I have no expertise in the area of Medical, Science or anything like that. (There is a reason that I’m the lawyer and my sister is the doctor) So, I was thrilled to see Candice’s post for today. Geek is the new Black!
Ever since geek became cool people love to read books or watch TV or movies about these types of characters. Just look at “The Big Bang Theory” heading into its seventh season and ranked as the third most popular show. Or the enduring popularity of Michael Crichton. Yet the exact reason that books and shows with geek cool are popular is the same reason they are intimidating to writers— the culture can be hard to penetrate for outsiders so capturing and accurately portraying these characters and their culture in a believable way is not easy.
So should writers, many of whom naturally studied English, avoid these characters or settings? No, but you will need to make extra effort to understand this culture before setting pen to paper. Don’t try to fake it or wing it, because I assure you, the techies will notice and are often vocal about their discontent.
The first step in developing these characters and settings is to determine what sort of technology you want in your book (medical, biotech, computer science, etc.) Once you know that, go online and look for credible sources. By this I mean university websites, research hospitals, and government web sites such as the National Institute of Health. What you want from this first step is to become conversant with current ideas and topics in the field relevant to your story. Make sure you also look at images as well as text. What does the laboratory or operating room look like? What kind of equipment is used? Techies love machines and tools. To make your story plausible, your characters need to use appropriate tools and have those tools scattered about to create the right setting. In addition to tools, carefully examine clothing. What sort of outfit does the typical expert wear and does this outfit change depending on the circumstance? For example, you may see a surgeon wearing scrubs during an operation, but when consulting with patients they wear trousers and a dress shirt with a lab coat over it. The caution with this is to be precise. A heart surgeon will wear scrubs. A clinician performing a minimally invasive in-office procedure won’t wear scrubs.
The next area of focus is language. This is the heart of creating a believable character. Each field of expertise has its own language. If your character can’t talk the talk they won’t be believable. That said, you don’t want your dialogue to be filled with jargon that is not understandable to the reader. So you need to find out key jargon for the field and sprinkle it in where it is most critical and appropriate. For example, your computer techie may talk about GUI (“gooey” or graphical user interface) or CPUs (central processing units). Your clinician may ask for the labs (laboratory test results) or say that he’s a PI (sorry, not a Private Investigator, but a Principal Investigator) on a clinical study. A believable character will toss these acronyms off with ease in conversation with peers because that’s how they talk every day. You can find some of these terms from internet searches (especially in chat rooms for experts in the field), by reading nonfiction books and, best of all, by being around and listening to experts.
Lastly, and likely the most difficult to capture, is the culture. What are people’s favorite activities? What sort of thing do they do that might make outsiders cringe, but is normal in that environment? What represents success? How do peers treat each other? How do people treat subordinates? What are the work responsibilities in the various roles? What is an average work day like? These are all questions you want to find answers to. In my books, I draw on actual experience of working in a lab, capturing the long work hours, the peer competitiveness and the strange dichotomy where you are drinking coffee surrounded by toxic chemicals, yet follow strict safety protocols. You may find some answers in print, but you may also need to interview experts. Some questions may not be answered honestly. There is a tendency to hide unpleasant aspects of any culture. This is exactly why capturing culture is the hardest thing to do, yet it is necessary to make the book authentic.
Creating authentic science or technology characters and settings is not easy, but it can be well worth the research time. Plus, the research can be applied to multiple books. So while it is easier for a person already steeped in the culture to capture these authentic touches, others can do it with a little work. Getting things right will make your fans happy and avoid those moments of outrage that occur when details are wrong. Yes, I admit to having yelled at the television (“It’s not X, it’s Y!”) or tossed aside books. The motto of science and tech writing is a little research goes a long way.
So, we have an expert here . . . hit her with your best questions.
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Candice M. Hughes is an award-winning poet and essayist. She has authored a wide variety of creative and nonfiction works. Her debut technothriller was Death on a Thin Horse. Her newest novel is Dead Evil, a paranormal thriller with an intriguing romance.
She is published in The Allegheny Review, The Lyon Review, and Pegasus among others. She is a recipient of the Ida F. Snell Poetry Prize and a Pen Works Honorable Mention for Creative Nonfiction. Other books include the Small Business Rocket Fuel nonfiction series.
Candice is also biotech consultant and professional medical writer. She holds a PhD in Anatomy and Neurobiology and an MBA in general business management with a focus on strategy and technology innovation. Her current passion is health-focused technology commercialization. For insightful posts and witty repartee visit http://www.candicehughes.com.
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