In addition to that kind of research, I also did a lot of interviews, and I learned early in my career that most experts in one field or another are usually quite open to answering a writer's questions. Since I really enjoyed the interview process, it was easy for me to use interviews for research when I started writing fiction.
For Open Season, the first book in my mystery series, I interviewed several police officers to find out what it was like to work in a department that was shrouded in charges of racial discrimination. One officer in particular became the basis for the character of Angel. Having that real person to build from, made it easier to bring Angel to life. But the interview process worked for bit-players in the story, too.
At one point in the plotting I had to find out if piano wire could be dated or if it could be determined to have come from a particular piano. I had no idea how to find this information but decided to call a piano tuner. I found one listed in the yellow pages and made the call, connecting to a most interesting man. First thing he did was correct me. It's piano string, not wire.
When the conversation ended, I had the information I needed, as well as a lead to students at a nearby college who could tell me the elements of piano string. I also had a new character for the story and our conversation became a conversation between him and the detective Sarah:
She picked up the phone book and looked in the yellow pages for piano tuners, her finger stopping on an ad that boasted thirty years experience in the business. Propping the phone receiver between her ear and her shoulder, she dialed the number.
“Good day.” A British accent clipped the words. “Precision Tuning.”
Sarah identified herself, then paused, not sure where to begin.
“How may I be of assistance to you, Detective?” The voice prompted.
“What can you tell me about piano wire?”
“They’re called strings.” The man chuckled. “But not to worry. Most people make that mistake.”
“Oh.” Sarah leaned back in her chair and put one foot on her desk. “Are they distinctive?”
“How do you mean?”
“From one piano to the next. Between a Grand and a Kimball, for instance.”
The man followed his one-word answer with the beginning of what Sarah suspected could be a lengthy explanation of how wood and craftsmanship creates the unique sound of each instrument. She used her next question to cut him off.
“How about age? Can you determine how old a string is?”
“That would be almost impossible. Strings have been made the same way for over a hundred years.”
“So a string from a piano made last year wouldn’t be any different from those in a fifty-year-old piano?”
“The old bass strings might be a little dull after so many years. But otherwise, no. The basic elements would be the same.”
Well, that was an abrupt dead end, Sarah thought, hanging up after thanking the man for his help. The only good thing to come out of it was that she could correct Roberts the next time he talked about the piano wire.So the next time you need some facts for your story, don't hesitate to pick up the phone. Who knows, you might come up with more than just the facts, Ma'am.
Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest book is Open Season, which has gotten nice reviews from Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly. One Small Victory, is a top seller in the mystery bestseller list at the Amazon Kindle store. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. She will stop playing with her horse and work, honest.