Thursday, October 21, 2010

What’s the Weirdest Thing You Ever Did… For Research, That Is?

When people ask me about the research involved in my thrillers, I usually focus on the really cool things I’ve done. My first experience was signing up for a Citizens Police Academy in my town where I participated in over 45 hours of presentations from key departmental supervisors, field trips to various law enforcement offices, a late night ride along with an on-duty officer, and I even had an amazing day at the firing range where we blew up stuff with the bomb squad, shot all sorts of weapons, and watched the K-9 unit go through its paces. I also met my first police technical advisor who helped me with police procedure and crime scene analysis for my first suspense book. And since he knew I wanted to use a flashbang grenade in my book, he set one off near me so I could "feel" it. (Only an author would think this is a good thing. And no, getting my hair blown back by a grenade is NOT the strangest thing I’ve ever done.)

Still solidly on the side of good things, I also have taken a tour of a state of the art crime lab. And last year, I visited Washington DC and toured the FBI at Quantico (where I shot weapons at the FBI firing range and heard a presentation by the only FBI Special Agent who interrogated Saddam Hussein before he was executed), the CIA at Langley, the US State Department and the US Postal Inspectors. Some very cool adventures.

But I’ve also done some peculiar things that I rarely talk about—until now.

My husband once found me stumbling around in a dark room—with the lights completely turned out—because I wanted to know what it would be like to move around with a hood over my head. One of my characters had a childhood tragedy that left him afraid of the dark. And his way of overcoming his weakness was to immerse himself in his fear and fight "sighted" attackers without the use of his eyes. He developed a 6th sense in the dark and I wanted to know if I could “feel” a wall before I ran into it. Most times, I could. Most times…

And one time, when I was stymied by my plot, I walked away from my computer to clear my head and found myself watching an old movie, Gleaming the Cube, a 1989 skateboarding flick with Christian Slater in it, when he was really, really young.

When my husband came home, he saw me sitting on the sofa in the middle of the day when I normally would be writing. He asked what I was doing—after seeing Christian Slater on the small screen—and I told him I was working. Yeah, right.

After he laughed--like he seriously didn't believe me--I walked calmly into my office and outlined the rest of my novel. That book became my debut novel – NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM – and it sold in auction. I saw something in that silly movie that triggered the solution my brain had been searching for. The whole plot fell into place after that. Cool, huh?

The way I figure it, I owe everything to Christian Slater. I’m even considering putting together a research workshop on the Six Degrees of Christian Slater. I may have OTHER things that I’ve done that are so out there they may never see the light of day, but that’s for me to know, and you to find out.

So how far have you gone for research? Come on, it’s just the two of us. Tell me everything…


  1. I love the fact that you immerse yourself in those experiences. I'm curious to see what others have done. So far I've just done hours and hours of research and conducted a couple of interviews. One was with an FBI agent -so far that's been the highlight of my career. Can I call it a career if I haven't actually sold a book yet?

  2. When prepping to act the part of a Biblical prophet I learned that grasshoppers are very jittery and apparently don't like being in dark wet places. But they stop moving after one bite.

    Also, red ants are not cherry flavoured, and can survive several attempts at chewing...and they have bad tempers...and their jaws are more powerful than they seem.

    after that research I read in the Bible that John the Baptist did not actually eat red ants, just grasshoppers...Leonard got me back that day

    Black ants are pretty good though. ;-)

  3. One of my characters is a plastic surgeon specialized in gender reassignment surgery. I befriended a surgeon and spent 80 hours looking over his shoulder in his operating room. Another character is a tank commander in the Chinese army. I took a virtual course learning the tasks of the driver, gunner, gun loader and commander of a tank. I have done other things but I can't mention them as they might be considered illegal.

  4. In pursuit of greater knowledge and because I like to understand and make first assessments myself...As an archaeology student, I made sure to take up the forensics track when it was first offered at my college. My friend was into forensics and I was in to archaeology. It does help with the archaeology and it does give me a better depth for my stories.

    So, I've worked with animal and people bones, facial reconstruction on real skulls. My teacher had worked and testified on a couple of high profile cases. I had a chance to work with and talk (and see) with a state medical examiner a mid-air plane crash fall out, mining accidents, some desert remains, and the skull of a 15 yr old murder victim. Yeah it was a few years before I could enjoy stuff like CSI, because I knew exactly what damage was done to the body and would have bad dreams about tracking down serial killers. Oh, and work with forensics dental people can be interesting too.

    However, I am jealous- shooting and blowing things up is way more fun. I've done some shooting, but not any blowing things up.

  5. When I was developing MAKEOVERS CAN BE MURDER, which involves my character going to a plastic surgeon, I had some cosmetic surgery done. I wish I could say it was strictly for research, but it was mainly because I wanted to have a new author's photograph taken. (And to be able to wear a smaller bra). As I was undergoing the knife, however, I took copious mental notes.

  6. Great examples, Jordan, on a fun topic. I really enjoy the research portion of the craft as long as it doesn’t take over and eat away at my time. I haven’t done anything quite as wacky as some of your examples, but I’ve had some interesting conversations with experts that, under different circumstances, would have raised the eyebrows of the authorities and probably placed me on an FBI watch list. As an example, I’ve worked with the folks at North American Aerospace Defense Command on the best way to bring down a commercial airliner, and the experts at the Australian Venom Research Unit instructed me on how to murder someone and leave absolutely no trace. The most recent was for my WIP and involved in-depth discussions with a former assistant director for National Security for the White House and a branch chief for the Department of Homeland Security and TSA. After convincing both that I was really a writer and not a terrorist, I was able to learn how to smuggle a low-yield nuclear device into the country, and specifically how to bring it through border security even though there was a radioactive footprint. Now I’m hearing strange clicking sounds on my phone. Should I be worried?

