We’ve all heard it. Sometimes we groan, sometimes we delight, depending on the situation and where you are in your publishing journey. You’re at a Friday evening neighborhood barbecue when the man down the street approaches you, cautiously, but also sort of expectantly, too:
As we grow in our careers, the demands on our time triple. No, quadruple. These requests seem to come fast and furious and even the most generous spirited among us feel the need to preserve our time, energy and creativity for our own writings. A few months ago, in a closed writer’s Facebook group, a fairly successful author posted this article on how to handle these requests. I thought it was brilliant. I thought the Friday Morning Solution was incredibly practical, allowing for only those who are the most committed to follow through. If you haven’t already, you should read it and follow it! Set those boundaries, girl (or guy)!
My next thought, immediately, was, “What if I’m the brain picker? Not the pickee?”
I posed the question in the group to my friend. “How do you ask to pick someone’s brain?" I want to read that article. Her answer? “I try not to.” This astounded me. How do we learn? Yes, the internet. Yes, books. Of course, read them. But nothing beats the question, “Tell me something about your job that no one knows." If your main character is a doctor, this question is your best friend. But, how do you get the answers?
Successful, prolific authors have made an art out of asking for the “brain pick”. We talk to cops, lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists. For Binds That Tie, five chapters take place in a courtroom. I have never, in my life, been in a working courtroom. I’ve been excused from jury duty four times. Then how did I do this? I talked to lawyers. Specifically, criminal defense attorneys.
- If possible, call, don’t email. Talk to their administrative assistants, leave your name, the purpose for your call, how much time you’d like to have (I always say a half hour), and most importantly, be available when they call you back. You are asking THEM for help. You must work on their time. It is not a privilege, to them, to be a source in a fiction book by a writer they’ve never heard of (and they’ve never heard of you or me, let’s be honest!). Do not ask them to call you back between two and four on Wednesdays and alternating Fridays. If they call at midnight, answer the phone and grab a pad and pen.
- “Thank you so much for calling me back. I’d love to pay you for your time, what is your consultation rate?” This should be your very first sentence. Most experts will not take you up on it. But some will! I paid a grief counselor $100 for research on Thought I Knew You. Invest in your writing career. You want your imagined world to be woven through with truth and authenticity. Pay the $100. If the fee is too high, say “I’m sorry but I’m not able to manage that expense at this time. Thank you so much for the call back.” And try someone else. Do not try to get one quick question in for free. Do not try to push them into a lower rate. Take your lumps and move on.
- Prepare ahead of time. Do as much reading and research as you can before you get on the phone. Get the basics down and use the expert only to fill in the gaps. The little known stuff. The tips and tricks of the trade. You do not need to call a lawyer to find out about the Pennsylvania penal code. A person is not a substitute for the elbow grease of research. I always try to get a bit of that into my first question so that the person I’m talking to knows I’ve done my research. I’m a professional. “Can you explain the difference between 907(a) and (b) of “Possessing instruments of a crime” to me? How would sentencing differ?” as opposed to “What if my guy has a gun?”
- Be specific. This works hand in hand with #3. If you are prepared, you’ll find your questions are naturally specific. This also allows you to get more detail into your work. The more small details you get right, that ring true, the more you can play with the suspension of disbelief in your narrative.
- Ask the right questions. Some good ones I always like are:
- Tell me something about your job/profession that is not common knowledge?
- What are the worst parts of your profession?
- What are the best parts?
- Are you willing to share a time when you failed?
- Do you have a greatest success/achievement?
Sometimes you get more information from experts by asking them personal rather than professional questions. In some ways, this also makes it fun for the expert! Everyone likes to share their professional achievements. Let them brag a bit, most of the time they’ll inadvertently slip little useful nuggets into their stories that will bring your characters to life.
- Ask them if you can record them. Most phones have an app, either native or downloadable that will allow you to record the conversation. When you’re done (and the work is written, edited and about to be published!), be sure to delete the recording as a courtesy. And remember, in most states, it’s illegal to record phone conversations without consent so be sure to get that consent on the tape.
Using this guide, I’ve never had one expert say no. They are always impressed, excited to be part of a fiction book. Sometimes, you sit in a defense attorney’s office for three hours while he tells you all his book ideas. Sometimes, they’ll set a timer and cut you off mid-sentence. Other times, you’ll take a Philadelphia homicide cop for coffee and he will BRING YOU BULLET CASINGS that have been flattened by a car at the scene and it will be a great day in this new, fun, career of yours. When done properly, I’ve found that talking to experts is one of the greatest perks of the job.
Happy brain picking, everyone!
Have you successfully picked someone's brain for your writing? Whose brain—you don't need to give a name, a profession works—would you like to mine for information for your WIP?
Kate Moretti is the New York Times Bestselling author of four novels and a novella, including Thought I Knew You, While You Were Gone, Binds That Tie, The Vanishing Year, and Blackbird Season. Her first novel THOUGHT I KNEW YOU, was a New York Times bestseller. THE VANISHING YEAR was a nominee in the Goodreads Choice Awards Mystery/Thriller category for 2016 and was called “chillingly satisfying.” (Publisher’s Weekly) with “superb” closing twists (New York Times Book Review).
Kate has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for twenty years as a scientist and enjoys traveling and cooking. She lives in Pennsylvania in an old farmhouse with her husband, two children and no known ghosts. Her lifelong dream is to find a secret passageway. Visit her website at www.katemoretti.com.