(Are crime writers armchair adventurers or do they take their research so seriously to the point of getting hurt? Bestselling author Allison Brennan shows us that research is not all cocoa and cozy fireplace.)
Most authors—especially mystery writers—do a lot of research to make sure they make their stories believable. But no one told me how much fun — and thoroughly distracting! — research can be.
I recently posted on social media that I went down the Internet black hole and lost two hours. How does this happen? Far too easy. I’m writing, writing, writing … then need to look something up, such as what’s the statute of limitations for art theft. The answer is easy enough to find, but then there’s this link to a recent museum robbery and I have to read that … then that links to a list of the biggest heists in the US … and that leads to an article about Norman Rockwell … which leads to a real FBI case related to a stolen Rockwell painting … which lead to cat pictures. By the time I escape the black hole, it takes me ten minutes to figure out what I had been originally looking for.
Not all research is done on the Internet. Hands on research is even more distracting, and a lot more fun. I call these “field trips.”
One of my first field trips was when fellow author and friend Brenda Novak invited me to the Sacramento County Morgue to talk to the supervising pathologist and witness an autopsy. Yes, I recognize that most people don’t get excited about visiting the morgue, but I promise I’m (relatively) normal.
A week later, my husband’s boss invited us over for dinner along with a small group of people. His boss’s wife, Lori, had read a couple of my books and asked me what I was working on. I was happy to tell her—and then proceeded to tell her about my trip to the morgue (which was important to the story I was writing). I was specifically interested in “the crypt” where the bodies are stored before and after autopsy, and warned her that the only thing anyone can see are your feet—and they were quite ugly. Which is how I became obsessed with pedicures.
I didn’t realize that this wasn’t appropriate dinner conversation until my husband kicked me for the third time under the table.
That wasn’t the last time I went to the morgue for research … or the last time I put my foot in my mouth talking about morbid facts.
In 2008 I was reviewing copyedits and my editor had a question about something I wrote. I had no idea the answer, but she was right—I needed more specifics. So I called the local FBI office. Took me a few days (and a basic background check) to get permission to talk to the public information officer, and I ran the question by him. Apparently … my entire set-up (for a book already WRITTEN!) was wrong. The FBI doesn’t send an agent chasing fugitives around the country—they would forward the information they learned to the local office. Yikes! That was completely necessary for my book! But Steve was a good sport and let me brainstorm with him and I was able to keep the story intact with only minor changes. In fact, by having my agent violate FBI protocol and disobey orders helped set up the next book in that series.
That conversation with the PIO led to an invitation to participate in the FBI Citizens Academy. Along with a group of about 20 others, I listened to many guest speakers (FBI agents from all divisions, SWAT team leaders, a AUSA, and more.) They let me blow up a small bomb (under totally safe conditions!), we went to the gun range where we were given a lesson by SWAT, and we learned how to properly search a vehicle. A year later, my class joined others for a trip to Quantico and national headquarters.
But the best thing that came from this academy was being invited to role play in the annual FBI SWAT training drills.
These drills brought in SWAT teams from all over northern California. As a role-player, I would do whatever they asked me to do—I’ve played the part of victim and bad guy. I’ve been shot with simulation (it hurts!), handcuffed, and searched. I was both a bad guy and an innocent bystander in a traffic stop. I was a victim who had been shot in the leg during an active shooter scenario for a triage drill specifically designed for SW
AT teams with an embedded medic. We’re often told how to act based on real-life cases — i.e. be a hysterical victim, a hiding victim, a non-compliant spouse. I was once “married” to a wanted sex offender and one drill I had to let the cops talk themselves into the house in a warrantless search (and not make it easy for them.) After that, they had a warrant and I had to “get in their way” so they’d be forced to deal with me first. I’ve been instructed to hide during searches. One team didn’t find me — I was hiding behind a large, old console TV—to their peril. I had been given a gun and because they didn’t search for me, I ended up behind them — which could be deadly. It was addressed during the after-briefing.
The discussions after these drills are even more instructive than the drills themselves. I can listen to everything that the cops were thinking as they ran through the drill — and why. Every story is a juicy morsel to a writer. I don’t use them, but I have used variations. More important, is how these cops think—not only why they do what they do, but what they think in every situation.
I write for a living. I sit on my butt and make stuff up. My personal life is boring, but my characters live the lives of those I research. They get to blow things up, take down bad guys, solve crimes, and fight for justice. But sometimes … I get to participate too. I can’t wait until my next field trip!