Who You Gonna Call?


The other day, I sent Faith an email. “If I stabbed someone just above the collarbone and managed to cut the aorta, would he be able to speak? And would the bleeding from that wound be gouts of pumping blood, or a slow flow?” I was looking for a way to kill a man that would result in him dying a certain way, in a certain amount of time. Not a real, flesh and blood man, of course, but one who exists only on paper. Even though he wasn’t a real guy, I needed his death to sound real. I could have used my Google-fu to search for the answer, but the question I had was so specific that it would have taken a long time of reading web pages, and I was in the middle of a scene. I didn’t especially want to stop and do research at that moment. Luckily I knew Faith, who not only has worked in the medical field for many years but also wrote mysteries for almost as many. If anyone could give me a quick answer, she could. And she did. She called, and we had a lovely chat about where to stab for maximum bleedout. Hopefully Homeland Security isn’t watching my email for terrorist threats, and if they are, I hope they’re listening to my phone conversations, too, so they understand that I was not actually intending to murder anyone who lives in the real world.

Yesterday David spoke about networking at cons and conferences in order to promote your work. There’s another aspect of networking, one that starts long before you’re ever ready to sell your book, and one that you’ll continue to use long after you’ve become a working writer. Take a look inside the book you’re reading. Odds are, there’s an acknowledgments page in there, a page on which the author thanks the people who helped make the book what it is. They might thank friends and family members, their editors and agents, but they’ll also express gratitude for things like the effects of hallucinogens, and every piranha’s Achilles heel. Such a seemingly odd comment, but it’s directed at the person who had expert knowledge about some detail of the story the writer didn’t, someone who could answer those awkward questions every author must ask at some point, in order to get the story right. It’s possible you already have those experts in your life. Your sister the engineer can tell you what happens if you dig too deep in a field that’s at sea-level. Your deer-hunting cousin can explain how a buck behaves and the difference between a compound and composite bow. Off the top of my head, I can think of two medical professionals, two historians, a programmer, an engineer, a seamstress, a quilter, a couple of kayakers, an equestrian, a professional belly dancer, a midwife, several amateur sword and armor enthusiasts, and more pirates than I can count, all of whom I could call or email for clarification on what I might be writing.

Sometimes the story takes us to new places, places we’ve never been and where we have no friends handy to guide us. No worries. The first place to turn in this case would be the librarian. Unlike the common presentation of librarians as fusty old women determined to keep the library quiet at all costs, these days librarians are skillful information managers. They can help you find a book or a website with just the information you need. For many of them, your question becomes a challenge of the same type as any fantasy quest. The world depends on finding that answer, and the librarian will stick with it, sometimes even after you’ve left. I can’t tell you how many times I, as a librarian, would call a student down to the library hours after he’d initially come searching, to triumphantly produce the answer he’d needed. Sometimes it was online, and sometimes in a book, but I wouldn’t stop until I found it. I’ll bet your local librarian is equally tenacious.

If you’re looking for something less fact-based, like the feeling of sitting in a police car or the sound of an emergency room under alert, call those professionals. There’s nothing more annoying than reading a book in which all the procedures are performed incorrectly, which indicates the writer did nothing more than watch television or movies for her research. For many years, I had to keep my child and infant CPR certification current, and nothing gets under my skin like watching CPR done on the screen. They rarely do it right. Professionals in a field tend to love a chance to show you, the writer, how it really looks and feels. Need answers about how certain guns feel when you fire them? I’ll bet there’s at least one gun shop in the phone book, and the proprietor might even be able to arrange for you to visit a range. Want to know how horses behave in the stable at night? Again, call a local stable or riding academy. Most of the time experts are willing to answer reasonable questions and sometimes will offer opportunities for a little hands-on learning.

Real world information is useful if you’re writing a fantasy, so don’t assume no one can help you just because you’re writing in a made-up world. Medical professionals can help you understand how fast your zombie protagonist will decay, which is a good thing to know if he has a job to do before he falls apart. A meteorologist can describe the damage after a sudden windstorm caused by an overeager sorcerer’s apprentice. An historian can explain the workings of the typical feudal court, to help you design your own royal intrigues. Wondering if your 5’2″ heroine can wield a claymore? Go to an SCA demonstration, and you can find out quickly (actually you’ll leave with more information than you can ever use – SCA people love to share!)

Most important of all, when your book hits print, don’t forget to say thank you.


14 comments to Who You Gonna Call?

  • So true. So true. Especially the part about librarians. In doing research about some local history for a novel a few years back, my librarian not only helped me find exactly what I was looking for, she also said, “Do you think this might help too?” Turned out to be a primary source of local military records from the civil war. Blew me away. Not only would I never have found that without her, but I never would have thought to look for it.

  • I would like to apologize for my badly constructed sentences and paragraphs, as well as the typos. “Before Caffeine” writing is just not good.

    Edited version:
    I couldn’t agree more. I was having a problem killing my victim creatively. I brought up my problem at Thanksgiving Dinner. It became the general discussion and I was amazed at the number of creative ideas that were generated. They even figured out the plan’s most likely weaknesses, so I my murderer could get caught. I didn’t use their entire idea, but they sure helped.

  • Misty, nothing makes me happier than a pal needing to know how best to kill someone in a believable way. (Yeah, I know how that sounds.)

