Our guest poster today is Tracy Hahn-Burkett. Tracy was a finalist in our search for our unpubbed contributor. We loved her humor and solid advice for writers. Tracy’s impressive bio includes being a congressional staffer, a U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and a public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education. Her blog UnchartedParent, is a fantastic community for adoptive parents and those trying to muddle through parenting (which is basically everyone who has kids!).
Please enjoy today’s guest post by Tracy Hahn-Burkett.
What could induce an otherwise sane woman to hop into a white van 500 miles from home with a man she’d never met, then allow herself to be driven forty-five minutes to an anonymous country club to dine with people who refused to reveal their last names?
The desire to write a novel, naturally. The woman was me, and I was doing research for my WIP.
I knew from the moment I began work on my novel that I would need to conduct interviews to truly understand my characters. Some of them are intelligence officers leading secretive, duplicitous lives, and they also suffer wrenching personal losses that cut to the core of who they are. I read thousands of pages of books, articles and internet documents, and the knowledge I gained from those sources was invaluable. But it wasn’t enough. I needed to get inside my characters’ heads; I needed to feel what they feel. I needed to talk to people.
But how does the unknown, unpublished author reach out to experts and survivors of tragedies and convince them to give her some of their valuable time to enrich her fictional world?
I began by combing through those thousands of pages to assemble profiles of individuals I thought might be useful. I scoured every network I could think of, including professional organizations and alumni groups, for any possible connections to both me and my characters. I pieced together biographical data and contact information as I hunted.
I developed a list of potential interview subjects, including Sam.*
Sam attended my alma mater and had worked in the analytical side of the CIA. I sent him a professionally worded e-mail explaining my project and asking to meet with him, and he responded with enthusiasm. Sam was so helpful, in fact, that he asked if I would like him to invite along two of his colleagues who had worked in operations. I might have taken the time to inhale before I said yes, but I’m not sure that I did.
At the club, we settled into a corner table, Sam’s colleagues’ backs to the wall so they could keep watch over the comings and goings of the entire room as they ate. Over cheeseburgers and fries, they answered my questions and offered me insights into the uncommon lives they had once led. They shared small details like what it means to “fall in love with your agent,”—which is not what it sounds like—and that upon arriving home in the evenings, they used to turn on the radio to make it difficult for any listening devices to pick up their conversations with family or friends. By the time I’d finished my fries, I had filled pages of my notepad with tiny pieces of my characters’ lives.
If you’ve never interviewed anyone before, the prospect of doing so in the course of researching your novel can be intimidating to the point of paralysis. But just as you shouldn’t let fear stop you from writing in the genre you’re passionate about or from sending out queries when it’s time, you can’t let it keep you from seeking out the human sources that may provide you with the best, truest information for your characters and your story. Yes, some people will turn you down. But in all likelihood, more will say yes.
Write about something that intrigues you, and the research will be fun. Do your homework, assemble your lists and contact your sources. Then jump into that white van and see where it takes you.
*Sam is not his real name, of course.