By M.O. Yuksel
This was especially true prior to being agented and contracted for my first book, In My Mosque, in 2019. Two years earlier, I was working on my picture book biography, One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University, and I had to contact experts to help me find answers to some questions.
Before each outreach, the ever-sneaky imposter syndrome would creep in, challenging me with questions like: There’s no guarantee your manuscript is going to get published, why waste their time being interviewed? You’re not an author, you’re not a professional, how are you going to introduce yourself? What if you ask the wrong questions, or the obvious ones, and embarrass yourself? This brutal echo chamber of self-doubt and imposter syndrome clamored in my head.
But I had to remind myself that many people go through spells of doubt. Even iconic authors like Maya Angelou experienced imposter syndrome.
“Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad…I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.”
~ Maya Angelou.
Fortunately, my passion to share the story of Fatima al-Fihri, a trailblazing visionary woman, outweighed my fears and doubts and kept me going. If I was going to get my research done and my story written, revised, and ready to submit to editors, I had to silence my negative self-talk, face my fears, and reach out to experts, even without an agent or a guarantee of publication.
So, here are some things I did that may be helpful for you as well:
1. Reference librarians are a gold mine of information. Contact local public libraries. Some universities offer library privileges to their alumni. Check to see if your library offers in-person or online access.
2. Research and read everything on your topic. I scoured through books, magazine and newspaper articles, websites, conference papers, podcasts, and documentaries.
3. Make a list of questions, and anything that needs clarification.
4. As you’re researching, make a list of anyone who you think might be most knowledgeable about the questions you have.
5. Here are some ways to find experts in your area of research:
a. Look at the acknowledgments section of the book.
b. Note any experts being cited or mentioned in sources like articles and documentaries.
c. Notice which experts are presenting at conferences, and workshops.
d. Make a list of university departments pertaining to your research topic. For One Wish, I reached out to departments of North African Studies, Near Eastern Studies, and Middle East Studies at different universities not only in the U.S. but also in Morocco and Turkey.
e. If it’s relevant to your topic, make a list of museums, professional associations, and historical sites.
6. Once you’ve done all your background research and homework, it’s time to contact your list of experts.
I was happy to find out that most scholars and experts will gladly share their knowledge and area of specialization gratis, but it’s nice to do the following:
- Offer to acknowledge them in your book.
- Get permission to acknowledge them once you receive an offer of publication; not everyone wants to be named.
- Send them a copy of the book once it’s published.
So, did I find an expert?
With stacks of research, and various drafts of One Wish, I started making cold calls, sending dozens of emails, and contacting referrals. After weeks, and in some instances months of waiting and receiving “we can’t help you” emails, I finally got a positive response.
Matthew Schumann, who was a graduate student at Princeton University at the time of my research in 2017, responded with an encouraging message. He had lived in Fez, Morocco for several years, was defending his Ph.D. dissertation on North African studies, and he was more than happy to answer my questions. Yay!
A few months later, Dr. Fatima Sidiqi at Fez University in Fez, Morocco also replied. She was excited about the topic of Fatima al-Fihri and was willing to help me. What serendipity to find an expert by the namesake of my main character, Fatima, who is also the Director of Women’s Studies at Fez University. I was ecstatic to have not one but two experts to work with.
As I was writing and revising One Wish, more questions popped up, more facts needed clarification, and more resources were needed as I dug deeper into the topic. Over a period of three long years, I contacted Matthew Schumann and Dr. Sidiqi many times, and they generously helped me. And over these years, the strangers I was anxiety-ridden about contacting became my close friends. I’m eternally indebted to them and acknowledged them in One Wish.
For my debut picture book, In My Mosque, I didn’t have to do as much intense and extensive research as I did for my picture book biography. But I did want to make sure the manuscript was factually accurate. So, I reached out to scholars Imam Khalid Latif, University Chaplain for New York University, whom I had previously met at Friday prayers at N.Y.U., and Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Chair of Islamic Studies at Huron University, whom I met at a conference. They weren’t complete strangers, and much easier to contact for help.
Give It a Try
To overcome imposter syndrome and contact experts with confidence, imagine your manuscript is acquired by a publisher, and you have a revision deadline to meet. Ask yourself what fears and hurdles would you be willing to overcome to meet the deadline?
Now, give yourself a deadline and tell a friend or two to help keep you accountable.
Once you’ve completed steps 1-5, move onto step 6 – reach out to your list of experts.
Then, as you wait for replies and leads, celebrate stepping out of your comfort zone because, as writers, we’re going to do this again and again; each time, hopefully, becoming more comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Meet the Author:
M.O. Yuksel is usually on the soccer field cheering for her kids, or traveling to exotic places, and immersing herself in the local culture when she’s not writing about little-known heroes and diverse cultures. She’s the award-winning author of In My Mosque, illustrated by Hatem Aly, and upcoming picture book biography One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University, illustrated by Mariam Quraishi. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked in the education field for over twenty years as an administrator and a teacher. Visit her online at www.moyuksel.com.