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  1. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Contacting People or Organizations for Research

    Discussion in 'Research' started by Ben414, Feb 17, 2015.

    I'm curious who here has contacted people who you didn't know or organizations you didn't know anyone in for research. I could see a well-known published writer being able to do this relatively easily, but I'm not sure how well it would work for an unknown writer. For those that have done this successfully, who/what did you contact and what strategy did you use to convince them to help you?
     
  2. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I just told them who I was, that I was working on a story, and found their name/organization via whatever, and would like to ask some questions if they had time and were willing. Most folks are more than willing to help out, and if they aren't or can't, will let you know politely. (And if they can't/won't, don't hound them - thank them anyway and find someone else.)
     
  3. Dunning Kruger
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    Dunning Kruger Active Member

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    I do this from time to time for my day job. It's hit or miss and you usually need to follow up once or twice. As Shadowwalker said, a lot of people are open to helping out. Its a bit of an ego rush to have someone ask you for your opinion or insight, particularly if they are in a job where they are not asked for it often. The two biggest things to make it a successful interaction are be prepared - know what questions you want to ask and what information you need. Second, let them talk and encourage them to talk by asking open ended questions. The casual anecdotes you can get are often far more valuable than the "facts" they share. Good luck.
     
  4. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah just send them an email. Most people are happy to be a little helpful. Depending on who you're contacting they might be volunteers or otherwise normal people who will be nicer to you - if you're targeting larger organizations its a bit of a crapshoot and takes more time but you might get something (when I was in high school in the early 2000s I tried doing international story research by sending letters to the embassies of a bunch of different countries - didn't get much useful but got some fun responses and obscure travel brochures for the scrapbook).

    More recently I've actually gotten some really good stuff by contacting cultural organizations writing for characters who are unfamiliar to me. The best example is that I write a character who practices Jainism, which I know a bit about doctrinally but don't know a thing about in terms of how modern Jains apply said doctrines in their day to day life. I spent a bit of time researching Jain cultural organizations looking for material written by Jains for Jains, not much luck, so emailed two or three national Jain organizations explaining who I was and what I was looking for (which if you can email multiple sources, do so, it improves your odds of success.) I got a nice response from the Young Jains of America saying my character sounded interesting and linking me to a pdf archive of their monthly newsletter which I otherwise would not have found - those things were a godsend because very little of it is high-minded religious stuff and all of it was day-to-day application, recipes, articles about being a Jain in college, etc. I think I'm actually going to make the character a lower-level volunteer board member for YJA as an in-text "thank you". Once I finish the book, I'll probably also get a hold of the nearest Jain temple and ask if I can visit a service or talk to interview people so I can revise out stereotypes. Actually for me it's a fun part of the process because I get to talk to people I'd otherwise never have to contact.

    Another thing I've done is contact bloggers who focus on towns or groups that I'm researching - my main character grew up Appleton, Wisconsin and I was able to get a hold of a guy who runs a blog focussed on the real-life Appleton.

    So, I guess my advice is to figure out who has the information you want, email multiple people, and particularly to figure out the smallest and least busy organizations that can help you. For instance, if you email the United Nations press office you're unlikely to get much - but if you need info on how the UN runs, there are countless smaller organizations that spend a lot of time lobbying the U.N. and are largely staffed by do-gooders and volunteers...you know, the type of people who would be happy to help.

    And don't stress about not being a big-time writer. You're a a writer, and all writers need research - it's part of the craft. Plus people tend to be amused when you say you're writing a story about them - even as an amateur.
     
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2015
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  5. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've never had any luck with this. I've contacted police departments, minor sports leagues... others, too, I think... and never gotten so much as a rejection e-mail. No idea what the problem is!
     
  6. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    It helps if you can find an individual to contact versus just sending to the organization. I'm surprised about police departments, as typically their public affairs office can either forward your letter to the appropriate person or let you know who to contact.
     
  7. Dunning Kruger
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    Dunning Kruger Active Member

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    Have to follow up with a phone call. An email is really just a courtesy to say you will be calling. Its only once you get them on the phone that you have a chance.
     