    I detest it when a writer didn’t do his homework. I read a book once where a character was given a drink with ground-up glass in it, and then he started bleeding through his kidneys. I mean, come ON! Call a doctor! Look at a basic anatomy chart! And a human tongue can feel something millimeters in size (ie ground up glass.) Arrrrrrg! Honest mistakes are one thing. This was laziness. I never read anything by that guy again because he’s a lazy writer.

    I’ve had libraians do the most amazing research for me, request books from some far-off library so I could study them, and like Stuart’s experience, offer far more useful info than I asked for — stuff I didn’t know I needed but somehow, she did.

    Non B, your holiday table sounds like mine! My sis-in-love is an OR tech and we get stuff going all the time! The men in our lives have learned to roll-eyes and talk golf or paddling. And *we* have learned how limit the gory details. A little.

  • The most fun is talking about such things in public. For a while, my old writing group met in a local coffee shop, and sometimes I would see customers staring at us as we discussed how hard it would be to decapitate someone with a wire garotte. 😀

  • (laughing) And somehow all the tables near us would empty of other coffee drinkers…

  • Yeah, I have a few people I can ask certain things of and others I can bounce ideas off of for the sake of plausibility. I did wish I’d known someone much more knowledgeable about pirates and the age of sail at the time I was writing Arrgh! Thar Be Zombies! Still, I did learn quite a bit on my own through the library, reenactor websites, and buying various books. Probably have more random pirate knowledge now than anyone should ever have in their noggin. Ended up spouting some of that randomness just the other day.

    I know first hand what it feels like to have a perforated bowel, so I don’t need to ask anyone for how debilitating that wound can be. Know what it’s like to be stabbed in the calf too, which made me wonder how heroes get shot in the leg and continue to take on the enemy single handed. O_O 😉

  • Daniel, I’ve probably mentioned this before, but in the original draft of Mad Kestrel, I had her climbing a ship’s ladder a couple of hours after dislocating her shoulder. I figured once it was popped back into joint, everything would be okay, yeah?

    Then my husband dislocated his shoulder for real, and I learned how wrong I was. I rewrote the scene as soon as I had a chance. 😀

  • Spot on, Misty. Thanks for this. My mystery/thrillers are very research heavy because I’m really only a dabbler in the places, histories, cultures and–especially–archaeology I write about. Like you, books and web searches can only give me so much and eventually I find myself looking up scholars and other professionals through their work places and begging for a little inside information. I’ve gone cap in hand to some of the most important archaeologists and anthropologists in the country with my bone headed (sometimes literally) questions and found them almost always helpful, responsive and interested. Some even read my work before it goes to press to catch errors. Specialists like to see their subject matter handled well in fiction, and while you may have to modulate what they offer in the interest of character/drama etc. they’ve proved invaluable to me. And yes, I always thank them!

  • Don’t be afraid to tell people you’re a writer doing research. I’ve had more strange doors opened to me, by some of the most fascinating people, by saying little more than “Tell me more about what you do, I’m a writer.” Even if you’re not published, just tell them you’re working on a book. If it’s true, that’s all you need to say. Don’t equivocate; don’t say wishy-washy things like “I’ve never been published, but…” Just tell the truth — if you’re working on writing a book or story, you’re a writer, right? Then be prepared to step back as the information comes gushing forth. And in the rare event that it doesn’t, say thanks and move along. It’s no more complicated than that.

  • “Librarians are the secret masters of the world. They control information. Don’t ever piss one off.”
    —Spider Robinson

    One of the local hospitals had a 24-hour line for calling in medical questions: 24-NURSE. I phoned in questions about symptoms of fungal infections, stages of rigor mortis, and the effects or various -um- medications. I always told them I was a writer doing research, and they were more than happy to help. They got to know me quite well.

  • So first, I would have said that the aorta would bleed out fast and that he would have been able to talk. Though I would have gone for the Femoral artery to really bleed fast. Though I had a friend who was a Navy Seal who said that when they would kill, they would stand behind a guy, stab through the throat in front of the neck and push outward with the blade and sever everything–jugular, carotids and throat. Quick death, no talking.

    I’m wondering what you and faith came up with. Care to share a little?

    I have a friend I consulted on taking an eye out without breaking it. turns out that bleeds a lot, and itches a lot. Who knew?

  • I don’t know what Misty used, but I suggested that with bad guy standing behind, with a central downward stab, the aortic arch might well be hit, the trachea damaged and the loss of blood pressure would be so fast he’d get little sai. She needed conversation and a time lag. So I suggest she move the blade to the side, mid clavicular, make it doule bladed, stab just behind the collar bone, down, severing the nerves feeding the arm and the subclavian artery, which would give her gouts of pumping blood, slower drop in BP, extream pain, and time to chat. But likely fatal if not in close proximity to a major trauma center and a really good surgeon. Nasty way to die.

  • I have friends who are librarians and I’ve called on them a couple of times. 🙂 Very cool post.

    Also: note to self: perhaps I ought be careful of reading MW before bed… 😀

  • As Faith just said, that’s what I chose to do. I needed the victim to be able to talk for a minute or so. Not a dying monologue (those annoy me!), just a couple of sentences. 😀 Now on to more mayhem!