Subject Matter Experts

I was curious about how other authors go about finding subject matter experts so that I could write a more accurately? Recognizing my limitations, and knowing what I don’t know, I would love to be able to spitball ideas with people who are knowledgeable in areas where I am not. How do I find these people, specifically ones willing to offer advice and input? I hope that was as clear as mud!!

The Reference Desk forum at nanowrimo.org. Lots of knowledgeable people hang out there. For more detailed stuff the academic journal papers database.

Depends on the topic. But generally speaking, most people love to talk about their work. Finding experts is easier than getting them to shut up.

Local universities are a good place to start, even for topics that you may not think of as “academic.” For example, there’s all kinds of interesting work going on at the intersection of engineering and anthropology. People building barges like those used to transport the pieces of Stonehenge, people experimenting with ancient metallurgical techniques, that sort of thing.

For big employer job-related information – police procedures, operating room procedures, that sort of thing – try the public relations office of an organization that does that job. For small businesses, find a local business like that, go in when they aren’t busy, and chat with the owner.

Also, be curious about the people around you.

Katherine

Katherine,

Thank you for your advice on this matter, it was much appreciated. I am writing military science fiction, so I am trying to bulk on my understanding of space and physics. I don’t need the science to be spot on, just close enough to be believable. And while I served as an infantry sergeant, I understand that that doesn’t qualify me to fill General Patton’s boots so I was going to look for someone to double check my strategic thinking as needed. Plus, space navies… I was Army, so thinking like a sailor is like trying to walk on my hands while playing the bagpipes in a rain storm… Comical in the best of times. Glad to know that most would be willing to offer advice, I thought that that might be problematic. Guess I will fire up the ole Google Box when I am ready and start making calls.

Michael

My experience of these things is that you don’t have to know about specialist subject matter. You just have to seem as if you know about it. So confidence plus informal knowledge - for instance, anecdotes, quirky facts, judiciously-placed slugs of information - are much more valuable to an author than Teach Yourself the Whole Enchilada. In fact “too much information” may be a big handicap. (Of course, to get at the quirky stuff, you may have to wade through a lot of the basics first.) For example, friends who know about these things say that Ian Fleming was way-off on guns. He just seemed spot-on.

Whether you can get by with handwaving depends on genre. Military SF, for example, is not an area where you can confidently fake the basics. You typically at least need to know which problems you’re choosing to ignore, and convince the readers that you’re ignoring it for a “good” reason, or word gets around and you don’t sell.

One great way to find experts in subjects of interest to military SF is to frequent forums with large overlap. For example, RPGs and board games. For space-related topics, I learned a TON from the Steve Jackson Games GURPS sourcebooks, enough so that I was a beta-tester for the Space 3e sourcebook. A lot of knowledgeable people like to hang out on their forums and discuss the ins-and-outs of their products, and they have a reputation for realism and research.

Another good resource for realistic military SF: Ad Astra Games “Attack Vector: Tactical” 3-d space combat board game. Ken Burnside (one of the owners) has put a LOT of time into find very smart, knowledgeable people who can prattle on about heat exchangers and the different output temperatures of various types of engine systems and how far away a ship can be detected because of waste heat, not to mention navigation and such. Again, his forums are good places to go read, research, interact, and learn in the company of a LOT of enthusiasts.

An important point on military SF specifically.

Faster-than-light travel is impossible according to everything we know about real world physics. However, the distances are so huge that’s it’s impossible to have a star-spanning empire without it. So, rather than figuring out a plausible physical explanation of faster than light travel, the writer’s task is really to make sure that his handwaving around the problem is self-consistent and supports whatever kind of plot he wants to write.

For example:

Is travel point-to-point, or random? That is, are you using some form of “wormhole” to jump between specific locations, or is it like a “warp drive” that will go anywhere you like? Does the gravity near a star mess things up?

How reliable is it, and how hard is it on the humans? Will a ship be ready to fight as soon as it emerges from trans-light speed (or while traveling at such speeds), or will people need to spend a few hours barfing in their cabins? How likely are ships to get lost, damaged, or stranded due to equipment malfunction or depletion of consumable fuel? (And is fuel a strategic resource, like oil is here?) How trackable are ships traveling at trans-light speeds?

How expensive is it? Is star travel the domain of nations and the very rich, or do people go planet hopping the way you might pop over to the next city for a weekend? This will have implications for things like smuggling and piracy, and will also define how much autonomy individual planets have.

And the list goes on. Some of these points are researchable, but some are completely up to you as the writer.

Katherine

Thank you everyone, this gives me a lot to think about. I am glad that book one starts on the ground, it buys me time to figure those things out!