  7. Several tours of the Oakland County Medical Examiner's Office and interviews of ME investigators and forensic toxicologists. Interviewed a former military helicopter pilot on some details I needed for The Fallen. Exchanged emails with author and researcher Wade Davis (author of The Serpent and the Rainbow) about various ways to poison people using tetrodotoxin (which he believes is used to creative zombies in Haitian Vodoo).

  8. Jeramy--For me, if you've completed a manuscript, you're an author. The fact that you haven't sold? Details, details. I'm wishing you buckets of luck that you get there.

    I do much of this research because it interests me. And you never know what will come of a germ of an idea down the road. Research breaks up the hours spent in front of the computer and it stirs my imaginings. Always a good thing. Thanks for commenting.

  9. Basil--You always make me pay attention with your comments, but today you grossed me out. Well done!!

    I'll have to give black ants a whirl...

  10. Pantau--
    Thanks for stopping in. Reassignment surgery. Wow! I've been working my way up to an autopsy. You've given me the courage to do that. Thanks.

    And as for pleading the fifth on activities you don't want to talk about, you remind me of my weapons expert. That's a guy with secrets, for sure.

  11. Chaco--I never thought of archaelogy and forensics being linked, but I can definitely see that. Great example. And you've seen such interesting things.

    One of the saddest websites I've seen is DOE Network. Looking at all those unidentified faces and recreations of images can really get to you.

    Try going down the pictures and making up backstories for some of the more interesting ones.

  12. Oh, Kathryn. I can just see you taking mental notes on your own surgery. LOL Too funny. Just like an author.

    I often tell people that I sacrificed a body part to sell my first book. That story is on my website, on my FOR WRITERS page under FIRST STORY, but it's sort of true (with a fictional bent).

    Thanks for the chuckle.

  13. And Joe--I'd have you staked out in a heartbeat. What a great story about gaining the trust of people in authority. Amazing!

    Lisa Gardner has a funny story about doing some research right before a trip she was going to take. And a few days before she was taking off, she had an FBI friend over for dinner and told him what she'd been up to. He gave her a sideways glance and got on the phone. Apparently, the whole Watch List thing is more truth than fiction. He had to explain she was an author and get her record cleared or else she might've had a bad day of travel.

  14. Hey Mark--Great to virtually see you here. Your poison research reminds me of the many breakfast conversations I have with my husband where we plot how to dispose of bodies or get away with murder. We like to call it - Quality Time.

    And it's nice to know where Haitian Zombies come from. Good to know.

  15. Wow, that trailer brought me back. I even experienced an (extremely) fleeting pang of nostalgia for my big hair days.
    Let's see, my strangest thing...the truth is, most of the jobs I took to support myself in my twenties were stranger than any research I've done. I recently toured the SF bomb squad and got to spend ten minutes in the "Hurt Locker" suit, does that count? I've done the Quantico tour too, and also did the LA Crime Lab seminar during LCC.
    The truth is, for the past two books most of the research I've been doing has been on such gnarly subject matter (hate groups, drug cartels) that I stick to doing it online and through interviews with LEOs.

  16. Hey Michelle--That HURT LOCKER suit would be really cool. I bet the weight of it is intense. A love hate kind of thing for the wearer.

    Readers sometime ask me if I travel to the places I write about. I usually tell them that the places I write about AREN'T SAFE. They can get me killed.

    There's something to be said for staying at home and eating bugs, right Basil?

  17. I've been thinking about signing up for our local police program, for just the reasons you suggested. I think you've just pushed me over the top. Though as you said, I don't think my wife will think of it as research..

    The one weird thing I have done is ride with some extremely fast motorcycle riders. I couldn't keep up with them most of the time, but it was interesting to see what made them tick. Adrenaline junkies, every one of them.

    What's really interesting is that driving the fastest car at the track doesn't compare to riding a bike, dragging your knee around a corner on a twisty mountain road, with a dropoff just a few feet away.

  18. Hey there Doug--The thing I found about the police academy that I didnt mention is what you'll get out of it--through an author's eyes. I found TONS of compelling stories reading between the lines of what the officers shared. And you'll find that - as an author - you'll ask different types of questions than the rest of the class who are attending for very different reasons than you would.

    One of the tactical guys had a 2-yr old baby boy. And when I asked him how he could volunteer for such a risky "extra" assignment, he told me that he'd rather work tactical than make a traffic stop. The training they get and the trust they all share as a team is safer in his mind. So getting an insight into the mentality of a police officer is worth the price of admission. They also had us walk thru scenarios that are very real to what they face. And the adrenaline pumping through your body when you have to confront a drunk or walk into a dark building and accost an armed man who could be the owner of the building or a criminal--it's an amazing opportunity to see what situations they face.

    If you get an opportunity to do a ride-along, I would do that too. Especially at night.

  19. I was in the middle of writing an emotional scene in my book where a detective is gunned down in front of his house--while his wife watches. That scene was hard enough to write, but the same night that I attended my CPA class, I got to see a video of a trooper who got shot many many many times by a crazed meth head on the shoulder of a highway. His pleas for the man to stop still ring in my head. I cried all the way home and went back to re-write a scene that already had me twisted in a knot. Like I said, the things you take away with you from these CPA classes are priceless. Lifechanging, really.

  20. Um, don't you mean you owe everything to the *writer* of Gleaming the Cube? I would expect confusion on this from the general population, but we, as writers, should be acutely aware of where the credit goes, don't you think?