his number.

He couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. I did experience a moment of hesitation when he asked me what my novel was about and I had to explain the fantasy elements of the story to him. I told him that while the story is not strictly about the 29th Infantry, I want the military and historical elements I’m using to be true. He also invited me to phone him back if I have any further questions.

I am in awe of writers who fearlessly interview subjects, who participate in police ride alongs and do all sorts of inventive things to research their stories. I’m not sure I could ever be that brave. But I’m learning. A long time ago, Melvia Fonstad, a member of the Saskatchewan Romance Writers who passed away several years ago, told me that people love to talk about themselves and what they do, and I shouldn’t feel as if I’m imposing on them or bothering them. I’ve always remembered what she told me, but never taken it to heart before. So thanks Melvia. I’m finally listening.

Am I the only weird one who has a phobia about live research interviews? Do others really enjoy this type of research? What advice do you have for helping me to get over my nerves when interviewing?


Anonymous said...

Hi great post. I was told was to image everyone in the audience "naked", didn't work for me though. I would take deep breaths & focus really hard on the topic, but would always talk to fast.But then I was only dealing with small groups on the elderly. Good luck


Jana Richards said...

Hi April,
I've heard the idea about imagining my audience naked too. But it doesn't really do anything for me either. Then I just have a bunch of people sitting around in their underwear, watching me with a critical eye. Kinda creepy.

Speaking to a live audience, which I have not done a lot of, it always helps me to be really well prepared. I gave a little speech on romance writing to a group at the library one time. I wrote a speech and then practiced it by locking myself in my office and reading it out loud. I timed myself because I only had a certain amount of time and I didn't want to go overtime. I've since learned that I should have taped myself to hear how I sound. I could then recognize if I am speaking too fast.

Thanks for commenting April!

Vince said...

Hi April:

I’ve done many interviews and here’s what works for me:

Except for experts (who are interviewed all the time), being interviewed is an ego-trip. Use this fact to your advantage.

Always treat the person being interviewed with respect. Be sure your body language indicates you are always interested in what the interviewee is saying. Also show your approval of the person with your body language. Pretend that what the person is saying is of the highest interest to you personally.

Make the interviewee look good and feel important. Let him or her be the expert. Ask: “What do you think I ought to know about your experience, perhaps something that’s not in the history books.”

Go for feelings as they cannot be wrong.

Ask: How did you feel about things? How did you feel the night before? The day after? Did anything funny happen that you remember? Is there anything you wish people knew about what it was really like? Is there anything that you feel the history books got wrong or that the young people today should know about? Tell me something about everyday life for you at the time. (These facts will make your book seem real.)

Don’t ask for specific information easily available in history books. Don’t ask for a list of the beaches at Normandy. You might make a person feel stupid for not knowing. (The person could think: “She could get this easily on the internet. Is she trying to trip me up or make me look bad?”) It’s best to ask questions that cannot be answered wrongly.

Don’t correct mistakes. If the person says he landed on the beach on Saturday morning and it really was Sunday, let it go. If a person gets lots of facts wrong, he could be lying about being a veteran. Newspaper people need to verify the person’s credibility in such cases. Beware: there are a lot of phony war heroes out there and unlike many real heroes, they love to give interviews.

Thank the person, send a thank you note, and always ask if it would be ok to check back with a few more questions. Do this even if you know you will not be calling back.

Since I am going to provide a very good experience for my interviewee, and since I am going to ask questions that can not be answered incorrectly, I don’t get nervous about doing interviews.


Karyn Good said...

I'm not one to approach people to do live interviews either but it's something I need to overcome because I'm sure it would bring an added depth to my writing.

Kudos on taking that next step and doing 'live' research. :) Twice in a Lifetime will be the richer for it!

Great post, Jana. I could use some tips, too!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Vince,
Great advice! I am definitely going to save your ideas for my next interview.

I think I did one thing right. Like you said, there is a ton of information about the Normandy Invasion in books and on the Internet. What I asked for was information about the experience of the American soldiers who lived around Plymouth in the weeks and months before the invasion. I wanted to know how they lived and trained and what they did in their off time. I couldn't find much about that.

But I didn't ask much about feelings. I will remember that for next time. I also haven't sent him a note to thank him for his time. Thank you for reminding me!

Much appreciated, Vince.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I've decided I have to step out of my comfort zone every once in a while or else my writing will suffer. Hopefully the more I do this, the easier it will get.

And I learned from the gentleman I interviewed I had made an assumption in my plot that likely would never have happened in real life. When my hero is injured he is treated in a civilian hospital. The historian told me that likely never would have happened. The 29th had a whole company of medical personnel that treated almost everything except for perhaps the most complex of surgeries. So it pays to find out.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

I haven't had much occasion for interview-style research, but I think the biggest difficulty lies in a] explaining a scenario or premise in such a way that you get the info you need, and b] knowing what to ask that may not seem obvious. You mentioned the assumption of a civilian hospital in your story, I wonder if that would have occurred to me, or if it would have come up on its own.

Next year I'll be doing a lot of digging on folklore when I go on vacation, so I hope to develop good note-taking and not-quite-interviewing skills to keep track of everything I learn.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
Sometimes you don't always know the questions to ask. As I get further into the story, I'll have more questions and more detail that I'll need answers to.

And framing them in such a way so as to get the answers I need will take a little doing.

Thanks Hayley,