Expert advice

Expert advice

Heather M. O’Connor

When Richard Scrimger came to Turning Leaves a couple of years ago, he told us, “Writers are liars and thieves.”

He meant, of course, that the best stories are partly made up, and partly built on stolen bits of real life. Readers want to believe your lies. You can tell the most outrageous whoppers, from a theme park with cloned dinosaurs to a school for wizards. As long as the stolen bits ring true.

Steal what you know, research what you don’t

Take my novel Betting Game, for instance. It’s the story of an elite soccer player who gets mixed up with illegal gambling.

I could lie and steal with panache about soccer. I play. My kids play. I watch the sport on TV. But illegal gambling? That was a central part of my novel’s plot and characters, and I didn’t know a thing about it. Nada. Zip. How could I make my story believable?

Who ya gonna call?

I needed a subject matter expert. Someone in the biz. But not the gambling biz. A “reliable narrator” if you know what I mean. Someone in law enforcement. It took time to track down an expert, but what he told me was invaluable.

Looking for an expert of your own? Here are the steps to follow.

Go surfing

Begin your search online. I started by studying news stories. Who was quoted on the topic? Who went to court?

Your expert may speak at industry events and conferences. Check continuing education classes and LinkedIn, too.

network of peopleTap your network

Have you asked your friends and family if they know an expert? I was stunned to learn that one of my teammates was once a CSI investigator in New York City. (She now teaches forensic science and invited me to a crime scene class. Coolest writer field trip ever!)

Don’t forget your local librarians—they’re walking encyclopedias.

Do a little diggingman-1483479_1920

Once you locate subject matter experts, don’t waste their time. Pick your own brains before you pick theirs.

Prepare a list of open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer. Try to think up a couple of questions they may never have answered.

Email your questions and a short synopsis of your story a day or two before the interview. This gives the person time to mull over answers and think of interesting anecdotes.

Don’t be shy

Relax. Chatting with a subject matter expert is easier than it looks.

People like talking about their jobs. Though they find their work fascinating, their friends and family may not. You provide a rare treat—an enthusiastic audience.

office-336368_1920Take note!

I prefer to interview in person or by phone. People have more to say when they don’t need to write it all down. You also have a chance to ask follow-up questions when you’re talking live. Email interviews are very limiting. They’re best for confirming facts.

I usually record my interviews, as long as there’s no objection. Most smartphones have an app for that. I also take detailed notes.

Say thank you

Remember to thank your expert for taking the time to share their knowledge and expertise. Send a thank you note. If their help was significant, include them in the acknowledgements, and consider sending them a copy of your book.

Holding History in My Hands

Holding History in My Hands

My great-great-great-grandfather, Edward R. Umfreville, wrote a book about The Hudson’s Bay Company. An exposé by an 18th-century whistleblower, my ancestor’s book was a bestseller.

And what is even more amazing is that The Present State of the Hudson’s Bay, published 1790 in London, England, is still in libraries.

1024px-Library_and_Archives_CanadaWell…in certain libraries. I’m delighted to say it is housed in Library and Archives Canada (LAC), a short walk in Ottawa from the Parliament Buildings and the Supreme Court of Canada. But LAC is not much like your neighbourhood library.

Not your ordinary library

Our national library and archives provides “services to members of the public who wish to consult the documents of its collection or order photocopies and reproductions.” Researchers don’t even need to visit. Indeed, almost all of their material is accessible online—I’ve read Umfreville’s book several times that way. But I was going to Ottawa on a trip and I wanted to actually see the darn thing.

I called the library and the helpful voice of Natalie confirmed the book was there but cautioned that I was outside request timelines of 7 days. Nonetheless, she helped me put in my order request and wished me luck.

Planning to visit the Library and Archives Canada?

Here are the protocol basics:

  • Pre-register online for a user number; you need it to clear Security
  • Step into the impressive first floor foyer — all marble and a great high ceiling and lots of windows pouring in light everywherenlc011725-v6
  • Stop at Security to show your ID, sign in, lock up stuff in little lockers, and put all pens and pencils and notebooks into clear plastic bags to carry with you. (I was allowed to also carry my purse and cell phone separately and not in plastic bags.)
  • Take the elevators up one floor to visit Reception in a glass-walled room off the main hallway to have the user card checked
  • Up one more floor to the glass-walled Special Collections admin room (it had a velvet rope queue area outside the entry and a sign: Wait to be called in before entering.)

It was here that I got the bad news. My 4-day request to have the book brought in from storage hadn’t been in time. (darn deadlines—ever the writer’s bane.)

At heart, all libraries are the same

But here is where Library and Archives Canada is exactly like a community library. The woman in admin suggested I go to the Special Collections room and ask the staff there. “You never know,” she said. (How many times have we writers benefited from the suggestions and guidance of library staff?)

Special Collections is a huge room, brightly lit by a full wall of windows and fairly sparsely furnished. Two or three office desks were spaced apart against the window wall and three or four very long worktables sat apart in the middle. A man was sorting through a box of index-type cards at the far end. He wore white cotton gloves. Gulp, I thought; no way will they let me even breathe on Umfreville’s book.

