Expert opinions are the gilding of the lily in writing fiction. They turn a piece of entertainment into an accurate piece of entertainment, less likely to make irate professionals scream at the TV and ruin the emotional death scene for everyone else in the living room.
(Yes, I have done this. Many times. We don’t watch hospital dramas in my house anymore.)
While I hesitate to call experts “tools” – because I want them to still speak to me – they fit into this character because this knowledge is an optional extra that makes a writer’s life easier – or turns it into a total bloody nightmare.
What is an expert opinion?
An expert opinion is research involving a living, breathing person, as opposed to a book, documentary, website, journal article, etc. That person may be a universally-recognised expert (e.g. an academic specialising in forensics) or may have gained knowledge through personal or professional experience (e.g. a police officer working a rural beat).
Why use an expert opinion?
First things first – why research at all? I am stickler for accuracy in fiction. Not necessarily for the particular ribbon colours used in service medals, but for the sensitive portrayal of people – their lives, jobs, towns and culture. I feel that it’s disrespectful to ignore that basic level of detail, to make stuff up that actually affects people’s lives. I know that other writers have different perspectives on this issue – from “research gets in the way of creativity” to “I must check historical records for that day to check if it was raining”. If you fall into the accuracy-seeking camp, I think that an expert opinion should form a vital part of a writer’s research strategy.
When I research, I like to start with broad brush strokes. I read books around the subject, look at photo galleries of locations or read a Wikipedia article. For example, for my feature film script about a gossip journalist, I bought a bunch of magazines and followed gossip journalists on Twitter. This stage generally occurs before I start a first draft. However, if an unfamiliar subject is the main focus of the work, it may help to have an expert to turn to for a background guide as well as questions.
If specific questions come up during writing, I first turn to Google. But while that easily answers questions like “who will Cardiff play on the last day of the 2013/2014 football season?”, it is less helpful for “where is the best place on Anglesey for smuggling?” That is where the expert opinion comes in.
A caution against Death By Research
A writer can spend hours, days, months and years conducting research and never actually write a word. Spending five years shadowing a zoo keeper to make sure your family adventure is pitch-perfect may be overkill. An expert opinion can lend an air of authenticity.
The other warning is against shoehorning every little fact you may have learned into your work, by hook or by crook. Exposition can easily kill a narrative. If folks wanted to be drowned in facts, they would watch a documentary. A balance needs to be struck between accuracy and regurgitating an encyclopaedia.
Using expert opinions
For The Amy Lane Mysteries, I needed both extensive background knowledge in subjects and to answer specific questions that arose as and when. I’ve been assisted in raising a dead body out of the ocean by Dr Laura Walton-Williams and Dr Claire Gwinnett of Staffordshire University. I’ve learned about the sand of North Walean beaches from Professor Ken Pye. And I’ve discovered that nowhere serves food in Aberystwyth after midnight on a Sunday from my fellow writers who live in dear old Aber.
Here are a couple of specific examples where I’ve turned to an expert opinion for research:
Amy Lane is a hacker who fights crime. Therefore, she needs to be well versed in digital forensics, cyber criminals and how to track them. I reached out to several universities who taught courses of this nature and a couple of people replied. Only one, however, went on to answer my extensive list of questions – Dr Burkhard Schafer of the University of Edinburgh.
He was also invaluable in directing me to other resources, such as textbooks, blogs and articles. He was my guide through the murky waters of research.
Barry Island Tides
For Code Runner, I needed one of my team to make a deduction based on the location of a dinghy off the coast of South Wales. Basically, I made life extremely difficult for myself because I wanted to have fun with a dinghy.
Enter Barry Yacht Club. With the help of Nick Phillips and Ray Brown, I charted the waters off Barry Island and sent my dinghy on a plausible adventure. The draft scene was checked over by Nick to make sure I hadn’t ballsed it up when I added the quirks of dialogue and deductions of my sleuths.
Don’t be shy!
What I’ve learned through researching these topics is that folks love to talk about their expertise. I have had a few non-respondents, but I’ve never been met with anything less than enthusiasm by those from whom I’ve sought an expert opinion.
Have you used expert opinions in your research? What is you advice for finding experts who can help with research?