Friday, March 11, 2011

Research for Writers Level Five: Experts

I used to be a member of the IATSE in Seattle, which is a labor union for stage employees and film crews. Certain jobs in the trade still carry the age old tradition of categorizing the experience level of the worker.

A new worker has no title. They might be referred to as a skilled laborer, but otherwise they would have no title. Once they gain some experience they can become an Apprentice. Historically an Apprentice would have to be tied to a particular Master, but currently that is not necessarily true. Once an Apprentice has learned enough to become proficient at a craft he can become a Journeyman. One can spend years as a Journeyman before ever being considered a Master.

When I would work for the Seattle Opera, I would often work for the Master Carpenter. At the Paramount Theater, I often worked for the Master Electrician. These titles are a bit misleading because in the theater a carpenter actually just builds the sets and does scene changes, while an electrician deals with lighting. The point is, you cannot be considered a Master until you have years or even decades of experience in your craft.

You can read more about the Apprentice-Journeyman-Master model at the Wikipedia article.

The point as it relates to research for writers is that if you really want to dig deeply into a topic, there is no better research than seeking out a Master of the craft. A person who has spent their entire life perfecting their skill will posses such a depth of knowledge regarding the subject that it will boggle the mind.

That kind of first person source cannot be matched through reading, or even experiencing, something yourself. Jumping out of an airplane once, or even five times, does not make you an Airborne Ranger. There are nuances to such things that can only be understood through living them for a lifetime.

This is not the kind of thing many writers can manage to accomplish. I for one have never interviewed a Master regarding a topic that I wanted to write about, but I know the option exists. Potentially it could be extremely difficult and expensive to do, depending on what you need to know.

If you need to travel to Quantico to speak to the FBI behavioral science experts about profiling serial killers, and you live in California, you'll probably have to be a very successful writer to be able to afford it. However, if I really wanted to, I could probably find Master Blacksmith somewhere in the state of Georgia who I could meet and interview for no more than the price of gas and lunch. And probably beer. A lot of smiths seem to like dark beer.

It all depends on what you're looking for and how much detail you need. For WARRIOR-MONKS I don't think it's necessary. I've learned enough from books about forging a sword that I think I've created the scene in an authentically believable way (assuming you're willing to believe in a little magic). I don't really think there is anything so specific in my novel that it would require speaking to a Master to do it right.

Yet, I would love to one day write a story that did require the knowledge of a Master. If I did, there would be no better source than a person who had spent their life gaining a mastery of their skill, craft, trade or art.

Yes, that is the Osensei Morihei Ueshiba up there. Have a great weekend!

30 comments:

Ted Cross said...

That's one of those dreams that I think will remain a dream - to become good friends with a master fantasy (or sci-fi) writer. I dream of being good buddies with Dennis McKiernan or George Martin or John Scalzi!

Sarah said...

I agree--there's sometimes when you need an expert. I'm writing a book that features some paramedics working in a really chaotic place and I'm going to have my sister--who's a medevac pilot for the 101st airborne--and some of her crew vet the medical stuff as well as the triage procedures. In some areas, I am an expert--but I'll STILL consult with my colleagues to make sure I've got it right. This is such a fantastic series, Matt--great job!

Tracy said...

Or...if you're looking to learn more about the way the FBI behavioral science experts profile serial killers, you can just watch CRIMINAL MINDS. (Seriously, that show kicks arse!)

The only trick to learning the info from a master, is making sure you've found a real master of the subject and not just someone who thinks they are.

Laura Pauling said...

When I was learning about the Maya - I feel like I became an expert through the college level text books I read and interpretation of their art and tv specials. I don't know what else I could have learned that i needed. Unfortunately, that novel is shelved but I still love that i know so much about a culture I wouldn't have. Make sense?

Anne Gallagher said...

Unfortunately my books occur in 1811 and in order to write about the Regency era, I have to rely on books. I know I could fly to England (or anywhere) and find people who re-enact this period, but wouldn't it be nice to be able to time travel. Oh what stories we would tell then.

Nice post. And what's with the name change, Mr. MacNish.

salarsenッ said...

Research is so important. It can give life to your work, that added jolt. But chatting with someone who's lived within the research you're doing is definitely icing on the cake.

aspiring_x said...

yeah! i'm with anne! who is this matt macnish!?!?!
i need to seek a master in a bit for one of my wips, and i have a master in mind (actually she's commented on this post already!) but i'm not to that level of research yet! :) great series!

Bish Denham said...

One can, as I have a couple of times, contact an "expert" and ask for a phone or email interview. I like email because it gives me time to figure out what questions I need/want to ask and gives the interviewee time to think about responces.

Kelly Lyman said...