  8. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Not necessarily. I've never called anyone, everything done via email, and never had any problems - most have given me more than I needed. Personally, I hate talking on the phone, and if someone I don't know calls, I don't answer. And I would not take kindly the presumption that I would (or should) simply because they emailed me first. An email allows the person the courtesy of answering when it's convenient for them.
     
  9. Teviya Abramson
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    Teviya Abramson Member

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    I'm the same way. I get really anxious at the thought of talking to someone I don't know on the phone, so I prefer to email whenever humanly possible. Because emails take time to compose, I have time to consult notes and really make sure that I'm saying the right things to get what I want, whereas on the phone, everything is much faster paced, and I almost always forget something.
     
  10. Dunning Kruger
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    Dunning Kruger Active Member

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    Write your questions out in advance, regardless. There's nothing wrong with sending the questions in advance and then sticking to the list of questions you sent to them. They'll appreciate your preparation and efficiency.

    FWIW, I absolutely hate picking up the phone to do this. But, I still do when it matters to me.

    Whatever gets the job done. But asking someone to type up an email response is not automatically more courteous than asking someone to speak on the phone. It takes more time and energy to write than speak and writing has an air of permanence which means your source is naturally going to be more tight lipped and perhaps even be uncomfortable, depending on the topic and the line of questioning.

    As to a call, you're correct, usually people dont pick up. You leave a polite message mentioning the email, reiterating why you are reaching out, and asking if they have a few moments to share. If they want to respond with an email, they still can. If they do pick up, you do the same but ask if this is a convenient time to talk or whether they would set up a time in the future.

    Generally speaking its not rude. Some people wont like it but others will respect your initiative. Further, occasionally they'll intend to respond but just forget to as their day gets busy. After a few days they'll remember and figure that if its really important to you, you'll follow up again.

    Ultimately, as a researcher, the onus is on you to get what you need. If email works, great. But if you're not getting results, this is an approach that can be successful.
     
  11. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    My primary concern is not cutting off a future source of information in my zeal to "get what I need". I'm asking these folks for a favor. As I said, I've rarely been turned down (in fact, I can't think of a time when I was).
     
  12. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    One phone call probably isn't obnoxious if you're nice and if the organization is bog. More than one...yeah...then it's a bit weird.

    And amen to whoever said find the contact for the actual person you need to get a hold of not just the main line.
     
  13. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    I was writing a brilliant, and as yet unpublished story about an 18c sail voyage to Australia, emailed a public library across the world in Oz, asked the 'contact' email for his/her ideas on resources about settlers and boats.

    A month later a nice e-mail arrived, encouragement, a load of links. I said I was a small fish, so was she. Seven months later we...no.

    Write with sincerity and common humanity. Someone sitting behind a screen often responds. Same with jobs: all the CVs crammed with biz jargon are a flipping bore, and sometimes people like people, sometimes they do. Especially if they were bullied as a child. We are like a secret network.

    I tend to ignore the 100+ no responses to my submissions.
     
  14. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I've just written an email and they've responded (eg state immigration office of Sweden, nuclear safety dep of my home country, the military, swordsmanship associations... there's probably been a few others too that I just can't remember right now). In my case it helps that I haven't contacted huge organizations, I guess. There's like 3 people working for nuclear safety in Finland, I guess, and maybe they don't have a lot to do in the office, but I got a reply really quickly.

    People like to talk about what they do, I suppose, so if you show interest in their work and ask politely, they also seem to respond positively to the query. But again, depends on what and who you're asking. Something like the Secret Service might be less cooperative. Or if you try to find out the truth (which one?) of, say, the porn industry or what it's like to be a porn actress, prepare for a lot of mixed messages! (fun fact, journalists and people who gain access to porn shoots seem to only get to see the vanilla stuff so they can say afterwards "well that looked about as interesting as your regular nine-to-five desk job actually, and gee, those actresses seem pretty bored with it and only do it to pay for their degree. Where are the drugs, the abuse, and general fuckuppedness? Huh, I guess it's as safe and healthy an industry as any!")
     
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