My next book is a young woman who is diagnosed with a mutated gene, BRCA1, which puts her an elevated risk of breast cancer. I do not have the BRCA1 gene, nor do I have a family history of cancer. Am I nervous about writing about something I haven't lived? Heck yes I am! But I'm a storyteller. I feel confident in my ability to learn about new worlds and bring them to life, with the magical power of research...
Books on your subject are great (and I’ve read perhaps a dozen books relating to BRCA) but finding IRL subjects is essential. Not only can you find out what you need, but these subjects can help you navigate this new space and advocate for you in a world where you are just a tourist.
1: Finding your subjects
So far I’ve interviewed women with breast cancer, women with the BRCA gene who have undergone mastectomies, a plastic surgeon, a genetic counselor, at-risk cancer advocates, as well as various trend forecasters. Most of these interviews happened over Skype (I’ve set up an in-person meeting at a cancer care center that was super hard to get but absolutely essential). To find these subjects, I focused on existing communities like F.O.R.C.E (Facing Our Risk Of Cancer Empowered) and Bright Pink, by posting on their forums and emailing staffers directly.
2: Reaching out
When it comes to research for a novel, people are more likely to want to help than you think they are. People like talking about themselves or their specialities, and most people want to be nice, and help an author out. They don’t want you to waste their time or generally be a ding-dong, and the best way to assure them that you're a norm is in your communication. My requests take the form of:
- an introduction, including credentials
- the request (a phone interview)
- my reason for the project
All of this is short, polite, grammatically correct, with relevant links so they can see I’m legit.
3: Doing the interview
I start by explaining the project and the part of it I need their expertise in. Sometimes I have questions written down but so much of my work and what I need is just in my brain so I usually don't need to. You’re going to be searching for technical details (facts/processes) or emotional details (how did things make someone feel? What was the hardest/weirdest part?). My project involves asking very personal details, like things to do with sex. Usually I just go for it: I’m just pretty straightforward and down to earth about it. Interviewees respond in kind. Never run long. If you need more time, see if you can schedule a follow-up.
4: Staying in touch
You can get a sense pretty quickly about who is really into your project: make sure you keep the door open. Right now, almost all of my subjects are down to read the sections of the book I needed them for, and that is invaluable. If you’re writing about a world you’re not in, it MUST pass the smell test of those who do. If it does, they’re more likely to recommend it to their community and you won’t piss anybody off.
Overall, research is easier than you think it is, and it’s really fun! I know all this stuff about breast cancer and the cancer community I didn’t know before, which is a true privilege. Don’t let a lack of knowledge you scare off a subject. Life is for the learning!