The Things I Know, The Things You Know

Many writers (I won’t say all writers, because I don’t know them all, but at this point I think I have a pretty decent random sample) know a bunch of different weird things.  Many writers (see above caveat) were probably the sorts of kids who stored up random factoids, or had deep pools of info about odd things, or could list all the kings of England from Edward the Confessor onward (that used to be one of my parlor tricks, along with reciting the beginning of the Canterbury Tales).  Many writers research science, or history, or Alexandrian mythology, or sanitation in ancient China, or, or, or…

The thing is, if you’re the kind of person who picks up spare facts the way other people nab pocket change, it will sooner or later burble to the top of your consciousness.  My husband, the Gray Eminence of rec.arts.music.beatles, can reliably identify which out-take from which bootleg two bars of a given Beatles song is, and probably knows all sorts of arcane info about who was recording that day, and can expound at length about the cool fill Ringo was using, or why George was using that guitar or…  I, who have only the laywoman’s hey-I-was-there-when-the-Beatles-were-cool-the-first-time appreciation of the music, can still enjoy Danny’s over the top minutiae.  And when I need an in-house set of professional ears, I have it.  Your friends and beloveds are fonts of all sorts of information, if you only think to ask.  And if they don’t know, someone among them will almost certainly know someone who will know.

Mumbly-years ago I was writing a novel set in New York, in which our Hero had to go to Rikers’ Island, the NYC jail complex that sits in the middle of the East River.  First thing I learned was the difference between a jail and a prison (jails are short term, prisons long term, for one thing, and are generally run by local law enforcement–sheriffs and police departments; prisons are state- or Federally-run, and are for people who are in for more than 365 days).  Second thing I learned was that, at the time at least, it was very hard indeed to find out logistical facts about the prison (how do you get there? is the protocol different for lawyers and visitors? what’s the layout of the place).  Now, of course, there’s a website for directions, with information on the various facilities, and so on, but in these long-ago days, not so much.  So I asked a friend’s husband, the only lawyer I knew, if he knew any of this stuff.  He didn’t, but a friend did, and after an hour of fascinating conversation I knew more about Rikers’ Island than I’d thought possible.  Thus: the power of friends and their friends.

I’m a member of a list called Joys of Research, which is a stunningly valuable focused-crowd-sourcing tool: it’s simply a bunch of writers who have different areas of expertise.  Ask about medieval latrine technology or the decomposition rates of bodies or the weight of an 1795 flintlock pistol and someone will know.  And if no one knows, they’ll have suggestions about where to find the information.  Just being able to narrow the informational sources down a little is often a huge help when you’re time-crunched.

I’m not organized enough to make a list of who of the people I know I can ask for what, but you might be.  And an added benefit? You get to know people better.  I am hampered by shyness and an early inculcation of the goofy notion that asking people questions was rude.  (I know.  I know.)  But asking questions about another person’s interests is a wonderful way of deepening a friendship, especially if you’re able to ask about things your friend is really interested in.  My friend Steve can talk mammalian biology until the cows come home (he might even know why the cows come home). My friend Claire knows medieval history, my friend Kevin is a go-to for herbal information and cookery; my friend Ellen is a stunning well of mid-20th century American pop-culture. When I started working on Sold for Endless Rue I discovered that my friend Tess, who had been the administrator of Clarion when I went there, knew tons about the literature of medieval medicine.  Connections FTW!

And never forget that you might be the one who knows something someone else needs to know.  And that feels really good too: you get to be the pro from Dover and expound on something near and dear to your knowledge base too.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

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The Things I Know, The Things You Know — 5 Comments

  1. The other powerful resource is a broad sampling tool like Facebook. Nothing like vox pop, if you want to know who is the very latest teen idol, or whether boys still use Axxe. People can turn and ask their teenaged daughters, and post right back. I have discovered that people will tell you anything, ANYTHING, if only you say you are writing a book. Tell me about your kinky sex, or how to mainline heroin with a dirty syringe in exhaustive detail, I ask. And they do.

  2. When I needed to research fingerprints I called the state crime lab. Within an hour a tech called me back and talked for 1.5 hours on her dime–this was when long distance calls cost a lot. More than I needed to know but notes taken and neatly filed… um… somewhere. The pertinent stuff is in the draft of the book.

  3. A thriller writer friend of mine once phoned a local chemical supply house. How much hydrochloric acid would it take to fill a bathtub? What concentration should she buy to dissolve a piece of meat that weighted, oh, 180 lbs? Could she carry the carboys in her truck? Would it be necessary to reglaze her tub? What about the sewage system? The clerk was perfectly informative and told her everything she wanted to know. Not a question did he ask in return, about that 180 lbs of meat or anything. (Some people are NOT writers.)

  4. Another research is this venerable email list for research librarians:

    STUMPERS
    [email protected]

    Not as busy as it used to be, but folks there have been wonderful finding out-of-the-way info for me, which has included sending me copies of otherwise unavailable journal articles or book chapters.