There’s a topic that’s only come up for me a few times in reviews, but one that I see done badly enough that it’s worth mentioning. In my experience, everyone above a certain age has taken enough of an interest in some niche field that they can be considered an amateur expert in it (as opposed to people below a certain age who frequently feel like they’re experts in everything). Of course, add on top of that any professional expertises that someone might hold. When can these things be useful?
My particular knowledge base includes aviation (professional) and classical music (amateur), and I’ve advised authors on such details many times, from telling the author of a military fic that no, in fact, airplanes don’t work that way to aiding a writer in selecting proper terminology and procedure when he wanted his story about a musician to be technically accurate (one that, unfortunately, he doesn’t seem interested in continuing anymore). Such details escape the majority of readers. To be sure, John Q. Public isn’t going to know or care why it’s incredibly problematic for a propeller-driven aircraft to get anywhere near the sound barrier, so he wouldn’t see it as a plot hole. But conversely, he’s also going to gloss over the correct version without knowing any better, though it’s not going to turn off those who do understand the subject matter.
So, the first point I want to make is: do your homework. Maybe it’s just a pet peeve of mine, but it really rankles me when I see an author that’s clearly stepped outside of what he knows and would prefer to guess than research it. For brief ventures into unfamiliar territory, Google and Wikipedia are your friends, and for more in-depth scenarios, find someone who seems to know the material and ask. It’s not a big time investment, and it’s worth the element of realism that it brings to your story.
For those that already have the detailed subject knowledge, how should they use it? These same little touches of realism are the obvious answer, but authors can be tempted to pull out all the stops, even deliberately show off. I’ve actually done so twice (both as yet unpublished, and I generally hate self-promotion, so no links for you). Can such a thing ever work? I obviously think so, since I’ve admitted to doing it, but you have to be very careful. So, when is it okay to go into that much depth on a subject, and how do you handle it well? I’ll discuss a few angles, and it’s certainly possible that multiple ones might apply.
First: It’s not that obscure a subject. If you want to get technical about how the weather crews operate, how they plan future events, what their thought processes are, etc., you could use appropriate jargon. These are terms that most readers will generally hear thrown about on the morning news anyway, so they’ll at least have a passing familiarity with what you’re saying. Unless you really turn it on full bore, you’re not going to lose the reader.
Second: You give plenty of context clues. If you’re going to drop in a piece of jargon, give the reader hints as to what it means. If I have a character who’s a gold miner, and a friend asks him how the new mine is coming along, he might shrug and say, “We found a bunch of cassiterite so far.” His mannerisms could indicate whether that’s a good or bad thing, but it’s still a throwaway detail that doesn’t matter unless you make it matter. Is that a low-grade gold ore, something with no gold but still useful, or a worthless lump of rock? Instead, he might say, “We found a bunch of cassiterite, but tin prices aren’t very good right now.” I’ve now established that it’s a tin ore, and in the story’s current economy, it’s not going to be a money maker. I could go on to imply that cassiterite isn’t a typical associate of gold, so it doesn’t bode well for finding any there. With a bit of context, I’ve taken a detail that might have flown over the reader’s head and made it understandable and meaningful to the story.
Third: You’re establishing a character’s expertise. This is best kept to small batches, unless it’s already covered by one or both of the two previous points. You can blast through justifying the character’s specialized knowledge pretty quickly, before the reader’s eyes glaze over. It may not even be important what the jargon means (in which case it may not be important if the reader is given the context or explanation to understand it, so long as it’s clear that he doesn’t need to), just that he knows it—provided you move along before it gets cumbersome. If he rattles off a few sentences about quantum theory, it quickly marks him as someone who probably knows what he’s talking about, on that subject at least. It could be that you just want the reader to know that character is intelligent in general, or that he’s an expert in that specific subject matter. Perhaps this knowledge proves useful in the story, so we know why that character is involved or why other characters are asking him for advice. To some degree, readers will come into a story prepared for some of this, depending on the characters involved. Anyone who reads an Octavia story shouldn’t be surprised if some musical jargon comes up.
Fourth: The specific knowledge is integral to the plot. If upon entering Carousel Boutique, a character gushes about the exquisite old landscape painting on the wall, its composition, brush strokes, and why the sky has turned green over the years, it sets her up as the perfect candidate to detect (or commit, for that matter) art fraud. If this passage occurs reasonably close to the big reveal, especially if it’s clear that the big reveal is imminent, there’s an immediate connection the reader can make that will lend importance to why you’re bothering to include these details. If, as is more often the case, this character’s expertise is introduced long before it becomes critical, then you have to give it a lighter treatment so it doesn’t feel like a rambling tangent, or else work it in a little at a time. There can be a fine shade of difference between our quantum physicist above and this point in that the former requires the character’s general expertise to be important, while the latter requires specific facts he knows to be important.
Fifth: You don’t care. Maybe it’s a pet project, an experimental piece, something done to prove a point, whatever. Knock yourself out. Just be aware that you’ll have a very limited audience.
So, are you an expert in something that might make an interesting aspect of a story? Or do you want to research a topic so you can go into a little depth about it? By all means, do it. But exercise some caution. Think of a subject about which you are completely ambivalent. How long would you be willing to read about it, and how much leeway would you give it if you could tell that the information would be pertinent later on? Your readers will probably give you the same amount of consideration.
By no means do I think I’ve been exhaustive here, but it’s what occurred to me within a few hours’ thought on the matter. What do you think?