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.
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.
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.
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.
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.