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.