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Corresponding with the Experts

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As a reader, I’m willing to suspend disbelief to great extent, thereby granting license to Writer Jane to take liberties and push, even shred, the envelope in order to tell the story and entertain me. But Jane has a certain responsibility to get it right. I expect her to make at least a minimum effort to get right the facts of how things are or were, however mundane those facts may be. No matter the genre.

Yet few among us are polymaths, well-versed experts in a wide range of fields. The good news is, we don’t have to be; there are plenty of experts out there. Even better news is, they want to talk to us.

While working on my first novel, Brigands Key, I needed to cook up several lines of evidence regarding the identity of a dead body, and dental forensics was one of the lines. In particular, I needed to know about dentistry techniques and practices going back some seventy years or so. I thought it unwise, and somewhat beneath my station, to dig up corpses in the graveyard to personally examine dentition. So I instead did some Internet research to start with, without much luck. I then called my dentist, whom I’d been going to for years. Figured I’d start with a couple of basic questions and then move on to the real experts.

My dentist was delighted, and I scheduled a meeting with him at the close of his business day. As it turns out, I didn’t need to go farther. Doc was not only an excellent dentist, he was an expert on dental history and methods, as well as a dental forensics buff. He hauled out an impressive collection of antique dental tools that looked like implements of torture, and described their uses and the actual materials used in fillings in the 1930s. It was a treasure trove of information and I put it to good use in the plot.

It was the most enjoyable visit I’ve ever made to a dentist.

I furthermore needed a handle on how rural Florida towns manage medical examiner’s functions. The plot needed a way to keep that function kind of out of the way for several reasons. I emailed the Director of Investigations of the very medical examiner’s district in which my fictional town resided. Knowing his time was valuable, I wrote out a series of specific questions about how such an arrangement might operate slightly outside the norm of Florida official procedures. I received a prompt and equally detailed response to all my questions. Again, a trove of information. I got a breakdown of what ME’s usually see versus what hospitals see, staffing levels and composition, speed of test results, and so on. He clearly has chatted with writers before. I learned enough to be dangerous.

For my short story, “The Wreck of the Edinburgh Kate,” I needed to find out about 19th-century shipwreck and salvage law. Where in the heck do you go for that? As it happens, there are guardians of all sorts of arcane knowledge out there. I poked around on the Internet a bit and stumbled across a well-written article on just that subject. With a bit more digging, I scrounged up the author’s email address. I should be in the FBI. I emailed him carefully composed and direct questions, and received an extraordinarily detailed response from a leading expert on this matter. He laid out salvors and crews rights and responsibilities, Blackwall Rules, and court-enforced liens on maritime property. I retooled the story to jibe with these nuggets and got a result that was more than just guesswork. My correspondent even asked if he could read the story. I revised the story and sent it, he loved it, and furnished even more input on correcting this or that detail of the narrative.

So don’t be bashful. Find the experts. They’re out there, no matter how obscure the subject matter might be. And they’re flattered to be asked to help you write the Great American Novel.

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Ken Pelham’s debut novel, Brigands Key, won the 2009 Royal Palm Literary Award and was published in hardcover in 2012. The prequel, Place of Fear, a 2012 first-place winner of the Royal Palm, was released in 2013. His nonfiction book, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: A Writer’s Guide to Mastering Viewpoint, was named the RPLA 2015 Published Book of the Year. Ken lives with his wife, Laura, in Maitland, Florida. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers. Visit him at kenpelham.com.

10 Responses

  1. Sandra Elliot
    | Reply

    Great piece. Thanks for helping us push past the obvious.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Thank you, Sandra! Experts in all fields abound, so it only makes sense to consult them and make use of their knowledge.

  2. Nancy J. Cohen
    | Reply

    People are usually very flattered when you ask for their input. I consulted my insurance agent for Hair Brained coming out in September. He told me all about his office’s organizational structure and suggested different types of insurance fraud that I could use in my story. I hope I got it right. Sometimes I’ll give the expert the relevant pages to read. That helps ensure accuracy as well. Sounds like you did a lot of homework, Ken, and got some fascinating responses. I used my dentist, too, for protocols on biohazardous waste removal.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Thanks, Nancy! I agree, many are flattered and eager to share info on their expertise. It’s a good habit to give them credit as well.

  3. Chris Coward
    | Reply

    Useful! It’s easy for any writer to become addicted to Google. How much better to deal directly with an expert. Plus, an expert’s enthusiasm inevitably shines through the story it bolsters. Thanks, Ken.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Thanks, Chris! I admit to Googling topics to start research, but I try to use it mostly as a starting point. And being picky on the sites that pop up. If you look for the .org or .edu websites (especially the latter), you can have at least a degree of comfort in the info you find. They tend to have to pass muster of academic institutions. And I always look for corroborating sites. As I mentioned in the blog, web searches can be valuable in actually tracking down the real experts.

  4. Teresa TL Bruce
    | Reply

    Thanks for sharing your successful experiences, Ken. You’ve made it clear that respectful, personal contact with experts will elevate our writing. Your examples (and humor) make the prospect of reaching out seem less intimidating and more accessible.

    By the way, good call on setting up that appointment for your “most enjoyable visit” to your dentist instead of digging into firsthand examinations of long-buried…practices.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Thanks, Teresa TL!
      Every so often I make the right choice. Shunning unauthorized exhumations has turned out to be among my better choices.

  5. Tara
    | Reply

    Great point! Same was true when I was a journalist. If you’re tapping into someone’s passion, they are often more than happy to sit down and share every aspect of it. And we get to the be the beneficiaries of their interest. So cool. Shared your post.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Thanks, Tara! We always expect persons to be a bit put out to be asked to talk about things they do, and certainly there are those that will be. But I’ve found just the opposite to be true the vast majority of the time.

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