Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Jack of All Trades

by Annette Dashofy

With two completed manuscripts in the hands of my agent and a new one not yet started (other than notes and notes and more notes), I keep coming face-to-face with the ugly question of what story am I most qualified to write? Agh!

Some writers have a built-in area of expertise. Lawyers are shoe-ins for writing legal thrillers. Doctors have the inside track for medical thrillers. Cops know the scoop for writing police procedurals. But what about the rest of us who live boring lives? What about those of us for whom the most exciting part of our day is what happens inside our heads?

I guess it’s the book marketing class I’m taking that has me contemplating this subject. My mystery series is about a veterinarian at a Thoroughbred racetrack. Yes, I know horses. Yes, I have some inside information about that world. I have a groom’s license. I am NOT a vet. I do have retired racetrack vet who serves as my technical advisor. But if I need to write articles about veterinary care in order to promote this book…well, I’m screwed.

So for the new book, I’m asking myself in what area can I think of myself as an expert?

HA! I’m the proverbial jack of all trades, master of none.

But that also poses the question: WHAT IS AN EXPERT? How much “expertise” must you have to be given that title?

Years ago, I came to realize that the term “expert” is relative. I was working at a camera shop, selling all sorts of photographic paraphernalia (way before digital) when a gentleman came in and asked me if I was an expert at photography.

Hmmm. Well, it depended. If this guy were some Joe Schmoe who’d only handled a point-and-click Kodak, then YEAH. I was an expert. If he were Ansel Adam’s protégé, NOPE, I was a rank amateur.

At that point, I realized that an expert is anyone who knows more than the person they’re talking to.

I actually said that to a self-proclaimed art expert at a neighborhood festival a few years later. He didn’t find me amusing.

The problem then becomes “who is reading my stuff?” We all dread having someone approach us and tell us we got it all wrong. I’ve ordered my veterinary technical advisor to be brutal when he reads my drafts. Don’t let anything slide. And still, I worry.

But what can I write about next? Okay, I’ve taught yoga for almost ten years, but I have to tell you—yoga instructors as protagonists are a real snooze. We mostly go around telling people to relax. I ran a photography studio for five years, along with working in the camera shop. But advancements in technology have made my expertise in that field woefully outdated.

How about a retired photographer who takes yoga classes and works odd jobs to make a few bucks?

Hmmm. Nah. Back to the drawing board.

So what about you guys? Do you rely on your personal expertise when you write? Or do you do research until your head explodes? As a reader, do you get completely annoyed when the author gets it wrong and you know it? Or are you willing to forgive a minor slip-up if the characters and story are otherwise compelling? I want to hear from the experts out there!


Anonymous said...

My medical knowledge from 20 years of nursing is now archaic,but I still love to find bloopers in tv programs or movies. Like your yoga instructor protagonist, I wouldn't want to write about a nurse or massage therapist.

I'm passionate about the New Age stuff, so I write out of my experience of that with not much research. My current WIP features fairies (not a mystery), so they tell me what to say. Makes it easy (just joking).

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those who gets irritated when the author gets it wrong, but not enough to contact and castigate, so I do live in fear of messing up myself.
I suppose I could focus my writing on law (where my non-fiction publications are), but there are so many legal mysteries and thrillers out there already. I have one legal manuscript [Running Rivers] that features a small law firm in Pittsburgh, but that hasn't sold. My current WIP is set in 1970, a time I lived through, and I've already been called on a few anachronisms that I had right but the fault-finder misremembered. Yikes.

Anonymous said...

Just like being an expert may all be relative, I think "getting it right" may also be so. Certainly there's the joy of "gotcha" when you catch something clearly wrong. But I've discovered that a lot of expertise is based on experience, and different experts come to different conclusions based on their different experiences. Also, different organizations within a field do things differently. So is that really a medical error or do people in that state just have a different way of talking about it?

