Dear Story Nurse,
Is it okay to contact expert sources for a novel that might never see publication?
We’re often advised to seek outside perspectives when writing about people who have different life experiences than ourselves. But I’m also wary about imposing on people who have no obligation to educate me. Doubly so because as with all creative projects, there’s a good chance it will only ever live on my hard drive. But there’s limits to the info that Googling can provide.
So, is it okay to contact people whose perspective would be valuable to me and ask to interview them? Does it make a difference that I have no book deal, agent or publisher? If it is okay to ask, how do I present the question in a way that would make it worth their time? Can I contact a hematologist for detailed info I need for a vampire novel? Can I contact a sex worker and ask probing and personal questions for an unfinished project? Is there a difference between the two? Or should I wait until I have some published work under my belt before I start bothering people who are quite busy enough as it is?
It’s perfectly fine to consult an expert in this fashion as long as you behave in a professional fashion and offer to pay them a reasonable amount for their time and expertise. Whether that’s worth it to you if you don’t have a book deal in hand is up to you, but it’s unlikely to make a difference to the person you’re consulting, unless they’re deeply invested in having their name in the acknowledgements of a published book.
In general, when consulting someone whose expertise stems from their life experiences, it goes a long way if you can show that you did other research first. This will also help you to trim your list of questions to only ones that can’t be answered any other way, which respects the expert’s time. So read books written by sex workers, watch documentaries that are well regarded by people who work in that field, and otherwise do your homework. Then find someone who seems generally friendly and available (perhaps someone who’s interviewed in one of those books or documentaries) and has directly relevant knowledge (so if you want to know what it’s like to act in adult movies, don’t consult an escort with no acting experience) and open with something like: “I’ve learned a lot from A and B and C, but I still have a few specific questions about Q and R, and was wondering whether I could hire you as a consultant.”
There is certainly a difference between consulting a hematologist and consulting a sex worker, because it’s much more common for people to treat sex workers as though they’re public property and otherwise be rude and inconsiderate to them. But if you approach them respectfully, establish what kinds of questions they’d be willing to answer and what’s out of bounds, ask what they’d charge for their time, provide clear statements about your own intentions (for example, do you want to interview them for an hour or hire them to beta read your whole manuscript?), and generally behave in a sensible and professional fashion, I’m sure you will find many people who will be very happy to chat with you or direct you to other resources.