1. Do your homework before you involve other people, especially professionals or experts. Don’t use any minutes of the one hour you have with the Chief of Neurology at Brigham & Women’s Hospital asking questions that you could find easy answers to online or in a basic text book. Put another way, ask the questions you can’t get answers to online or in the text books.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask. You’re thinking, “I’d really like to ask that super famous world thought leader on linguistics some questions.” And then you immediately talk yourself out of it. “But he’ll never have time to talk to the likes of me.” Ask. Give the possibility a chance. I find that most people say YES. But you have to go first.
3. Create an interview guide. Begin your interview with a planned set of well-conceived questions. I always deviate from this. Learning from the conversation in real time, allow the answers you’re hearing to lead you to new questions you wouldn’t have even known to ask. Always end the interview with this question: Is there anything I haven’t thought of to ask that’s important for me to know?
4. Do your interviews in person whenever possible. For example, if you are interviewing a physician, go to his or her office. You’ll pick up on details you can’t get over the phone or via email–what’s on the walls, on the desk, how he/she is dressed, body language, the feel of the room. You might notice an unexpected detail that is authentic to the character/story you’re writing and further sparks your imagination.
5. Research is not your new career. You can dig forever on any given subject. But the point here is to know enough to write your story. I typically front-load with 3-4 months of pure research before I begin writing. Then, I quit my full time job of researching and begin the real job of writing. Some research will be ongoing, but it’s a supporting role now, never the star. I kept in touch daily with people living with Alzheimer’s while writing Still Alice. I’ve been in communication with a Boston Police Officer many times a week for almost a year now while writing Inside the O’Briens.
6. Do not show your readers any of this. For every novel I write, I could write a hefty, clinical nonfiction book about a neurological condition. When I’m done with my research, I’ve acquired A TON of information. Resist any urge you have to show off how much you know, any guilty obligation you might feel to not waste all that good stuff. Only use what’s relevant to STORY and in such a way that makes sense given the story’s voice and point of view. Trust that nothing is wasted, and the readers will feel the depth of your knowledge without being hammered over the head with TMI.