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.