Mystery Writing: Beyond Google to Using Subject Matter Experts

If your mystery writing significantly involves an unfamiliar topic, utilizing a subject matter expert may be essential. In today’s world, topics such as terrorism and cyber-warfare that dominate the news provide excitement and interest for readers. If your plot involves cybersecurity and cybercrime, though, you’d better understand the difference between computer malware and a virus, and explain it at an appropriate level that engages your readers without overwhelming them.

Some activities may feel straightforward to write about, depending on your experience. For example, most people are comfortable with processing email and doing research on the Internet, which raises the question: When should you stop trying to wring information out of the Internet, or the library, or your social buddies, and find an expert who really knows your topic?

My favorite advice from mystery author and mentor Les Roberts (past president of the Private Eye Writers of America and the American Crime Writers League), early on in the days when I was trying to figure out what to write was, “Write what floats your boat.”

Do I need to know a lot about such-and-such (fill in the blank) to write about it? Paraphrasing Les, ‘No. Write what you’re passionate about. Write what interests you. Your reader won’t be interested or passionate if you’re not.’

What if you’re really interested in horse racing, or cybercrime, or baseball, and you’re not an expert? You may wonder how to decide when you need to involve someone who is an expert, what a subject matter expert is, and how you find one.

You should involve a subject matter expert at some level for any area you don’t feel completely comfortable writing about. You may think that it isn’t really necessary if the subject area isn’t central to the plot.

Let’s say you’re writing a scene at a baseball game, but it could take place somewhere else. The fact that there’s a baseball game going on isn’t important to the story. So you think nobody will notice and you can gloss over it.

You might get away with it, but if you commit a baseball knowledge faux pas that could occur due to ignorance of the structure or rules of the game, you stand a good chance of creating a distraction for your reader that jerks them away from the plot. Put another way, it interrupts their suspension of disbelief that helps keep them involved. You lose credibility, and maybe you lose them.

I recently edited a story set in motorsports racing. The author apparently didn’t know the difference between an engine and a motor. The whole thing fell apart for me at that point.

So, find a subject matter expert to review your work, if for no other reason than to ensure that you’ve eliminated unwanted distractions.

It’s generally agreed that a subject matter expert is a person who is an authority in a particular area or topic. Perhaps it’s a little too restrictive, but I think of a subject matter expert as someone whose testimony on the subject would be admitted in a court of law. I have served as an expert witness, and have taught courses in topics including the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), so when I needed to drop a little espionage into Dead Drive, I felt okay about that.

Have you sought the expertise of a subject matter expert? Share your experience with your comment below!

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