Novel Research: When Should You Consider Working With a Technical Consultant?

Novel Research: When Should You Consider Working With a Technical Consultant?

Three years ago I embarked upon an insane journey to do novel research on a series about a world I knew almost nothing about. Fortunately, I was rescued from this shaky course when I found a technical consultant who is an expert on the subject. And not just any expert: the expert.

My subject was the NYPD Bomb Squad. The expert I engaged to advise me was the active commander of that elite unit, Lt. Mark Torre.

Having worked as a Doubleday editor and as a literary agent, and then having written three novels, I came to this project with an understanding of plot, character, dramatic structure, etc. What I knew less about—well, to be completely honest, what I knew next to nothing about—was the inner workings of any kind of police work.

Oh, of course I’d read books and articles and seen my share of cop movies. But in fictional treatments of any subject, facts always take a back seat to story. Which is to say, if facts are in conflict with good storytelling, the facts will suffer, not the other way around. This is acknowledged, tongue in cheek, by the movie American Hustle, based on the FBI ABSCAM operation, which opens with the notice: “Some of this actually happened.”

American Hustle Christian Bale Bradley Cooper

No Amount of Novel Research (of the Reading and Watching Variety) Can Substitute for a Real Expert

Even nonfiction books have a point of view that may not comport with your fact-based goal as a novelist, which is mostly to create verisimilitude in service to your story. And, to make matters worse, books and movies often get stuff wrong.

For example, in the beginning I hooked up with a man who was then an FBI bomb tech (his official rank was SABT: Special Agent Bomb Technician). He turned out not to be the technical consultant I needed, because the FBI ain’t the NYPD. But we became friends, and one day he explained to me that the smoke used for IED explosions in the movie Hurt Locker was the wrong color. I won’t go into specifics on that here, but suffice to say, if I relied on that movie for my information I’d be misinformed.

Hurt Locker Jeremy Renner

Five Reasons to Use a Technical Consultant for Novel Research

If you’re writing about a world you know intimately (maybe you were a reporter on the subject or you worked extensively in the field), you might not need an outsider’s expert advice. But if that doesn’t describe you—if, like me, you’re “only” a writer—consider these arguments for getting hold of someone to act as technical consultant on your novel research.

1. Details Matter

A novel–indeed, any work of art–requires the accretion of details. If you get basic facts wrong regarding equipment or procedures, you run the risk that educated readers will stop to question whether something is true. If that happens, you have knocked the reader out of your story.

2. Learn the Unexpected

Blast From the Past J.E. Fishman NYPD Bomb SquadLibrary or internet research can teach us a lot of things, but generally we find what we’re looking for and little else. If you have a good relationship with your technical consultant, you might trip upon novelist’s gold just from a casual conversation. I got the idea for an entire book, Blast from the Past, as a result of something my technical consultant casually brought up over dinner.

3. Nothing Tastes Like Flavor

A bit of dialog. The argot of a subculture. How people with your character’s specialty think. These things are hard to come by in conventional research. They are much more easily obtained from someone who works in the trenches.

4. Get Inoculated

Every novelist knows (or soon learns) that trolls lurk out there just waiting to make us look stupid. If some technical detail sounds implausible to readers hoping to find fault in my novels, the fact that the commander of the NYPD Bomb Squad vetted every word should give them pause.

5. The Media Love an Expert

My technical consultant cannot help me promote due to NYPD regulations. Some people, however, are lucky to have a technical consultant who can make herself available for promotion. It’s tough for a novelist to get attention. A “nonfiction” promotional element might just put you over the top.

You’ve Got a Technical Consultant? Now Use Him!

The better your relationship with your technical consultant, the more help you will get on all five of these fronts. When I’m working on a book in the Bomb Squad NYC series, I tap my consultant early and often in these important ways:

  • For important plot twists, I ask advice regarding plausibility and other details while I’m plotting or writing.
  • Occasionally—not too often to wear out my welcome—we just shoot the breeze over the phone or dinner. On such occasions, I listen carefully to his stories to hear how he talks and see how he relates to his bosses and the men who report to him.
  • When I have a first draft, he reads every word and offers feedback with regard to what is realistic and what isn’t.

