I love research.
I think this love of research stems from my tendency to procrastinate. In school, I was really good at cramming at the last minute–back then, it was hitting the library the day before a major paper was due, reading everything I could on the subject, then writing all night. The last-minute projects inevitably garnered me a B+ or A- (which, had I spent more time researching, editing, and revising would have been an A–but we work we our natural talents, right?)
Last week I finished writing one book; this week I started the next. I realized real quick that my knowledge of modern private investigators was slim, and the books on my shelf were woefully outdated. The book I have on Missing Persons was printed in 1993–before Facebook, before MySpace, and before Google. Needless to say, useless.
I emailed a P.I. friend of mine asking for two books she’d recommend on modern P.I. techniques, and wondered if there was a P.I. ride-along program . . .
We are truly blessed writers to have so many resources at our fingertips. In the past twelve months, I’ve participated in two SWAT training exercises, toured the FBI Academy at Quantico, visited FBI Headquarters in D.C., toured Folsom State Prison (with fellow ITW author James Rollins), and took a second trip to the Sacramento County Morgue to learn how they preserve evidence. If you really twist my arm, I’ll admit being a non-ambulatory victim during SWAT training was probably the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time . . . which shows you what a boring life I lead!
ITW members are also invaluable resources. I have all of Dr. D.P. Lyle’s books–medical books for writers; author C.J. Lyons has answered my most arcane medical questions–even questions related to my supernatural thriller series; and former cop and forensic artist Robin Burcell is always available to answer questions about being a cop. One of my favorite research books on the paranormal is THE CRYPTOPEDIA, written by ITW member Jonathan Mayberry (and David Kramer).
Some people may think that research for a paranormal book is strange, but I believe that the only way to sell a reader on the world you’re creating is to base it in a world you (and they) understand. My Seven Deadly Sins series is a supernatural thriller (or urban fantasy or paranormal romance–whatever marketing wants to call it is fine with me,) based in our modern world. I have demons released from Hell by an evil occult bent on finding the key to eternal youth. This is nothing new–for thousands of years, the hope of eternal youth (or eternal life) has been a part of most, if not all, religions. It was important to me to understand the basic foundations of this quest and then the darkest aspects of what it means. And it’s hard to write a book about demons without understanding exorcisms, the old Catholic church, Judaism, and witchcraft, including black magic.
While the series itself is built on a paranormal premise, I wanted it to have enough “real world” facts to make it even scarier.
I think this is why monsters don’t really scare me (psychotic clowns living in the sewer excluded), but serial killers terrify me. Real people who look normal, even attractive (Ted Bundy anyone?) but are down to their core evil.
What I loved about writing the Seven Deadly Sins books, most recently CARNAL SIN (Ballantine, July 2010), is merging my forensic and crime fiction research with my paranormal research.
For example, in my series the Seven Deadly Sins are released from Hell as incarnate demons. If they touch you, your conscience is stripped away and you act on your deadliest sin. I have a sheriff in the series who, while she has seen the paranormal at work, believes that there is a scientific–and logical–explanation as to why some people are infected by this demonic virus. She, with the medical examiner, are looking at the autopsies to give them answers, and discover (thanks to C.J. Lyons!) an enlarged amygdala, a primitive part of the brain with a role in processing memory and emotional responses.
I’ve learned (the hard way!) that less is more when writing about something I know very little about. So I took the basic scientific information about the amygdala and brainstem, then made up the idea that the demonic virus changed this, that this is in fact a physical “conscience” that when damaged changes the behavior of the victim–and they act out their worst sin, to deadly results.
Why? Because I needed something I could buy into. I had to believe it could happen, otherwise I’d never be able to convince my readers to suspend disbelief and believe in the story.
After writing two books in my supernatural thriller series, I’m writing two romantic thrillers–no demons in sight (except for the very human evil that my protagonists face.)
Looking at my bookshelves, I realized I have nearly as many paranormal research books as I do forensic and crime research books. But nothing compares to on-hands research: shooting at the gun range with the FBI firearms instructor; “bleeding” during SWAT training that seemed so real my heart raced when the men in black came in with guns; being cuffed during a scenario, down on the ground, and immobile while the tactical team cleared a building.
Real people do this all the time with real bullets, real blood, and real bad guys. I don’t. I just write about them. But the research trips have helped me, a boring mom of five who quit her equally boring job in the California State Legislature to write, tell stories with more confidence and truth.
I just hope I don’t have to face a real demon–or a real bad guy–to write about them convincingly.
Allison Brennan is a New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of fourteen books and four short stories, including Killing Fear, Sudden Death, Original Sin, and her latest release, the supernatural thriller Carnal Sin. She’s also a contributor to “100 Must Read Thrillers” with her essay on Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” Married with five children, she lives in northern California and is currently writing–and researching–book two in her Lucy Kincaid romantic thriller series which launches in January of 2011 with “Love Me to Death.” Visit her at allisonbrennan.com or check out her Seven Deadly Sins series at sevendeadlysinsbooks.com.