Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Other Side of the Reference Desk: A Writer Puts on Her Librarian Hat

So let’s say your main character’s parents own a funeral home and a single engine prop Cessna airplane. They just learned that the body of dearly departed Great Aunt Wilma is 500 miles away. Poor Wilma died while dancing the tango at the Professional Elvis Impersonator’s Convention. Even though the weather looks grim, Mom is going to hop in the plane to bring Aunt Wilma home. (Of course she promises to be back in time for your main character’s big soccer game).

Sound plausible? Well, I have a few questions. First does a body fit into a single prop engine Cessna? Would a mortician fly a plane with an impending storm? Would Aunt Wilma really get one last airplane ride? And would she still be dressed as Elvis?

If someone came into my library with these questions, I’d tell them to contact the Flying Funeral Directors of America. This is an association for licensed airplane pilots who are also in the funeral industry. According to their blurb, the organization enables members “to participate in two activities which are very much a part of their lives: funeral services and aviation.” I suspect that one of the 100 members of this group would have some answers.

I’ve found answers to some of my most challenging reference questions by contacting associations, like the Flying Funeral Directors of America. I’m amazed at how generous people are with their time and knowledge.

There’s an association for everything. They exist for professions, hobbies, fan clubs, medical problems, trades, sports, unions, governments, religious affiliations, ethnic groups, patriotic groups, veteran’s organizations, cultural groups..the list goes on. You can find over 150,000 of them in The Encyclopedia of Associations (Gale Publishing Group, Detroit). This multi-volume treasure is available in many libraries and is a favorite of librarians.

As a writer, I use the Encyclopedia of Associations as a starting point for my research. When I needed to know what jails were like in the Mississippi Delta in 1926, I made a phone call to American Jails Association. In one twenty-minute conversation, I learned about jails in the twenties, about the current size of the jail in my own county and about a sheriff in the 1800’s who believed that his prisoners could exist solely on a diet of tomato juice. I also received a few complementary issues of American Jails magazine. For another story, I needed to know what could make a pet squid sick. A quick email to the American Malacological Society and I had an answer.

Here are a few hints when contacting associations:

*Be respectful of the person’s time. I write down my questions beforehand to try to keep them brief.

*When you call an association, try to get past the receptionist. Introduce yourself, tell him what you’re looking for and ask if there’s someone who can answer a few quick questions.

*If the association specialist doesn’t have the answers, ask for suggestions about where else you can look. A knowledgeable person in an association can often point you in the right direction.

Next time you’re in your library, take a look at the Encyclopedia of Associations. It's a great resource for writers.

Oh and regarding Aunt Wilma, I have one more question. Do they really dance the tango at Elvis Conventions? Let's check with the Association of Elvis Impersonators.

This is the first of a series. Every Wednesday, there will be a post about fun, quirky, useful resources for writers. Look for future posts on databases vs Google (trust me, it's more interesting than it sounds), the invisible web and very cool reference books. Hope you'll check back.


Anna Staniszewski said...

Wow, the Encyclopedia of Associations sounds like such a handy resource. This is a great idea for a series of posts!

nanmarino said...

Anna, it's my all time favorite resource. Glad you like the idea for the series. Thanks for stopping by.

cleemckenzie said...

Loved this, Nan. As always you made me laugh.

Rebecca Stead said...

Nan, I will say it again -- you are a goddess. Encyclopedia of Associations!

kathleen duey said...

I *love* research and it makes me happy to add new infosources to my lists. THANKS!

Someone asked me recently if I ever did research when writing fantasy. OF COURSE!!!

nanmarino said...

Thanks Lee!

Rebecca, Information goddess. Hmmm. Not a bad title. But this one is used by librarians all the time. It's one of our go-to resources.

Kathleen, Yes! Of course! Research is necessary for any genre. Glad the Encyclopedia of Associations made your list.

S A Putnam said...

Thanks for posting this, Nan. I'm really looking forward to your series :)