Monday 25 June 2018

Approaching Experts for Help with Research

By Marilyn Forsyth

Image courtesy of giphy

So, you’ve got an idea for a story with, let’s say, a paramedic as your heroine. It’s the perfect career for the feisty but compassionate female character you have in mind, but it’s also a job you have zero knowledge of.

Where do you look for the information you’re going to need to add authenticity to this character?

The internet is the obvious place for background knowledge. But you don’t want just general stuff, you want job-specific info—the nitty gritty details, the day to day realities that will make your character and her experiences come to life on the page.

Image courtesy of

You need an EXPERT to answer the myriad questions burning your brain. Questions like: what are you thinking as you weave an ambulance through heavy traffic? How do you insert a canula? What do you say to a patient who believes they’re about to die?

This is the scenario I faced with my work-in-progress.

Rather than ask those questions on a site like QUORA (and hope the answers come from a ridgy-didge medico) or emailing the local ambulance station, I opted to make contact with the sister of a guy in my sons’ footy team who works as a paramedic.

Image courtesy of someeecards

Being a bit of an introvert, I was apprehensive about approaching her at a social function but the lovely Carol was happy to meet with me over coffee. Since then, her ongoing help has been invaluable in keeping the medical aspect of my story believable. (Apparently she got quite a few laughs from my sketchy medical knowledge in my early drafts.)

On my recent research trip to Wales, I again pulled on my big girl panties to request help. My Aussie heroine belongs to a Welsh Hazardous Area Response Team. After contacting the HART at Bridgend (near Cardiff), I was invited to visit the base and given a tour of the facility by Dai, the Training Manager. Not only that, but the next day I was fortunate enough to spend the morning with a group of HART operatives training for water rescues at a white-water rafting centre.

So much fun! Not only watching the procedures, but also interacting with the team. And talking with the team members has given me a great insight into the types of characters who make this job their life. All excellent fodder for my book.

In the past, I’ve contacted people by email or phone to ask questions—the researchers at the National Library of Wales, an opal dealer from Melbourne, a guide from a pearl farm—but nothing beats that personal contact.

So, here are some things I’ve learned about approaching experts for help with research:

  • People passionate about their job/interests are more than happy to share their knowledge.
  • Be brief and straightforward in stating your reason for the research.
  • Prepare your questions beforehand, and only ask what you can’t find out for yourself elsewhere.
  • Make notes as you go (or record any interviews), and take photos (with permission, of course).
  • Show your gratitude by mentioning them by name in your Acknowledgements.
  • Let them know when the book is published.

The handsome HART heroes (from left): Keith, Dom, Gavin, Martyn, Craig.

Approaching people in person isn’t easy (for me, anyway) but the rewards of direct contact with an expert, as I discovered, are astronomical!

Do you have any stories about asking an expert for help with your book? I’d love to hear them!

Love to Love getting together with my crit partners once a month to discuss all things writing.❤

Love to Laugh at the silliest things. Something doing the rounds recently on Facebook was to post your name replacing every vowel with 'oodle', so my name came out as Moodleroodleloodlen. Go on, do it! It's fun. 😄

Love to Learn how to improve my craft, which is why I'll be attending the 2018 RWAus Conference in Sydney in August.


  1. Love your on the spot research in Wales, Marilyn! What a great day! Isn’t it fabulous there are so many people around that have that bit of knowledge we don’t have, and can help. Makes all the difference, and makes writing/reading a book that little bit more authentic.

    My oodle name is Moodlelvoodlenoodle. What a mouthful!

    1. Hahaha. Hi Moodlelvoodlenoodle! I was hoping someone might try the 'oodle' thing with their name. :)
      I had the best time in Wales. After visiting the HART base, I had a lot of changes to make to my story but it has helped add so much more authenticity to the characters and their situations.

  2. That must have been so much fun Marilyn - after you got over your nerves that is. I haven't had direct in person help but I do have a contact called Nancy the Regency researcher and she is a font of knowledge. She's always ready for the tricky questions.

    1. Hi Cassandra! It was a great couple of days, spending time with the HART guys. Wish I could have posted ALL my photos.
      Having someone like Nancy in your life must be a real blessing. We should all have someone like that! ;)

  3. Hi Marilyn, thanks for sharing some examples where you've consulted experts in different fields. I hadn't thought of this aspect of writing research before. It sounds quite daunting, but very helpful and rewarding.

    1. Hi Sharon! Like I said in the post, I don't find it easy approaching people I don't know, but it has definitely been worth it to get that authentic 'feel' in my books.

  4. They say 'write what you know'. But authors don't know everything so we have to get that knowledge somehow. Being shown first hand from those who know would sure make the stories more realistic. That's a great way to research. And so lucky to have the opportunity, Marilyn. And my name would be Oodlenoodlesoodle. Lots of oooo's!

    1. I love it! Oodlenoodlesoodle! Hahaha.
      With both my published books, and my current wip, it's been more a case of 'write what you DON'T know'. :) But having the opportunity to talk to experts has been a fantastic help.

  5. Hi Marilyn. Loved your post - what a fascinating book you are going to write! I'm with you with the initial reluctance to ask - but so worth it once you do! I spent a day with a farrier when finishing my final drafts of my Harlequin Christmas story and it was invaluable. He and his team were so generous with their time and sharing their expertise and insights. With On the Right Track I got in touch with a retired PhD Scientist who is a world authority on the germination of gum trees and he really helped me nut out a couple of things I had to work my way around (I needed a ghost gum in NSW and they don't grow happily there!) I found that having a good idea of what I 'needed' to happen before I spoke to my experts helped, us work out problems together. Now for my pole dancing research ... next on my list!
    And my name? Poodlenoodleloodlepoodle . Yikes!

    1. Hi Penelope, thanks so much for sharing your stories. :D Isn't it fantastic that people with a passion are so happy to share their knowledge and time? I found the same with all the HART team members I met in Wales. That's a very good point you make about knowing what you want to happen in your story so that you and your expert can work it out together. Lovely to see you here.


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