A screenwriter on #scriptchat asked for help in approaching experts and I felt this was worth expanding on for other writers:
Whatever your story, it’s well worth spending a little time and effort speaking to the best experts in the area – from divorce to the side-effects of digitalis. Their knowledge can solve plot problems, enrich characters, generate dialogue and create fresh and unsuspected twists. But how do you get them on your side?
First, you have to realise that experts have no duty to help you. If they do so, it’s purely out of good will. Look for relevant experts in university departments, private firms and on the web. Look into the authors of authoritative books, newspaper and magazine articles. You can contact them through the publishers, or look them up online. They will often have their own web sites and Facebook profiles.
Google them before you make your first contact. Ensure you are clear on what their expertise is – and isn’t. Don’t, for example, approach a podiatrist for information on child health or a pediatrician about feet. Be aware of their CV and make a note about their personal details, if only to avoid accidentally stepping on something painful!
I generally prefer to phone first if possible, following up with an email, though it frequently works out the other way around. In both phone call and email, keep it short and professional and make the key points (adapt to your own wording):
1. You’re writing a fictional film (TV drama, novel…)
2. You prefer writers who get their facts correct and believe most audiences are the same (this shows respect for their area of expertise – you may indeed be writing a gross-out comedy, but you still want to get the details of the recreational drugs right…!)
3. Repeat that it’s fiction – and that therefore everything they say is confidential and for deep background. You’re not interested in digging dirt or betraying confidences. (Many experts have experience of journalists who can’t be trusted, and it’s important to reassure them that you are not like that).
4. Suggest they may like to do this over a cup of tea/lunch/on skype at their convenience (the precise means will depend on geography, but I leave it as open as possible so that they can choose what’s best for them. If there are consumables, I would expect to pay. I would also expect to avoid expensive restaurants unless there is no alternative!)
5. Briefly note any relevant experience. (Don’t lie about your CV, but obviously make yourself sound as professional as possible).
Dealing with the replies
Most experts are very busy at what they are expert in, so you may need to be patient. Always be polite (even if they aren’t) and take no to mean no. Experts talk to each other and if you annoy one you may find others slamming the door too.
Perservere and in the end, you will make good contacts – contacts which may stay with you for years. Many experts are happy to talk for hours on their favourite subject, giving you ideas you could never have found elsewhere – and doing it for nothing more than the fun of it. Just remember to thank them afterwards.
And when you get to pitch the finished script, the ability to drop a few important names won’t go amiss either.
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