It’s worth remembering that the technical consultant is not the storyteller. Ultimately, the story takes precedence over everything but public safety (I’ll never reveal a detail that knowingly endangers law enforcement or the public). Although my technical consultant has made every book in the series better and more realistic, we both remember it’s my book to write, not his.

Discovering a technical consultant for your novel research enables you to wade into a subject you otherwise know little about–and it gives readers confidence to suspend their disbelief while engaging with your story.

Tell me your opinion: What kind of technical consultant would you like to work with on your novel research?

Novel Research: When Should You Consider Working With a Technical Consultant?

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About J.E. Fishman

J.E. Fishman is a former Doubleday editor and literary agent who turned his hand to writing fiction several years ago. He is author of the standalone thrillers The Dark Pool and Primacy,, the wise-cracking mystery Cadaver Blues, and the Bomb Squad NYC series of police procedural thrillers. All of his books have appeared on Amazon bestseller lists.

Comments

  1. I’ve found that experts are generally very eager to help writers.

    When writing ANGRY ENOUGH TO KILL, my thriller about a conspiracy of women who kill pedophiles, I needed a poison with seven characteristics. I spent weeks researching and couldn’t find the right poison.

    So, on the advice of a friend, I called Wayne Jeffrey, former Head of the RCMP Toxicology Lab in Vancouver, BC, and then sent him a fax with the list. After about 15 minutes he called me back with the ideal poison…he and the staff of the lab had brainstormed for about 5 minutes to come up with it (compared to my weeks of research!)

    But the story gets better. Not only did he vet the scenes relating to the poison, he asked me to send him everything in the novel that related to any kind of forensics, and he distributed the material to the relevant experts in the RCMP for their feedback. Now, if any errors remain in the gun scenes, etc., they’re totally mine.

    Other experts helped, too: veterinarians, clinical psychologists, forensic psychologists, and, of course, several survivors of childhood sexual abuse helped with the characterizations of two of the three conspirators in the novel.

    I don’t know what writers would do without the help and advice of a wide range of experts, most of whom give their time enthusiastically and generously. I’ve only ever had one expert turn me down even though I was just beginning the journey, and that person couldn’t understand that I’m a novelist, not a journalist. I suspect he never reads fiction.

    • Great story. Indeed most experts are willing to help — in my experience and from what I’ve heard. My technical consultant has told me that he appreciates the opportunity to be portrayed realistically.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Joel!

  3. Good post–although all that I have published has been non-fiction, I have wondered about borrowing from my dissertation research for a novel… Any advice for historical novels?

    • I would take care to focus research on the “weak side” of my subject. So, if it’s about big historical events, do some research on the details of everyday life during that period. If it’s about everyday life, research the broad historical events that might be happening in the background and could affect the lives of your characters. In either case, having details that are “off subject” will help ground the reader.

  4. Most of what I write is fantasy/Sci-Fi so I’ve not yet needed to do any research that intensive or technical.

    Question, though. Seeing these people are taking time out of their lives and schedules to give you advice, read your drafts, etc., I imagine compensation of some sort would be in order. How does that unfold?

    • I have found that when it comes to a question or two, people generally are willing to offer their expertise gratis. If the work really hinges upon the expertise of someone other than the author, however, some form of compensation may be appropriate.

  5. Great points, Joel & KM. Coming from a forensic background, I sometimes read things which make me cringe at the lack of knowledge and authenticity that the writer has. My advice is not ‘write what you know’ it’s ‘check what you write’. There’s a phenomenal amount of information out there on the internet, but nothing beats having direct contact with technical expertise.

    I do a fair amount of beta reading – not for storyline or word editing – rather for accuracy of technical data. I don’t mind helping writers out so if anyone wants to ship me some questions, specifically about death scenes, autopsies, or firearms – please do. I think a lot of people with expertise would be happy to help writers out. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.

