Saturday, November 03, 2007

Ask And You Shall Receive

An easy post for a busy time - a recommendation of a great resource for self-employed writers. For years I dreamed about some kind of fantasy research service on a cheap rate phone number, on hand 24/7 to help track down those tricky bits of knowledge which story writers of all stripes need to know on occasion, to give their stories the ring of truth. We're talking about things that go above and beyond the scope of Google, which might for whatever reason appear in your play; procedural issues in obscure professions, finer points of international law, the details of certain medical conditions, what a certain experience feels like, the range of opinions out there on a controversial issue ... the list is endless. Try as we might, writers of fiction can't be expected to know everything, and until recently, these gaps in our knowledge meant lengthy delays to the writing process while we rang friends, colleagues, tangential contacts, total strangers, set up interviews, visited specialist libraries or Googled ourselves into oblivion.

No longer. Yahoo Answers is the answer to my prayers, and has saved me many a wasted hour.

Not that it's a substitute for doing proper research, of course, of which I am a great exponent. Nothing can replicate an hour's interview with a specialist in their field. But for those moments when you're sitting in front of a half-written plot line or scene, inspiration strikes and you think: I know! What if she was killed with a radioactive necklace!? BRILLIANT!!!! ... and then the sinking feeling as you realise that, however brilliant the idea, you know next to nothing about radioactive metals, where they're found, how they're transported, their levels of toxicity, their availability on the black market ... days of agonising research stretch out before you. Google results for 'radioactive metals' are overwhelming. The Wikipedia entries appear to be written in chemical symbols by PhD students with numerical tourettes. No-one you know scraped more than a C grade in GCSE Science.... but there, shimmering on the horizon, an oasis of specificity in a desert of bewilderment: Yahoo Answers.

Alright, sometimes it is full of pricks, and 8 out of 10 answers will be daft, rude or irrelevant. There's also an American bias to some of the answers, but this can be minimised by asking a question first thing in the morning UK time when they're all still asleep. But there are plenty of diamonds in the dirt and it's got me out of many a knowledge-vacuum-scrape recently. If nothing else, it's a great way to blow open an idea, anonymously if you want, solicit opinions, get directed to online resources you'd never have found, and sometimes even get talking directly to a specialist mind. All in under an hour, so if you decide not to run with that idea, no great loss.

Here are some of the questions I've been asking recently:

What kind of radioactive material is used in radiotherapy? If it was stolen could it harm anyone?

Could the internet as a whole ever be controlled or censored by private interests?

What is the opposite of terrorism?

Is there any chance my old mobile phones from 1998-9 could become antiques?

If I find ancient treasure buried in the back garden of the house i own, can i keep it?

Why have men evolved to be hairier than women?

Could Heaven and Hell get full?

How many human beings have lived and died since our species first appeared?

In Islam, is everything that happens though to be God's will?

Why did the urge for revenge evolve in human beings?

Of course, these are just the sensible ones. You can be as silly as you like - and yes, I did think about it, and no, I decided not to share those with you. (You're all under the impression that I'm a serious dramatist, after all). Suffice to say that a cold winter evening in can be merrily whiled away under a Yahoo alias. But you know what they say: Ask a silly question...


Natalie said...

There is actually a telephone line where you ring up, ask them any question you can dream up and they will find the answer for you. You probably have to pay a premium though... I will recall this for you and let you know - may always come in handy.

(BTW: This same telephone idea had occurred to me years ago and I decided it would be called 'The Oracle'. The actual name is nothing near as inspired as mine was though obviously....)

Fin said...

Welcome, Natalie. Nice to see a new name, it's been quiet round here for a while.

I have actually heard of the phone line thing - my other half's brother briefly worked for them when he was a scruffy student, which i have to say didn't inspire me with confidence about the quality of the info on offer for £1 a minute. Apparently it's mostly pissheads ringing up looking for answers in pub quizzes. The Oracle would have been a good name for it though.

I notice you're Manchester based. Did you by any chance find me through my good friend at Kitchentable?

Natalie said...

£1 a minute - you have to desperately want to win that quiz. Whenever my work put on a quiz between the departments, everyone has their blackberry under the table - very un-gentlemanlike.

I came across you through David Eldridge's blog. Am really really quiet at work so am mooching through his links and enjoyed reading the discussion on Rejection.

I will check out Kitchentable!