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Robert's Rules of Writing #60: Know No Shame

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

According to Masello's rule #60, one of the best things about being a writer is that you get to be nosy. Because only by being nosy do you get the details right.

It's fairly obvious that research is invaluable if you're writing nonfiction. If the article you're writing is supposed to be based on fact, you need to know the facts, and sometimes the best way to get those facts is by asking questions.

But it's also true that good fiction also relies on those twin concepts of accuracy and verisimilitude.

Although Masello mostly discusses how asking questions can help you create more believable characters, I'd like to revisit an experience of my own in asking questions -- and, in some sense, in being shameless.

A few years ago, I was working on a project for which I needed some information on what the FBI did on 9/11 and shortly afterwards. I had read some articles on how the events had affected them, but nothing gave me the immediate details that I needed to make a particular story come alive. And so I picked up the phone and called the FBI's New York City offices.

Fortunately, most law enforcement agencies have public information officers, whose job it is to deal with the press and public. I reached one of those agents, explained what I needed, and asked if it might be possible for me to pay a visit to their offices. As it so happened, Nomi and I were planning one of our regular trips to New York within a few weeks, and so we made an appointment to visit with the agent on a Wednesday.

We learned a lot on that visit, and I picked up some detail that will be useful if I ever do get back to that particular project. For example, the elevators that go to the FBI offices are behind bulletproof glass. When visiting, you have to turn over all personal electronics and weapons, and you have to wear a bright yellow badge that identifies you as a visitor. You are not to wander anywhere alone; you must have an escort with you at all times. (Of course, the details I really wanted was the feel of the offices, and I got that as well. But the impact I felt was mostly what it was like to be a visitor.)

Afterwards, Nomi and I still felt a certain level of disbelief that we had been allowed to visit the FBI's offices. But that disbelief was tempered with the knowledge of how we had done it. Basically, I had taken myself seriously as a writer, as someone who would have a legitimate reason for visiting the FBI's offices, in order to get the details right on a piece of fiction. By following my own dictum of not knowing shame, I was brave enough to make that phone call and request a visit.

So when it comes to Robert's Rule #60, I'm behind him 100%.

Copyright © Michael Burstein

Comments

I think the most extreme example of this I've heard, at least recently, was from thriller writer Brad Meltzer. For his latest book, he needed details on what the life of an ex-President was like (no, not the Saturday Night Live cartoon; the real thing). As it happens, he had been asked for an authographed copy of a previous novel by Bush I, so he wrote both them and Clinton's office asking if he could visit and do research. Got to hang out with the Bushes for around a week and the Clinton offices for a couple of days as I recall.
He told that story when we went to hear him speak at Brookline Booksmith recently. It seems logical to me that if a former president is a fan of yours, you may as well ask for whatever favor you can get.
No presidential visits under my belt, but I did learn early on that hands-on was the best way to do things: for instance, when I was 15 I spent a day "apprenticing" with a blacksmith to give a piece of a historical fiction novel more verisimilitude. In a very short time I've learned that not only does this improve the storytelling, but it's also fun. :)

(For me the "fun" aspect most definitely includes historical fiction. While I couldn't get to Cornwall and Devon before writing my Camelot novel, alas, I have been able to do things like fire flintlock muskets, wear buckskin, help make roof slats for a barn, and (though some might doubt the verisimilitude of this) do weapons practice with the SCA. Another reason I think writing is about the best job in the world.
Another reason I think writing is about the best job in the world.

If only it paid more...
It's definitely a wonderful excuse to be nosy!

That's actually why the novel I said I'd be posting is so late; I've been trying to arrange visits and interviews with various social services people to get those details like what the offices look like and how much work they have to do on weekends.
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