    • robert easterbrook says

      HI Garry

    • robert easterbrook says

      Hi Garry – sorry, can’t retract my posts if I accidentally hit the Enter key! But I could’ve used your help in my first novel, Reciprocity. I write Sci-fi/crime, so occasionally I consult someone about police procedure – my sister, she’s a police officer, so I am lucky to have someone in the family on the force. I consulted a microbiologist for my first novel – I was lucky one was at the same university I work. I’m writing my 4th novel, Ocean Thyme, and may have a few questions for you about forensics, if you don’t mind me asking. Happy New Year.

    • That’s generous. I might take you up on that myself one of these days. Thanks!

  6. Well, my case is maybe a bit different, but I am enjoying the help of an ‘expert’ in a field very important to my story.
    My two main characters are Lakota Indians. I’m Italian. You see my problem.
    Of course, I did every kind of research (both historical and cultural) for two years before I met my expert, but now I know no ammount of indipendet research can substitute the confrontation with a person who knows better.

    My friend (because over two years, that’s what we’ve become) isn’t Lakota. She’s Mahawk, a traditionalist, but she has many friends who are Lakota. She helped me enter the world as seen from an Indian perspective, she pointed out details writers use all the time and are incorrect, she helped me becoming aware of what sources are reliable and what aren’t.
    And the best thing of all, she’s a writer too.

    I do all the things mentioned above: brainstorm with her, let her read my symopsis and earlier drafts, ask questions, ask opinions, but it’s really very difficult to say how my story changed in simple responce to my personal relationship with her. I just know – I KNOW – my story would be very different (and yes, less authentic) if I had never met her, in spite of all the reserach I’ve done and am still doing.

    Well, my story is also set in America in the Twenties,, but sadly so far I haven’t found an expert who could help me with this. I’ve jus thad to rely on my own research so far.

  7. I didn’t use a technical consultant the way you describe but I did get one from the internet. In my last novel, the protagonist uses an Uzi and while I did get to shoot one when I was in the service, that was more than 30 years ago. So, courtesy of Youtube, I watched one being fired and listened to what the expert had to say about it. I also read the characteristics of the weapon. So, when my protagonist shot up the school, he employed the weapon properly.

  8. Excellent article! My big question is, how do you locate/retain a technical consultant? I would love to run my manuscript by a police officer for fact-checking. Seems I keep running into dead ends with my local P.D. Maybe I’m just not asking the right person. 🙂

    • No simple answer besides pursuing the proverbial six degrees of separation. You probably are no more than three degrees from the person you need. And it’s always easier to have an introduction.

  9. robert easterbrook says

    Hi I consulted a microbiologist during the writing of my first novel, Reciprocity. I felt that, everything else being reasonable, the science had to be right. Or I’d have some ‘expert’ poking holes in it – if they weren’t already with the rest of it. After all, the story is about biomedical scientist, so she had to know what she was doing. Thankfully, I’m a researcher so I understand science research and had that part right, what she did though was not my field so I had make sure she ‘knew’ her science. So I turned to a microbiologist. The feedback I got was great; the researcher thought what she was doing was very interesting. It made me feel good about writing the story because it was my first ‘potential commercial’ writing project and I’d got the science right, if not much else.

    • Ken Follett makes an interesting point about getting facts straight in thrillers. He notes that most thrillers have some plot point at their heart that’s largely implausible. Having all the small stuff right, he says, is a way to distract readers so you can slip that implausibility past them.

      Of course, it doesn’t always work. I took pains to get the animal testing lab right in my first novel, Primacy — and had several people who had worked in such places confirm that I’d gotten it right. But one Goodreads reviewer said she thought the plot was a stretch. I’m thinking, well, there WAS a talking ape in it!

