Informing Your Manuscript, or, How to Use Your Friends and Strangers
I may be projecting, but I think it is common for writers to retreat into the worlds we're building and become insular in our thinking. This was true about myself, anyway. Over the last year and a half, however, I've definitely seen the benefit in looking outward for help in the writing process. In my completed ms, I'd written a mentally ill character. I was worried my portrayal wasn't accurate, so I asked a good friend who is a psychiatrist to read my manuscript. She gave the depiction of schizophrenia a thumbs up, but had some very interesting comments to make about the psychological state of some of the other characters. This experience prompted me to recruit readers with a wide variety of expertise. Another friend, a self-described redneck, was generous enough to read through and correct the hill country slang in my ms. He also made unexpected story contributions.
I am now working on a new ms. Having experienced the benefit of outside input, I have been in the business of interviewing experts to bolster the authenticity of my manuscript. What I've found is that people are only too happy to get a free lunch from a stranger and discuss what she's passionate about. I've met with a forensic anthropologist, medical entomologist, a parasitologist and a social worker. Each of the scientists invited me to her lab, and in the case of the forensic anthropologist, that means observing unidentified skeletal remains! (I am a major science dork, in case you can't tell.) I am hopeful I will get to meet with the city's medical examiner next.
While all of these conversations have improved my knowledge base, broadened my vocabulary, and made my story more real, the unexpected benefit has been the best of all - the gift of voice. All of these people are fascinating, and their demeanor, their words, their personalities, have informed my project. I now know I will always go through this process when shaping a story, even a non-technical piece. Interviews are fantastic creative spark producers.
In conclusion, as writers, we know we should have work critiqued by other writers, and peer review is hugely important. But what I've found is that input from experts can help bring your story to life, both early on through interviews and at the end, through manuscript critique. All you have to do is ask nicely and offer free food.
This is awesome, Carolyn. It sounds like you've been having some interesting lunches! I'm way too shy to approach strangers for research info, but maybe I'll get the guts eventually. This is very inspiring and encouraging. Love the advice to have them read the manuscript as well. Thanks!