The two staff—a pair of lovely women—searched the shelves in the room. If my book was there, it would be with my name attached. Nope. No Walker treasures waiting. I was ready to give up when one of the women asked me, “Is this a rare book?”

Librarians are a writer’s friend

“Yes,” I replied. “I assume so. It’s over 225 years old.”

20160624_103339“Ah, it probably is held off site,” she said. “Let me look back here and see if it’s arrived.”  As she opened a side door, I caught a glimpse of locked wire cages with shelves of boxes and file boxes behind the wire.

They came out smiling, one of them holding a book-sized sturdy cardboard container. On the spine of the container: Umfreville The Present State of The Hudson’s Bay. And inside, wrapped in protective beige paper, an original copy of my great-great-great-grandfather’s book.

Time travel is possible

Thank you Natalie. Your kindness when I called just four days before arriving meant that I didn’t have to travel back to Ottawa to hold history—my history—in my hands. And it is because of the determined staff in Special Collections that I could turn those pages (without gloves!) to gain insights I’d missed in the online version.20160624_104156

Watch for a later post on what THAT experience felt like and what it meant for the book I’ll be writing in the months ahead.

A Newbie’s Guide to Book Conferences

A Newbie’s Guide to Book Conferences

Heather M. O’Connor. My publisher Orca Books recently invited me to sign copies of Betting Game at the Ontario Library Association (OLA) Super Conference.

“Me? Sign books at the OLA? Sure!” It’s the largest library conference and trade show in Canada.

A day or two before the big day, I felt like a preteen going to her first boy-girl party. What should I wear and bring? What are the signings like? What do I say?

I’ve gathered some super tips for preparing for and attending the OLA Super Conference. You can also use this advice to get the most out of other major book events, trade shows and conferences.

Be prepared

Check out the event website. You never know what you’ll find. (The OLA provided a cool photo frame for my pics.) Identify and use the conference hashtag, and add the conference app to your phone.

Read the program, even if you’re not attending the panels. Who is signing? Who is speaking? Maybe you’ll “bump into” that editor you want to meet.

Shout out on social media that you’re going, and ask who else is attending. If you’re signing books, announce the time and your publisher’s booth. Share news about other signings and events. If the conference has a Facebook group or event, join it.

What to wear

The default attire is business casual.

However, some authors add a little cosplay flair to their signings. Lena Coakley donned a prim Brontë-style bonnet to sign Worlds of Ink and Shadow at the OLA. Kari-Lynn Winters signed Bad Pirate in ARRR-some pirate gear at Reading for the Love of It, a big Toronto teachers’ conference.

Skip the high heels and opt for comfortable shoes. You’ll be on your feet for hours.

What to bring

A phone for taking and posting pics, following the program and connecting with friends. A watch. Business cards. A strong bag for carrying all the book loot.

Two reliable pens or Sharpie markers for signing, if you’re picky about your writing implements. (What writer isn’t?) Book swag, like bookmarks or buttons. My time slot was at the end of the day, so I offered a free draw to entice people to stick around.

Coffee for your publishing team—they can’t always get a break.

Meet the people

Conferences are the perfect place to network, do market research, and connect with writers and book-lovers. Strike up a conversation with your neighbour. Browse for books. Share a lunch table.

Librarians and teachers:

  • find out what their kids like to read and what they ask for
  • mention you do classroom visits, book clubs and programs
  • tell them about funding for author visits (more about that in a future post)
  • swap book recommendations

Publishers:

  • study the books they showcase at the booth–what are they selling?
  • find out which books they’re excited about and why
  • identify trends and ask market-related questions (when they’re not busy)
  • pick up catalogues and take advantage of a live peek at their books

Authors:

  • hang out with other writers and expand your tribe
  • observe experienced writers in action and ask their advice
  • promote other authors and their events–what goes around comes around
  • check out the event before you’re published so you come prepared
Schmooze dos and don’ts

DO take lots of pictures. Selfies. Signings. Capture the excitement, then share your pics on social media and your blog.

DON’T accept book giveaways or enter the free draws at conferences for librarians or teachers, no matter how tempting they look. You’ll take those resources away from classrooms and libraries.

Book signing tips

Check in with your publisher when you arrive, and return to the booth 10-15 minutes before your signing. It gives you time to stow your bag, straighten your clothes and thoughts, and think about what you want to write. Ask someone to take pictures.

Librarians and teachers are book people. They’re your fans. When they ask you to sign their book “For the students of XXX School,” you feel like a million bucks. I add a personal line, like “Always count on your team” or “Keep kicking!”

Make small talk. Find connections—a student who likes soccer books, a familiar school. If they seem interested, share interesting facts and valuable resources for your book, like extras on your website or an online teachers’ guide. Or mention you do school and library visits.

You feel like a rock star while you’re signing, but it’s over before you know it. Enjoy!

What are your tips for getting the most out of a big book event like the OLA Super Conference? Share them below.