I had a great idea for a cave story. It was about a boy with claustrophobia and the creative way he dealt with it while spelunking. As I'm afraid of all things creepy and crawly, I've been in very few caves and knew next to nothing about caving.
But the father of one of my daughter's friends did. He'd traipsed through nearly every cave in and around Texas. He was more than willing to answer my "what if" and "how" questions. I wrote the short story and sold it to Spider with only a few changes.
When working on a short story about a girl who decided to run away from the circus, I went back to an interview I'd done with a circus family years ago. Their information helped me delve into the feelings of my character and the realities of circus life. The story sold to Hopscotch.
I was thrilled to be given the go-ahead to do an article for Woman's Day about a variety of safety issues, and spent a summer researching and interviewing experts. Many of those same interviews, or later interviews with the same experts, subsequently netted me other safety articles that were sold to Kiwanis, Healthy Childcare, and regional parenting magazines.
Like many writers, I don't enjoy spending hours searching for one fact that is necessary to make a 900-word story believable. When an idea comes, I just want to get it down on the computer. And when I'm working on a nonfiction piece that requires information or quotes from an expert on the subject, I don't want to spend weeks finding the right person to interview.
To handle these research challenges, therefore, I began creating an expert file. This "Expert Box" has helped me many times in both fiction and nonfiction writing. My experts come from many places; by putting that contact information in one place, I can easily find them when I need them. My expert file also gives me new ideas for articles and stories.
You know experts too! Here's how you can turn your contacts into your own "Expert Box."
First, I made lists of experts I knew: family, friends, co-workers, family of my friends, friends of my family, my husband's co-workers, parents of my daughter's friends. I was surprised at how many different experts I came up with and the variety of information they could provide.
On 3 X 5 cards I wrote down their names and contact information, and what they were experts at, whether it was their job, hobby, or interest. My brother is a mail carrier. My sister-in-law is a travel agent. A friend of a friend raises horses. A fellow writer raises bees in her spare time. Sometimes, they became multi-experts, such as a computer technician who is also a storm chaser. He has come in handy with tornado information and loves to talk about storms.
If those experts have other contacts, add those to their cards. My storm chaser friend knows expert meteorologists whom I can contact by using his name. Because of their hobbies or fields of expertise, your experts may also know of publications that cater specifically to readers of that topic, which can help you find additional markets.
My next resource is the newspaper. I watch for stories on local people who are profiled because of their hobby, ability, interest, job, or area of expertise. A small story of a man who collected civil war memorabilia became the perfect subject for an article for an antique magazine. If I need information pertaining to that era, he will be a good expert contact as well. I often cut out stories of possible experts and tape them to a 3 X 5 card, ready for that article or idea for which they'll be the perfect contact.
For nonfiction articles, I am often in need of an expert quote or source of information. One of my best sources has been ProfNet (http://www.profnet.com). Here a writer can ask for help on a specific topic, such as "I am writing an article on swimming safety" or "My article topic concerns children and bullies." Every day topics are sent out to the many experts and PR people subscribing to this resource. These experts will be happy to grant you an interview for a chance to promote their own book, cause or organization.
I usually end up with a dozen or more responses and am only able to use one or two. The other names and their areas of expertise are added to my expert files. Once I've interviewed the ones I choose to use at that moment, I ask if I can use them or their information again. If they agree, they also become a part of my Expert Box. A safety expert from the Red Cross or National Safety Council, for example, will be a big help for information that involves bicycle, swimming, or other safety issues children encounter.
Writer Rebecca Rohan turns to the PR/Marketing department of a nearby university to see if there are any appropriate experts on staff. "The nice thing about using college professors is that they are easily reachable by email." Nor do you need to limit yourself to local colleges or universities; through the Internet, you can contact experts at colleges throughout the country.
Your local community college may also offer a continuing education course in a topic that you need to know more about. For example, if you are writing about a character who is a professional photographer or cook, it could be helpful (and fun) to take a course on the subject and become an "expert" yourself!
Another way to find an expert is by searching Amazon.com by subject for a book on your needed topic. You can check for the author's website or contact the publisher to set up an interview. The author will love having the book mentioned in your article and you will obtain up-to-date, helpful information.
Try having an expert party with your writers' group. Bring information on your experts to share with your friends. Make a note on the card where you got the information, and if it's through a friend or another expert, make sure to mention their name when contacting the expert. Imagine how many experts you can include in your Expert Box if you get together with six writers who have twenty experts each!
Don't become a pest with your experts. When you have a question on a topic, plan ahead so that you won't take much of their time. If you're not in a hurry, they may prefer to have the questions mailed or emailed so they can have time to think about the answers.
By having experts lined up ahead of time, you have ammunition for your queries. Editors are delighted to receive queries that specifically list the expert sources that will be used for your article. By creating an expert file, you don't always have to spend hours searching through stacks of dusty tomes to find your information. Just pick a card.
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Copyright © 2004 Kathryn Lay
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.