Beyond Google: Using Subject Matter Experts / Ross Carley

Researching your subject matter is crucial when it comes to comprising your work, especially in the mystery genre. One small, incorrect fact can jar the reader from your storyline. Ultimately, you can lose the trust you have gained with your reader. That’s why it is always important to refer to experts in their field to help smooth over any areas that you are unfamiliar with. Balancing this new information is important as well. Killer Nashville guest blogger Ross Carley explains that it is necessary to engage the reader without overwhelming them, as he did in his novel, Dead Drive.

Happy reading!
Clay Stafford
Clay Stafford
Founder Killer Nashville
Publisher / Editorial Director Killer Nashville Magazine


knphoto-russ-rossBeyond Google: Using Subject Matter Experts
By Ross Carley

If your mystery significantly involves an unfamiliar topic, utilizing a subject-matter expert may be essential. In today’s world, topics such as terrorism and cyber-warfare that dominate the news provide excitement and interest for readers. If your plot involves cybersecurity and cybercrime, though, you’d better understand the difference between computer malware and a virus, and explain it at an appropriate level that engages readers without overwhelming them.

Some activities may feel straightforward to write about, depending on the author’s experience and background. For example, most of us are comfortable with processing email and doing research on the Internet, but when should you stop trying to wring information out of the Internet, or the library, or your social buddies, and find an expert who really knows your topic?

My favorite advice from mystery author and mentor Les Roberts (past president of the Private Eye Writers of America and the American Crime Writers League), early on in the days when I was trying to figure out what to write was, “Write what floats your boat.” Do I need to know a lot about such-and-such (fill in the blank) to write about it? Paraphrasing Les, ‘No. Write what you’re passionate about. Write what interests you. Your reader won’t be interested or passionate if you’re not.’

What if you’re really interested in horse racing, or cybercrime, or baseball, and you’re not an expert? You may wonder how to decide when you need to involve someone who is an expert, what a subject-matter expert is, and how to find one. You should involve an expert at some level for any area you don’t feel completely comfortable writing about. You may think that it isn’t really necessary if the subject area isn’t central to the plot.

Let’s say you’re writing a scene at a baseball game, but it could take place elsewhere. The fact that there’s a baseball game going on isn’t important to the story. So you think nobody will notice and you can gloss over it.

You might get away with it, but if you commit a baseball knowledge faux pas that could occur due to ignorance of the structure or rules of the game, you stand a good chance of creating a distraction for your reader that jerks them away from the plot. Put another way, it interrupts their suspension of disbelief that helps keep them involved. Put more bluntly, you lose credibility, and maybe you lose them.

I recently edited a story set in motorsports racing. The author apparently didn’t know the difference between an engine and a motor. The whole thing fell apart for me at that point.

So, find a subject matter expert to review your work if for no other reason than to ensure that you’ve eliminated unwanted distractions.

It’s generally agreed that a subject matter expert is a person who is an authority in a particular area or topic. Perhaps it’s a little too restrictive, but I think of a subject-matter expert as someone whose testimony on the subject would be admitted in a court of law. I have served as an expert witness and taught courses in topics including the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), so when I needed to drop a little espionage into Dead Drive, I felt OK writing it myself. The trick was to make sure that people (editors, reviewers, readers) who had never heard of ITAR not only understood it, but liked it.2kncover-russ-ross

Expertise can come from years of experience, or from a relevant educational background. Most of the time, experience wins out over education. To understand how things happen on a cop’s beat, don’t query someone with a Ph.D. in criminal justice. Ask a working police officer with significant relevant experience, as I did while writing Dead Drive. An example was my question of how a police officer who becomes a murder suspect would be treated by his/her peers.

Although you often need to go beyond information found on the Internet, it’s a good place to identify subject-matter expert “candidates.” They may refer you to someone else, but I’ve always found people helpful.

I’m now writing a murder mystery based in the motorsports industry (formula racing). Tentatively entitled Formula Murder, it is scheduled to be published in early 2017. I have limited experience in racing (most of it decades old), and I needed to create a formula racing series and venue out of whole cloth. A colleague with contacts in the industry introduced me to the former Race Engineer for Helio Castroneves. We’re having a ball working together!

The bottom line is to find a recognized authority in the area, and don’t be afraid to ask anyone. Working with these experts can be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of writing.


Ross Carley, pen name for Russ Eberhart, is the author of Dead Drive, a PI murder mystery. Russ has served as a military intelligence officer, an engineering professor, and the CTO of a defense contractor. He is a consultant in cybersecurity and computational intelligence. He lives with the love of his life Francie in Indianapolis. If you want to learn more, you can reach him at his website.


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Thanks to Tom Wood, Jonathan Nash, and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s blog.

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