WRITERS: DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW? Sharon St. George
I recently heard a presidential candidate make a statement in a debate that has stayed with me. In justifying his qualifications for the office, he said, "I know what I don't know."
To most ears, that would sound like an oxymoron, but the implication was that, as the leader of the free world, he would do his due diligence before deciding on any course of action. He was willing to admit that he had a lot to learn. In other words, he knew what he didn't know, and he was willing to admit it—and to seek out the best sources to round out his knowledge base.
I soon began thinking about applying his comment to writing. From personal experience, I know about rodeos, horses, llamas, hospitals, and libraries. That was a good start when I began to plan Checked Out, the second book in my Aimee Machado series. As I started filling pages, I sometimes found myself needing to know something that was not a part of my personal knowledge base. When that happened, I knew what I didn't know.
As a former library worker who spent many hours on the Reference Desk, I've developed great respect for the concept of primary sources. That background has served me well and saved me from embarrassing myself in print. At least so far.
The Internet world gives us easy access to resources. It's hard to imagine anything that could not be found there. The trick is to know what we need to know. If we see another crime writer describe the "smell of cordite" after a gun battle, do we assume that we can use that same sense of smell in one of our own scenes? No, no, no! A quick search of cordite will tell you that the smell of Cordite in the air is erroneously mentioned in modern fiction. Turns out cordite hasn't been made for the past seventy years and hasn't been used in firearms for several decades.
Unfortunately, too many contemporary writers don't know the difference between cordite and gunpowder. In a recent TV episode of Elementary, Sherlock Holmes mentioned smelling cordite. But don't blame the actor who spoke the line. The writers obviously didn't know what they didn't know about cordite.
This faux pas is a perfect demonstration of why we writers mustn't blindly trust secondary sources for details that are not in our personal knowledge base. An Internet search may be a start, but many Internet sources are unreliable, so when in doubt, drop in at your local library and consult a reference librarian. Or go to a primary source. How is a full body mount of a horse constructed? I asked a taxidermist. What are the pros and cons of a vegan diet? I consulted a medical professional. If you need to know something specific, someone out there can tell you. But first, make sure you know what you don't know.
Sharon St. George Bio:
My love of reading led me to earn dual degrees in English and Theatre Arts and to try my hand at writing. Before my Aimee Machado Mystery series was published by Camel Press, I had written advertising copy and feature stories too numerous to count, three plays, and a book on NASA’s space food project. I’m a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, and I serve as program director for Writers Forum, a nonprofit organization for writers in northern California.
Book Blurb for CHECKED OUT, book 2 in the AIMEE MACHADO MYSTERY SERIES
When rodeo cowboy Cody O'Brien is found dead in his horse trailer, it appears that his horse, Game Boy, is the culprit. Aimee Machado, health sciences librarian at Timbergate Medical Center, has no reason to doubt the preliminary finding—at first. Cody had been in the hospital awaiting an operation the night he dies, but his checked himself out. Had he reason to believe his surgeon, Dr. Phyllis Poole, was incompetent? Or is his death related to his complex relationship with his family? It turns out his father is dying, and four people other than Cody stood to inherit: his young trophy wife, Echo, his son James, his daughter Keely, and her fiancé, Tucker.
Aimee is highly motivated to investigate. She once had a crush on his brother, James, who has now set his sights on her. The missing nurse, Laurie, left Aimee a desperate phone message the night she disappeared. Moreover, Aimee's friend and co-worker Cleo has elicited her help to discredit Dr. Poole.
Aimee is already confused romantically. Although it pains her, she is trying to keep Nick, the pilot she loves but does not trust, at arm's length. But his help proves too invaluable to refuse. Can Aimee ferret out the truth without losing her job and her life?
Checked Out is the second book in the Aimee Machado Mystery series, which began with Due for Discard.