A couple of incidents at Conflux are still bugging me. Two people asked for my email address solely so they could ask me questions. I tried to explain that they should be questions with easy answers, and I rather think that one person took that amiss. It wasn't personal. I'm pretty sure I understood where the person was coming from. I'm also pretty sure I sounded dismissive, though I didn't mean to. What I couldn't explain - because I had to be somewhere about five minutes before the conversation happened - was why I gave that answer.
I set aside specific time and space for answering people's queries. If you're at Conflux and in a conversation with me, I won't say "Don't ask complex questions." I might suggest a book to read or a website to look at or that one of my courses would suit the level of understanding the questioner required. The vast bulk of the time I give as accurate and direct answers as I can, whether the subject is urea in thirteenth century makeup or Jewish magic systems or how I analyse modern fiction.
On top of this, if I've said I'll do something like the menu for a banquet for nothing, I will gladly set aside the very long hours it requires. I do a bunch of work for nothing.
I don't, however, have a 9-5 job, and when the whole world wants to question me (which is what it feels like from my end occasionally) I have no time to earn money, or research, or write fiction.
I've devised simple rules to handle these conflicts. Firstly, I'm the one who gets to decide if your questions are more important than my life/income/sanity. Secondly, there are some people who get special passes because they've given a ton of stuff to me and other folks in their time and it's about time they received their just desserts (me ear-bashing them for hours).
There are some occasions (eg Conflux) where we're all open to the world and you can bring up the subject of researching your next novel or your favourite Medieval hero and we can explore it together. I also have 'ask any question you like' on the blog from time to time, and all you have to do is keep an eye on this space and one day there will eventually be an open season for answers.
If none of the above applies, then you want to work out how much time it might take for me to work out your answer. If it takes me 3 minutes, then as long as not too many people want pieces of my brain in a week, ask away. If I get too many quesitons and have no time, I'll put answering off till things improve at my end.
If the stuff you want to know is going to take longer and you think it might take much longer and you don't want to attend a course of mine or I don't visit your town and teach, I do consultations. For consultations we negotiate payment and I spend a proportion of each consultation teaching you how to answer your own questions if it's appropriate.
I mostly answer easy questions (one line answers, things you are interested in that are no-brainer to me) by email, but you've got a higher chance of getting questions answered if I know you so your email isn't trashed as spam by mistake.
I'm not a regular academic and don't have the income of a regular academic, though, so if the number of questions gets too high (which happened once, which is when I instituted rules) I have trouble earning enough to live on. You see, the bulk of my income comes from teaching classes on the subjects most people want to ask questions about.
This sounds as if I'm totally up myself, but I just want to pay my grocery bills and maybe have enough money over for time out with friends. Over drinks at a Con we can talk the Middle Ages or magic or food history or writing fiction all you like. If you want me to give you my email address for the sole purpose of answering questions, you're asking rather more than you think.
Let me let you into my great secret - get to know me and when we're friends, get my email address as a friend. How do you get to know me outside conventions? Try chatting on one of my blogs. It's not as if I'm so terribly hard to get in touch with online - and it's not as if I'm never accessible. I just have to put some general restrictions on how much of my life is used for what sort of activity.