Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Niche Knowledge and the Inexpert Audience

Sorry for the late post, guys; my internet connection got knocked out last night, and I hadn't set this to post yet.  But we're back in business this morning, so have some slightly-late guest columnage!  Click down below the break for author and editor Pascoite's take on the use of technical jargon in writing for a general audience. 


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?


  1. Musical jargon in Octavia stories has tripped me up as a reader more than once. Describing music in writing is, in my experience, rather hard to do, and when you start using words like "glissando" regularly in place of, say, a character's emotional reaction, I think you're officially Doing It Wrong. That second note about providing context clues is really critical, I'd say.

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  3. For an example on the right way to do it, read pretty much anything by Michael Crichton. Actually, you don't even need a reason to read his work. Just do it

    1. Mmm... Feel free to hit me with the ninnyhammer, since I haven't actually read anything by Michael Chricton (except for maybe the book jacket on Prey, but that doesn't really count), but isn't his writing generally considered to be awful?

      Even though you're not supposed to speak ill of the dead, his books still seem to be the butt of just about every joke when professional authors talk about the craft. In one of Jim Butcher's writing workshops, Jurassic Park was given as an example of a successful novel with an excellent premise and terrible execution. Ursula Vernon used pages of the aforementioned Prey as a matte medium, because it was, "one of the worst horror novels I have ever started and not bothered to finish" and "I have a certain horror of defacing books, as so many of us do, so I had to find a really BAD book to shred for art, and this was that book". (And when she can quote "the moist beckoning lips of her vulva" as a line from the novel and say, "I turned the box a few times, learned a bit more about the narrator’s genitals, caught a fragment of a discussion of birth-control, saw the heroine’s tongue compared to a porpoise", it's really hard to argue with that. XD)

    2. Hm, I've never heard him described as a poor writer. Only real criticism I've heard regards State of Fear, but that's to be expected with a book about global warming (probably didn't help he suggested a detractor was a pedophile). That line from Prey certainly looks bad. I haven't read that one in awhile. Actually, the only Crichton I've read recently are his posthumous novels, which shouldn't be taken as typical examples of his writing as he hadn't finished them. Airframe's pretty short, so give that one a shot and see what you think for yourself

      His novels were more something from my childhood, so perhaps I'm remembering his writing being greater than it truly was

  4. A few things first:

    1. You're an aviator? Finally! I've been searching for someone to help me with the assembly and maintenance of my giant bird enclosure for months! It's so confusing. For instance, are you actually supposed to put birds in the wings, or are those just for show? And why do they provide so many jet turbines? I mean, I know birds need high-speed wind tunnels for exercise, but do they really need eight? And what's with all the places for holding bombs?! I feel like I'm missing some crucial bit of information about bird-keeping. Anyway, I eagerly look forward to any advice you can give me. It's a Stratofortress model with a maximum occupancy of 52, and boy do my birds need it. My last model only had a maximum occupancy of 47, which was plenty at the time, but they've been having babies like crazy lately, and it's getting a bit cramped.

    2. Now, I'm fully aware of the irony of this situation, but I have to ask. Does the phrase "pet peeve" annoy anyone else, or is just me? I know it's supposed to mean something someone finds especially irritating, but the fact that it's refereed to as a pet, as well as having that cutesy assonance associated with it, makes it sound like it's something people keep around to be annoyed by on purpose, which I find to be an annoying concept in itself. It's just... eugh. It gives me the same feeling I get whenever I see chihuahuas wearing shoes.

    3. "I generally hate self-promotion, so no links for you." - Pascoite

    What? No links?! But... I want links! Seven links! Scattered all throughout your article in an inconspicuous manner! I guess I'll just have to settle for this instead....

    There. Glad that's out of the way. Now, back to business. I'll try to say something more relevant to your actual post in my next comment.

    1. Try the F-117. As you can tell from the code, it will hold 117, but they can't be just any kind of birds; they must be fowl. I hope this will not be a problem.

    2. Don't worry, Pascoite, I'm a Chicken Vortex. Fowl are my forte. I just hope the cockpit is big enough that I can keep roosters separated from the hens, though. Seriously, babies everywhere.

    3. I can't say I share your feeling on the phrase "pet peeve," but I'm curious, got any suggestions for a replacement phrase? I would think "That one thing that consistently annoys me" would be too long.

