Thursday, 30 March 2017

Subject Matter Experts - a present help in time of ignorance

I've spoken before about the value of personal experience in writing. In Write What You Know - What it Really Means (27 February, 2017) I talked about this, and how there is no substitute for it for writing grainy, realistic fiction.

Personal experience is the best way.

There are, however, situations where it's impossible to gain direct personal experience in any meaningful way. You cannot, for example, take ten or so years to study medicine, qualify as a doctor and undertake a surgical residency just to add texture to your operating-theatre scene. That is, of course you can, but it would be silly; the investment won't give you a sufficient return, especially if it is just for a one-off short story or novella.

As I said last month, this kind of situation is where you use your contacts. But I didn't really go into much detail about how to use them. How to find them in the first place, and how to make the best use of them when you do. That's what we're going to talk about today. If you do not have an InfoTech background, you may not be familiar with the term Subject Matter Expert. This is a person who is seconded, at least part-time, to a big project in order to provide specialist knowledge of a particular area of the business.

Finding your SME

The first thing is to locate one of these helpful individuals in the first place. There are two criteria that must be satisfied here: a SME must a) have a lot of knowledge in the subject field, and b) be willing to give you a bit of his time. Here are some of the starting points.

University Lecturers.

A lot of people not in the academic world don't realise how academics love to be consulted. If you need help with something historical, or scientific, for example, do try ringing up the appropriate faculty at a good university. I've found these people endlessly helpful. Many academics of the better sort see themselves as a kind of 'knowledge trust' for the wider community, are delighted when someone consults them and will go to enormous lengths to help you.

The Police

If you're a crime writer, a police contact is invaluable for matters of procedure. I've had mixed results with cold-calling approaches. Departments that have any kind of public education/community relations focus tend to be very approachable and helpful. Some departments, however, can be surprisingly paranoid and hostile. A lot will depend on the morale of your particular police force. Try Facebook first - the police who are responsible for maintaining Facebook pages are already oriented towards contact with the community. If your need is for a specialist area of police work, they may be able to give you a contact, too. 


Writing about medical things is full of pitfalls

Doctors can be rather difficult. I've only really had success with the ones in my personal circle of acquaintance. However, they're sufficient to my needs. Vets tend to be more helpful. Don't forget that everything is a resource. You may not have any vet contact connected with your writing, but your family vet probably knows you pretty well. Also, don't overlook the vast body of knowledge the nurses have. They are likely to have more time to chat on the phone, too.

Mediaeval stuff

Mediaevalists can be very helpful when one's writing fantasy

Don't forget the SCA. SCA members are intensely dedicated and are an absolute fountainhead of useful information. They can be found on Facebook too. This is not just useful for historical fiction, but also for a lot of fantasy, which is traditionally set in mediaeval-type worlds. They're a friendly lot and easy to approach.


Every state, or region, will have something called the Law Society, Law Institute etc. They're usually pretty approachable. Contact these organisations to be put in touch with someone practising the particular field of law in which you're interested. Don't overlook law students, either. Third-year law students know a fair bit of law, and they're often keen to do research on arcane points. They can often be found on old-fashioned bulletin boards. Your local MP may very well be a lawyer too; they often are, and he is going to be keen to suck up to you, especially if there is an election coming up.


Never pass up the opportunity to make a new acquaintance.

Every person is the centre of a vast network of individuals. Each of these individuals is the gateway to another vast network. Never underestimate this. You have access to far, far more specialised knowledge that you may realise. For example, a man I'm friendly with in the dog world is a psychiatric nurse. Our local grocer is Indian. He's also a Buddhist. One of the people who goes to my church is a retired police detective. My immediate neighbours in town include a retired haematologist, two retired missionaries, a physiotherapist and a management consultant. In the country, I've got publicans on one side and a nurse and a retired train driver on the other. And that's just my geographical vicinity, without even starting on Facebook, the dance studio, all my friends, etc. Keep expanding your personal network. Not just to use people, of course. Every new person you know enlarges your world. And make a note of things people tell you. For example, I can get my dance teacher to read over anything set in the dance world, but I also know that his father is a fluent Gaelic speaker. And that is just one facet of one person.


Maintaining the Relationship

Once you have found a good SME, you will want to give some attention to maintaining your relationship with him or her. This basically means not wearing out your welcome. There are two facets to this.


Don't waste your SME's time.

The time to consult your SME is only when you need to. This means that you have done what you could to find the information you need yourself. Ideally, you'll have at least drafted an answer to your question. Don't be pestering a busy person all day. 

When you do need to contact your SME, organise the things you want to know into a logical structure before you make the call. And speaking of 'making the call', try not to call - use email wherever you can. It's asynchronous, and you will not be interrupting a busy person, and you will be doing him the courtesy of leaving him to respond in his own time.

Appreciate your SME.

Do not ignore your SME as soon as he has given you what you wanted. That is the fastest way I know to wear out your welcome. ALWAYS THANK HIM NICELY. And don't just belt out a cursory 'thank you'. Say something personal and individual about the help he's given you. 

When your book is published, if you've had an SME who's contributed substantially, send him a copy of the paperback. With a nice inscription in the front thanking him for his help. And be sure to mention him in the acknowledgements. Again, don't just cursorily mention his name, but say a little bit about the help he was to you. Most lay people will get a huge kick out of this.

Always give your SME a copy of the finished book

The Nuts and Bolts.

As I've said, you don't want to be ringing up your SME and wasting his whole morning rambling on with your questions. So do by all means boil down what you need to know into a succinct email. 

The second point where your SME comes in is after you've finished your first draft. Once you have completed your story, novel, or perhaps just a part of it - for example, in one of my books there was just one chapter that dealt with my protagonist being arrested, but the rest of the book had nothing to do with police - a good use of your SME is to ask him to read over your material and comment about whether you have 'got anything wrong'. Do limit what you are asking your SME to read to only what is relevant to his field. Remember, a busy person is giving you his time. And once you've sent it to him, don't be like that little kid in the car going 'are we there yet'? If he doesn't get back to you as quickly as you had hoped, you need to suck it up. Do not follow up unless you haven't heard back from him for a couple of weeks.

The Feedback

At this point, you must be prepared to take it on the chin. Remember that the reason you are consulting this guy is that he knows all about intergalactic widgets or whatever, and you don't. Usually you'll get small corrections, but sometimes you have really got something fundamentally wrong. I recently took an enormous bollocking from my doctor and vet SMEs with a story I had written with a lot of medical content. Both the doctor and the vet schooled me righteously. The symptoms I had given the patient were completely inconsistent with the location of the tumour. It was rather disheartening, as a great deal of my story must now be rewritten. But think how infinitely worse it would be to publish something like that. Then consider the sheer magnitude of the benefit those SMEs are conferring on you.

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