I agree. My wip deals with seals and Orkney, Scotland (I know, it doesn't sound cool, but it is). However, where I live there are no seal professionals around and I've never been to Scotland and don't think I can get there anytime soon, so I need to rely on the internet for my research. Hopefully I can get to the zoo at least this spring and hopefully there will be a seal exhibit for me to study!

L.G.Smith said...

Great insight on smiths. I do like dark beer.

Appreciated the series this week, Matt. Good job.

Old Kitty said...

Just like Yoda with Luke - use the force!!! And Kill Bill teacher who taught wassername!!! And Kung fu man! David Carradine!

Apprenticeships are so invaluable and if only they were still viable in this day and age - it's a life long commitment but unfortunately no long economically attractive!! Oh but to learn a skill from a true master or mistress!!!!

I too am confused by your new surname!!! Take care
x

Matthew MacNish said...

MacNish is my grandmother's maiden name. Matthew MacNish is my pen name. I have some short stories published in that name, so I changed it on my blog because I wanted to make it searchable. I had only meant to change the 'about me' but apparently it affects my comment too.

Jess said...

Love the post and the whole apprentice-journeyman-master deal. That's so cool that you worked under a Master Carpenter! If I could magically give myself a skill and do it for a living, I would be in a garage building wooden furniture right now. Alas, my experience is only three wood-shop classes in high school. Not quite enough to get me anywhere :)

Carolyn Abiad said...

I need a master pirate from the roman era - know where I can find one?

Janet Johnson said...

Very interesting about the Apprentice titles nowadays.

I've done basic research for my books, but nothing to this level. I agree, I love it when books have that level of detail. You can tell they know what they're talking about.

Amanda said...

Great post! I think with anything, if you're unsure, you better make it your mission to find out from a reliable source if you're lending authenticity to what you're writing. Even small things matter. Case in point: in a particular YA book, the author referred to a male elk as a "buck" elk. NOPE. It's a BULL elk. A small detail, yes, but as someone who lives in elk country, this offended me that no one checked this out to make sure it was correct.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

i've never actually used experts before. That said, i have a good friend from highschool who has a PhD in Marine Biology. I need to hit her up and discuss the swimming speeds of whales, and then extrapolate accordingly to me sea serpent

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Consulting experts was my greatest resource. All right, there was much movie-watching involved, too.

Raquel Byrnes said...

One of the most fun I had while writing my first book was interviewing Entomology dudes at U.C. Riverside. They were really into sharing what they knew...and were actually quite funny.
Edge of Your Seat Romance

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

I'm going to try and find a Master Baker of Donuts. For research. Yeah, research.

Talli Roland said...

Personally, I'd prefer not to write about something that requires that level of technical knowledge - unless I did it as a day job. It's just too much stuff swimming around in ym head and I'm sure I'd be tempted to show off how much research I did!

Michael G-G said...

I'm an expert in the drinking of dark beer. If you ever revisit your Pacific NW haunts, I would be happy to share some of my knowledge.

(Great series, by the way!)

Christina Lee said...

I am completely tripped up with the name--I totally thought I had a new blog follower--heh heh. Welcome Mr. MacNish!

Yep-I totally ask my nurse sister anything medical and my computer tech hubby anything technical!

Angela Ackerman said...

What I would do for one day with Stephen King. Just one day to learn from him. That would be a dream come true.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Hannah Kincade said...

I've never need an "expert" before. Although, I'm sure if I wrote something where it needed a more "accurate" feel, I would need to. Thanks for the tips!

Lydia K said...

Sometimes, it's access to experts that's the problem. In the writing world, there are lots, but sometimes when you need a particular, esoteric bit of advice, it's hard.
Great post!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Wow, another awesome post on research. I can't keep up with you, Matt. :D

I have a friend who's a physician, so I can ask her medical questions. Now I just need a friend who's a former secret agent or navy seal and I'm set. ;)

Donna Hole said...

You changed your name? And your blog appearance? Have I been gone so long you've written a whole new reality for yourself? Oh, lost am I . .

I've admired Jodi Piccoult's author prestige that allowed her to visit a prison and other nefarious places to write Vanished.

I think the higher quality resources you can pool, the better the novel will be in the long run. But yep, you gotta have the class to pull it off.

Someday soon Matt, I'm sure we'll be reading about your adventures tracking the perfect expert to make you NEXT bestselling novel a greater hit.

It will get there for you.

.....dhole

PS: I just finished watching Highlander: Endgame. Man, do I love a good sword fight. I may need to watch a few other fav's with awesome sword activity.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I've contacted a couple experts via email a couple times, Matthew. Each time they have responded with help. I've interviewed a few people. Once I explain that I am a writer, people open up quickly. :) Often all it takes is asking....

Michael Offutt said...

That picture reminds me of the dude in Kill Bill Volume 2 that taught Uma Thurman how to properly use kung fu. Admit it...you love Quentin Tarrantino (it's a dead giveaway with all those "Q"'s in your title).