    4. "I can't stand pet peeves."

      "Pet peeves are a personal bugbear of mine."

      "Pet peeves are my bete noire."

      "Pet peeves are dumb."

      "Pet peeves should die in a fire."

      "I am vexed by pet peeves."

      "Pet peeves doth protest too much."

      "Pet peeves make me want to flip off a box of baby bunnies."

      "I abhor pet peeves."

      "Pet peeves are not my favorite."

      "I don't like pet peeves."

      "Pet peeves are not my vade mecum."

      "F$%& pet peeves!"

      Also, to answer your question, if people just said, "Peeve" instead, then that would be perfectly fine by me.

    5. I will also add that NATO long ago adopted the convention of having turbomachinery and rotors spin counterclockwise when viewed from the front or top, respectively. This introduces two potential problems.

      First, this matches the Coriolis effect in the northern hemisphere, so would match nicely with your vortex. However, should you venture to southern climes, you may lose your vortex rapport with your aircraft. You may alleviate this by flying your aircraft backward or switching to a Warsaw pact model.

      Second, modern jet engine turbines use a forced vortex swirl, as opposed to the free vortex of older engines. Given that spares are nearly impossible to come by on those venerable powerplants of yore, and the obvious benefits of fuel economy, I hope that you won't find your personal vortex too restricted by the necessity of utilizing a more contemporary machine.

    6. Well, my vortex has always been partial to sub-equatorial climizzles (Go Australia! I love you!), so I suppose that if it came right down to it I could probably swing the other way for a—wait, did you just say bird aviaries are capable of flight?!

    7. With that many wings, how can they not be?

    8. Yo bird, I heard you like to fly...

  5. Well, some aircraft with propellers have flown at supersonic speed in level flight (though not by using the propeller as the main source of thrust), and some piston aircraft may have reached supersonic speeds in dives (the lack of ensuing rainboom certainly casts doubt on these claims). In any case, there are some very, very fast propeller-driven aircraft, though the little Cessnas I bounce around in are definitely not among them.

    1. Oh, there have been examples of propellers operating at supersonic speeds, but it's horribly inefficient and very noisy. Even at supersonic flight speeds, for example, air moves through a jet engine at subsonic speed. A propeller doesn't have a mechanism for slowing it down like that.

      And if we're to believe the shock angle from "Sonic Rainboom" (the well-known analysis that tried to estimate Dash's g-force while pulling up got it wrong because the person didn't understand what a Mach angle is), one would form around Mach 7. I wouldn't hold it against a piston-engine aircraft for failing to achieve that.

      Now, if we can just prod NASA into conducting rainboom experiments...

  6. By the way, historically, a lot of authors have had problems with this advice. Moby Dick has an incredible amount of text devoted to the technical facts of sailing and whaling, which greatly contributed to its foundering upon publication. Melville thought this was critical to the story he was trying to tell, but even today many critics disagree and reserve their praise the narrative portions of the text. Les Mis is filled with hundreds of pages of essays about life and social issues in France that are unconnected to the rest of the text (fact) and interminably boring (in my opinion). All of these essays are omitted in the majority of English editions of the novel. I actually find most of Michael Crichton's books completely unreadable and would not hold him up as an example of how to do this right - I did not get far into Airframe before giving up and I barely made it through the original Jurassic Park. On the other hand, I think Ken Follett is a writer who does a marvelous job of integrating history, facts, and niche information into the text in a way that blends seamlessly with the story he is trying to tell. I actually haven't run into too many stories on fanfiction that get bogged down in technical details, maybe because I am unconsciously avoiding these stories, or perhaps because I'm just not seeing a problem with what I am reading. In any case, this article has plenty of good advice that is worth keeping in mind while writing.

    1. Heh, I didn't see your mention of Airframe before recommending it to Sessalisk. Surprising, as that's not one of his more well known novels

      You really found his work unreadable? I kinda feel like a crazy person right now :(

  7. From the other perspective, I do think it would be nicer if authors could put in some more accurate details about specialist subjects. I like reading music-related fanfics, but I'd like them even more if they had appropriate references to things such as cadences, syncopation, and crescendos, rather than simple terms like "notes" and "chords" when describing a piece of music.

    Therefore, I support this post fully. Writers, pretty please could do your homework so that appreciative fans like me can nod our heads in approval?

