The Making of a Novel: Calling in the Experts

09/07/2010 07:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I just wrote my first email to a stranger, asking for help with my novel. I love this stage of writing -- when I know enough to know what I want, but don't know the exact details I need. The universe of my story is narrow enough, in other words, to be a universe, with boundaries and edges, but within those confines, anything is possible.

All I asked for was this: a suggestion for which department store a mother would go to in New York City if she were buying her daughter a dress to wear to a Julliard audition. The stranger I asked was a blogger who writes about New York City shopping. I have friends in New York who could probably answer this question in a heartbeat, too, but I felt compelled to ask this blogger. I had the feeling that she might give me more than what I was asking for -- something that would open my story up, or give it some kind of texture. It was, in other words, a bit of a fishing trip. I'm fishing for a fact, but I'm fishing for something else, too.

I find that people are typically very generous with their time -- to a point. You can't ask someone to do all your homework for you, or to fill in all your research, or to tell you what to put in your story. And you can't call expecting them to impart decades of knowledge to you in a few short conversations. But a focused question here or there? Or advice about a book to read or a movie to watch or a website to visit? Almost anyone will help a novelist.

Two books ago, I had a question about inheriting famous photographs. My plot hung on certain points about this topic, and I couldn't find the information I needed anywhere. A friend of mind arranged for me to speak to an expert at the International Photography Center. The expert set aside ten minutes for me in the middle of his afternoon. So I did a lot of homework and when I called, I spent no time on pleasantries -- I just jumped right in and asked for what I was after. I said something like, "I'd like there to be a debate at the center of my story about a photographer's intentions for the images he left behind. What type of debate might that be?" This expert was happy to enter into my fictional world, and we brainstormed, and in ten minutes, solved the problem. He told me stories about famous photographers that I could go and research. He gave me the name of another expert who might know more than he did. He suggested books, and asked me pointed questions back. It was an incredibly fruitful ten minutes, and I hope it wasn't too big an imposition on his day.

I don't expect the same richness to come from a question about New York City shopping. But I'm just beginning this phase of research. I have a long list of people I'd like to contact and call -- music critics, and musicians, mothers of violinists and newspaper reporters. Readers sometimes ask me how I write about things I don't have personal experience doing -- such as taking photographs or sewing dresses or playing the violin. This is how.