Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 21, 2017

How to Successfully Ask, “Can I Pick Your Brain?” 

 Kate Moretti     

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:

“Can I pick your brain?”

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 everyone is so maxed out on time, how do you go about asking, without being the person that makes everyone groan?

  1. 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.
  2. “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.
  3. 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?”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

  1. 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 YouWhile You Were GoneBinds That TieThe 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.

26 comments on “How to Successfully Ask, “Can I Pick Your Brain?” ”

  1. Great tips here Katie! I agree with all except one. My opening statement is, "I can't tell you how much I appreciate your time. Before I forget, let me take down the spelling of your name for my acknowledgments." Because my experience has been--in every case but one surly nonreader--they ARE thrilled to speak about their specialty to a novelist. I couldn't afford research without that goodwill, which I've already paid forward a gazillion times compared to my few asks. And as an independent contractor myself for several decades, I know that if I need to be paid for a consultation, it's up to me to state those terms at the time of the ask.

  2. Most of the people I've asked for help have been delighted to answer questions. They want us to get it right. I generally have questions about particular plot points. I've also found a nice core of experts I can email with questions for each book--my cell phone guy told me he'd missed me when I hadn't needed his help for a couple of books. And a homicide detective gave me a piece of the patio they'd dug up on one of his investigations to find the bodies buried underneath!

    1. Impressive chunk of concrete, Terry! I'm going to announce it on Wednesday's blog, but your Solar Eclipse Day bonus: You won Laurie Schnebly Campbell's class! I'll be in touch.

  3. I'm amazed at how giving experts are with their time! I've never had one want money for it, and one woman attorney spend HOURS working on my courtroom scenes.

    Great post, Kate, on a topic I haven't seen covered before.

    1. Most people are super generous. I'm always grateful, too! I love the lawyers, too! How would we write courtroom drama without it??

  4. Smart tips, Kate. As a former public relations consultant who billed in 15-minute segments, I'm abashed that I didn't think to at least offer to pay my expert sources. I'll do better next time.

    1. To be honest, I've rarely had anyone take me up on it. Just the one! BUT, the offer sort of smoothes the way and lets the expert know 1. I'm professional and 2. I'm serious. I'm not wasting their time. So it helps!

  5. Excellent advice. I did this not too long ago for a story that involved federal sentencing and prison, etc. I could find all the information I needed online, including the hours and the protocol for visitors to inmates on death row at Terre Haute and even what the room looked like. The only thing I couldn't figure out was timing--how long from this step in the judicial process to this one? How long, realistically, would an appeal take? Are there any stalling tactics lawyers use to buy time? This was really important because the plot events were tied to real world events and everything had to fit together believably.

    I contacted a friend from high school who is a lawyer (civil cases) and he hooked me up with a criminal lawyer friend of his. I offered to pay her for her time and she said no need. We talked for about 45 minutes on the phone (our topics were extremely focused because I'd already done many hours of research) and then she offered to connect me with a guy she knew in the federal prison system. I really wanted to pay her, but she said she just wanted a copy of the book when it comes out. She and my HS friend will also be in the acknowledgements, and I named the lawyer in the story after them--his first name, her last name. 🙂

    1. That is a great story! Naming a character is way better than $$! Thanks for reading, Erin! xo

  6. Thanks for the great tips. I recently spent some time in a graveyard (don't ask why) and stopped by the office and spoke to a female funeral director. I asked a bunch of questions. I always do, no matter where I am or who I'm with. She was so, so, so nice. She's going to be my model for a heroine who's dating a male florist. THAT's my idea...no one gets to steal it! Everyone promise!

    1. HA I won't steal your idea! BUT I have spent some time talking to a funeral director before! 🙂 Thanks for reading, Christopher!

  7. Great Post. I find cookies often get you in the door! I took a large plate of cookies to a local firehouse so I could take a tour and ask then about their jobs for an idea I had in my last manuscript. They were very much into my idea and even made suggestions for the scene that I eventually added to that scene.

    1. Cookies are the best! That's a great idea and I'll keep it in mind if I need to tour a firehouse! 🙂 Thanks for reading, Marie! xo

  8. When I want some military details, I call up my friend and talk to her husband, a USMC helicopter pilot. He enjoys giving me the "secret" handshakes, call signs, and details I can't get anywhere else. He would make a great cover model.

    1. OH that's fantastic. I want to know the "secret" handshake 🙂 Thanks for reading, Fae.

  9. I've picked my parents' brains before! Of course, they're always happy to help me in my writing, so I didn't have to persuade them or anything. Both are psychology majors, and the main character in my WIP has PTSD. I got a lot of really useful information that way.

  10. You've motivated me to want to do a little research for my WIP. I'd love to interview someone who's ever spent time in a psychiatric hospital and/or a halfway house for people with mental health issues. Thanks!

  11. Oh, and I forgot - I met with the owner of a winery for book research once! He was suspicious at first (I think a romance author was as foreign to him as 'cuttings' were to me!) But he loosened up, and even helped me with the plot!

    The really cool part; when the book was out, his sister and her book club met at the winery, and even recreated a grape stomping scene! I was so bummed that I'd moved to Texas by then, and couldn't be there for it!

  12. I have heard several authors report on brain-picking, and they all said they're delighted to help an author. Spelling the name is vital, and you must name them in the acknowledgments. And send them a copy of the book when published--especially if they are experts you may need again.
    I have had to ask vets questions, and every one I asked invited me to observe an operation.
    I've asked television people questions, and they all were delighted to help. People do like to be recognized as "experts."
    But the comments here are excellent! Thanks for covering this base, Kate. This is information all writers should have.

  13. Thanks so much for these excellent tips on how to glean necessary info for your story from professionals in the field. I agree with many here. People do like to be recognized as experts in their field, and to be included in the acknowledgements page of novels. I've shared this info online.

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