I do think you can get things wrong (my first manuscript was based on an orthopedic fallacy) but sometimes wrong is in the eye of the beholder.

Annette said...

Gina, you bring up something else I've been thinking about...does being an expert in a certain field-law for example-actually limit that writer? What if a lawyer doesn't WANT to write legal thrillers? Or gets tired of writing them. That puts him/her in the same fix as the rest of us.

Annette said...

Cathy, I do see the allure of writing fantasy. Or sci-fi. You get to create your own world with its own rules.

Or is that statement spoken like someone who isn't all familiar with that genre?

Either way, I find my brain prefers mystery/suspense.

Joyce Tremel said...

For me, police procedural type books are easier to write. The problem with them is that what you write depends on what city/town your book is in. Not only are laws different from state to state, they can vary from city to city.

So, unless my book takes place in Shaler Township (boring!), I still have to do tons of research, talk to cops from the department where the story takes place, etc. This is when a fictional town helps--you don't have to get it perfect.

Anonymous said...

I think the trick is using enough detail and vocabulary and "tricks of the trade" to convince your reader--initially your critique partner, your agent and your editor--that you're absolutley an expert. Do it in the early pages, making the reader feel completely plunged into the world you've created. If you can sucker in those readers early enough, you've got it made.

My editor still thinks I was a debutante in Philadelphia. Which cracks me up.

I think Cathy's got it right---what are you passionate about? And I still think it's horses for you, Annette.

I'm reading Jane Smiley's HORSE HEAVEN right now. Have you read it? If not, drop me a note & I'll bring it to the next meeting for you.

Annette said...

Thanks, Nancy, but I happen to have it sitting next to my bed right now. I started it a while ago and got sidetracked. Thanks for the reminder. Now I know what I'm going to read tonight. It is definitely one of the best novels to put the reader inside the world of horseracing.

Joyce Tremel said...

To answer Annette's question, do I forgive minor slip ups--they don't bother me if they're minor. NO one can possibly get everything right. I'll even forgive someone using the word "perp." (I don't like it, but I'll let it go.) The one I really hate is calling the victim "vic." To me, it's disrespectful. Call him "victim", "the deceased", or use his name.

What bugs me are major errors, like DNA results coming back in an hour. That turns a book into a wall-banger.

Anonymous said...

My story ideas come more from something I've overheard or read than from any personal expertise. Then I do hours of research, which usually is fun because it's gaining new knowledge, but occasionally, if it becomes tedious (but oh so critical to the honesty of my plot) I get annoyed. All of which adds greatly to the enjoyment of my day.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I'm not limited to legal thrillers, Annette - I don't even particularly like to read a lot of them. In addition to the legal-themed Running Rivers mentioned in my earlier post, my completed unsold manuscripts run the gamut from horrendous crime (Four Weekends) and a missing cousin (The Search for Collie Cinnamon) to the woo-woo: a dangerous doll (Hannabelle)and selling one's soul to Satan* (Risen From Flames). Partially completed manuscripts include reincarnation/sword and sorcery (Memories) and introspection [A Dark Brick Wall]. The short stories are all over the board.

And Nancy, dropping in a few terms of art only works if you use those terms correctly. I've actually read books set in the US that portray what attorneys do as if they were set in England - there the solicitors prepare the case and the barristers try it; here we do it all. [And we don't wear horsehair wigs.] So when an author says the jury returned a settlement in favor of the plaintiff, or mixes up civil and criminal causes of action, it really gets my goat.
*Have we all heard that awful Christmas joke about the dyslexic devil worshipper who accidently sold his soul to Santa?

Unknown said...

Annette, nice post. Absolutely I've used my ten years in law enforcement and technology expertise in THE BLACK WIDOW AGENCY. I've tried to keep it as authentic as possible for these four crazy gals but all that aside, the only "expertise" that matters is in developing characters that are real. That does not requre degrees or years of experience in a field, just careful observation of people under many different situations.

Felicia Donovan