ConFusion 2018: The Care and Feeding of the Subject Expert

(These are my lightly edited notes for a panel I attended at the ConFusion Fantasy and Science Fiction Convention in January of 2018)

PANEL: The Care and Feeding of the Subject Expert (19 January 2018, 12:00)

PANEL DESCRIPTION: “Writing science fiction and fantasy requires a ton of research. Having the internet at our fingertips makes it easier than it used to be, but sometimes we need to ask an expert. Many folks are delighted to geek out about their specialties, but we still need to do due diligence, respect their time, and make sure we’re asking the right questions. How do you find qualified experts? Do you approach them with prepared questions? When is it ethical to pick someone’s brain for free, and when should you insist on compensating your expert?”

PANELISTS: Marissa Lingen, Michael Kucharski, Monica Valentinelli, Patrick S. Tomlinson, Teresa Nielsen Hayden

NOTES

  • Sources at the start of a project are different from sources at the end of a project
  • Non-geek subject experts love it when writers take the time to get it right.
  • Being wrong is the best way to find an expert on the subject. When inaccuracies find their way into print the critics come out of the woodwork
  • A specific detail is an opportunity for your reader to argue with you. Don’t get it wrong
  • Is that particular specificity necessary?
  • Specificity can turn a work of fiction into a period piece. Accurate details (e.g. the price of things) can pinpoint stories in a particular time and place
  • We aren’t building worlds; we are building simulation of worlds. Therefore don’t add too much weight. Do specificity and detail in service of the story
  • SME can provide a sanity check. As in, is this right to the level of detail necessary to be meaningful to the story?
  • [Nature has a sci-fi section?]
  • How to reward/pay a SME: coffee, acknowledgement in print, dinner, money, Tuckerization
  • Wikipedia is a door, not a destination. The sources in a wikipedia article are the STARTING point for research.
  • [Mention of Jonathan Israel as SME for loads of European stuff]
  • If the SME’s response to a question is “it’s complicated,” it is a good indication that this person is, in fact, an SME. A facile or immediate and simple answer is not necessarily a well-thought-out answer
  • People who are weary about a subject are more likely to be experts than are the people who are excited.
  • “Englishing” – turning a translated text into a “regular English” text – is a Paid Thing

My thoughts:

I like the idea that subject matter experts may well be jaded about the subject in which they have expertise. It rings true. Not jaded in the sense that they find it boring; rather that the magic has become the mundane and they have integrated their knowledge into their lives and world-views. Being an expert in a subject doesn’t mean that you can simply recite dry facts.

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