I have some very smart friends. You might even call them experts, in a wide variety of fields. And that’s lucky for me, a writer and jack of all trades, but master of none. When I set out to write a story that requires knowledge of something about which I know little—kidnapping, say, or psychiatry—a Google search will only get me so far. Good thing I happen to know the right people.
Let me say right here that I believe the old saw “write what you know” can only be interpreted to mean “if you don’t know, you better find out”. The world of SFR would be a bleak one if we only wrote about what we had really experienced. None of us have actually been in space, after all, and I doubt seriously that any of us have encountered an alien in real life. In speculative fiction of all kinds, imagination must stand in for actual life experience. That doesn’t mean our stories shouldn’t be based on some kind of plausible scientific theory or grounded in solid human emotional behavior. That is what we should know before we write.
On the other hand, if you propose to write about organizations or cultures or norms here on Earth, best know what you’re writing about. So, research. And friends with experience.
|This isn't me, but, well, you get the idea--ask.|
The experts I go to for help with my novels are separate from my wonderful (and very patient) critique partners (thank you, Laurie and Sharon!). Critique partners or beta readers are there to make sure your writing is on track—characters consistent, plot holes filled, pacing lively. It’s not your editor’s job, either, to notice if your psychiatrist hero is crossing the line with his patient, though a good one might pick it up.
No, for that you need someone who knows about psychiatry. For my first book, Unchained Memory, Interstellar Rescue Book 1, in which the plot revolves around a psychiatrist and a woman with memories of alien abduction, I had to know just how far I could push their attraction while she was still his patient before it became unethical. Fortunately, my good friend Joyce was a psychiatric nurse for forty years. She read the manuscript, gave me advice and sent me material to read. Her feedback was invaluable, and is definitely the reason I’ve had very few objections to the story on that point over the years.
In Trouble in Mind, Interstellar Rescue Book 2, an FBI agent must team up with a half-alien tracker to solve a kidnapping here on Earth. Before I started, I needed to know all sorts of details about FBI agents—what kind of guns they carried, how they operated in the field, what resources they would rely on, etc. (Believe me, it’s tempting to think we know all this from watching cop shows on TV, but we don’t.) So, I sat down with my friend Robert, a former FBI special agent who had worked in the unit responsible for investigating kidnappings, and he gave me the lowdown. I learned, among other things, that kidnappings perpetrated by a stranger are rare in the U.S. That chilling factoid led to Ethan being considered a suspect for part of the book.
Fools Rush In, Interstellar Rescue Book 3, is set entirely in space, but I still needed some “expert” advice. Laurie did double duty here, reading the manuscript both as my critique partner and as my space tech advisor. Mostly she had to keep reminding me not to bleed Star Trek all over the pages.
In my latest WIP, Not Fade Away, Interstellar Rescue Book 4, my heroine is a nurse who works with the elderly father of my Rescue agent hero. She has a dog who accompanies her, working as her partner. I had originally envisioned Happy as a formally trained therapy dog, but I needed him to do some things plot-wise that are uncharacteristic for that kind of animal. My canine expert friend Beki pointed this out, requiring me to do some rethinking. Happy is on his way to becoming a companion dog with a talent for cozying up to old folks, but a dislike for my heroine’s mean ex-husband.
I hope that’ll work. Because, of course, if you ask for expert help, you should take the advice you’re given. Even if it’s sometimes painful.