    1. Heh. The two examples I wrote that I refer to in the article are both musical pieces. One's a short that some top men are looking at for me right now (Who? Top men.), and the other is a multi-chapter thing that got stuck after chapter 4, I haven't worked on in over a year, and just recently got some ideas on where to go with it. Perhaps you will encounter them at some point and be inspired to nod your head in approval.

  8. Good article, Pascoite!

    Being a "jack of no trades, master of none" type of guy, myself, I know how difficult it can be to try to write a story/character that's supposed to have superior knowledge in a field outside your own. It's one of those things that, if done wrong, has the amazing power of piercing the fourth wall and making not only the character look stupid, but the author as well.

    Interestingly enough, not having any idea what I'm talking about most of the time does have one convenient upside to it, and that's that when I do need to write something like that, instead of trying to figure out how I would explain it to someone that knows nothing about a certain topic, I just take notes as I learn about it, then lead them along the same path I followed, myself. Not step-by-step, mind you, but the same general direction. It can actually be kind of fun, assuming you're into that sort of thing.

    Anyway, I think the best advice I could give that hasn't already been said would be this: No matter how much you know about something, if you want to explain it clearly, then try teaching it to someone who knows nothing about it first. Not only does this require you to do your homework, but you'll also get valuable insight in the form of your confused listener's questions that will help you know what actually needs to be explained, what can be generally assumed, and the most effective way to relate that information in a way they can understand.

    For more information on that last point, see The Parable Game. It's fun.

  9. Just for fun, what're books you guys've read and have had your immersion broken by the author's lack of research?

    I've got:

    One for Sorrow: Two for Joy, by Clive Woodall, who seemed to think that "bird" meant "little human with feathers" when he was writing the book.

    The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, and yeah, this is a common one, but when someone who is not even particularly interested in the topics knows more about math and cryptography than the professionals in the book, then there is something seriously wrong going on.

    The Passage, by Justin Cronin. It has this one section where an amateur FreeCell player spits out a bunch of jargon about the game that is not even remotely true. Like about all the games being beatable (they're not), certain games being difficult (they're not), and implying there are around 128,568 hands in FreeCell (there are either a million, or, if you're using an ANCIENT version of Windows, 32,000). Also, he spelled it "free cell". Come on!

    And also, what books have really impressed you with the amount of research put into them?

    For me it's:

    Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. So much stuff about seafaring and zoology and I have yet to spot a fact that made me go "hm. Is that right?".

    Sea of Trolls, by Nancy Farmer. There were some random things thrown in there which were probably not historically accurate, like whatshisface being the creator of Beowulf, but the broad strokes of medieval life were probably some of the closest I've ever seen.

    Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart. I saw the very white guy name on the cover, the prose style and the "voice" of the narration and I resigned myself to a smarmy novel that was filled with Asian "flavour" rather than any kind of accuracy. I figured that the narrator's amusing asides were pulled out of his ass, but many of them were surprisingly accurate. Even the stuff about silkworm rearing had more truth behind it than I thought it might. It was a pleasant surprise!

    That's three for three! What've you guys got?

    1. I'm sorry, Sessy, but lately I've been reading mostly instructional things (The Mountaineer's Outdoor Basics Guide to Wilderness Navigation, Star Watch: The Amateur Astronomer's Guide to Finding, Observing, and Learning about Over 125 Celestial Objects, Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction), and while I am impressed by the research put into them, it's mainly because that's all they are.

      Even with that being the case, however, there's still one thing that I recall from books I've read before which writers often get wrong that has always bothered me, and that thing is close quarters combat. I'm thinking of The Wheel of Time series and Ender's Game in particular. For having main characters who are supposed to be trained in... actual fighting styles, it's surprisingly common when they get in actual fights for them to simply start flailing around randomly, then win by getting lucky. There's strategy! There's technique! It seems like a terrible shame to skip over interesting things like the fact that by striking someone in their suprasternal notch at different angles, it will cause their entire body to reflexively move in that direction, yet authors seem so eager to get straight to the bloodletting that they often do just that.

    2. Weird you should mention Beowulf. I'd almost suggested you read Eaters of the Dead

    3. Dan Brown's Digital Fortress is an even worse offender in this regard. It is farfetched to the point of being more fantasy than fiction.