  10. Though I am only an amateur writer [mostly fanfiction, though I am trying to get my children’s picture books published] I have tried to apply these principles to my stories. The one widely regarded among my readers as my best is set in New Orleans. As a Brit I couldn’t hope to visit for first hand experience – I don’t even have a passport. What I did have was a fellow fan on the fandom site who was born and raised there. She helped me with a lot of ‘local color’ that made all the difference to the story.

  11. I’m writing Sci-fi, and on an early project, I needed some information about parchment manuscripts. I managed to find an expert online–he made his living restoring old manuscripts, and answered my simple questions. He lived in Holland and his English wasn’t very good, but he was happy to help.

    Also concerning that parchment manuscript in my story, I had come up with an idea for a novel writing instrument: a feather, but using the tip instead of the quill. I couldn’t find any information on whether this had ever been done or would work, so I had to become my own expert–I made one and tried it, and it worked. You have to trim the tip to a point, and it works like a paintbrush.

    It isn’t always easy to find an expert. Recently I was looking for a word in Japanese to use as the name of a fictitious company, and I knew I couldn’t trust the online machine translators. I put up a notice on Facebook asking for help and got no response. Finally, I hired the job out on Fiverr; I got the results I wanted, for $5.50.

    Many of you may find that research is just plain fun. I often get more enjoyment out of hunting down these esoteric details than I do with the rest of the writing process.

  12. The need for correct details is extremely important. I realize this over and over again. For quite a while now I’ve a few ideas about thrillers in my [digital] drawer. Stories that play in the aviation world.

    Just couldn’t find time to go for the stories as I’m more busy with copy editing and translations. I may finally find the additional time this year in 2015. The reason why I’m going to stick to aviation is clear and beneficial of course. 🙂

    I was for over 30 years deeply involved in aviation. Coming from the engineering side of it, and having an additional background as an avionics instructor and QC inspector, I can fall back on years of experience to be authentic in this field.

    Guess I can count my blessings. Being an editor, writer, and having the knowledge in the filed I want to write about isn’t an every day combination. Now I need to find the time and cut down on copy editing. 🙂

  13. Hey Katie, what’s your experience with a technical advisor? Have you used one for your books?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Much of what I write isn’t stuff (history and fantasy) that lends itself well to accessible technical advisers. But I grab them up whenever I can. I was fortunate enough to get advice on early bi-planes from several experts for my historical dieselpunk story Storming, due out later this year.

  14. Hey Katie, Thanks for sharing this infrmation but you had ever worked as freelance with any online firm. Because I just started working with online article writing firm online.
    I am little bit nerves with there payment system should they will pay me or not??

  15. Great article and excellent points, thanks! As a beginning writer trying to produce publish-worthy work, what I find amazing, and at times discouraging, is how tough it can be to find technical consultants for specific subjects. Tougher than it seems it should be.

    I need an NYPD consultant for the opening scene of my novel, which is a violent confrontation between police and a drug gang in a Harlem park. At first I thought there surely must be at least one cop or retired cop in all of NYC who advertises themselves online as an informational consultant for hire for this sort of thing, but so far I haven’t found any. I live in NYC, so I emailed my community service officer, told him I was a novelist looking for a police consultant. He just directed me to email the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, with the subject “book” and a list of questions.

    While helpful, this isn’t really what I need, for all five reasons you mention in your article, and more. I need someone I can have an extended conversation with, someone whom I’d be willing to pay for their time, expertise, and candor. Someone who can help me figure out how it would really go down, what exact words would be said over the radio, what aspects would be “by the book” and where the book might go out the window, how real cops would react and what would be going through their heads. I can write a scene that will grip the reader, but I need someone who can help me write it such that a reader with inside knowledge would think “This is entirely plausible…this guy knows what he’s talking about.” Some facts may have to get scrapped in favor of story, as you say, but my own standard for my work is that any such scrapping should always be intentional, not accidental.

    Do consultants for hire exist? If so, do they advertise themselves as such? And since you mention the NYPD, might you know of any related to NYPD specifically?

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