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Research Love

I’m not a cop, I’m not a doctor, or a teacher or a nurse or a bartender or a scientist or a killer. I rely on reading, interviews, and “field trips” for my information.

Reading comes first: I have more than fifty forensic and crime research books. On my desk now is POISON, a Writer’s Digest book that I’ve used many times.

But reading doesn’t always work. Sometimes, I need to visit a place to get the feeling for it well enough to be comfortable writing about it. Because I don’t want to set a scene outside of the character’s experience. Meaning, if I’m going to write about a medical examiner, the M.E. isn’t going to describe every little thing they see because they’ve seen in a million times before. They’re just going to DO, so I want to set the scene through the eyes of the character while giving enough sense of place so that the reader feels that she, too, is there.

Interviews are also an important part of research. While I spend more time with books, interviews provide me with far more valuable information.

I use two types of interviews – emails and personal. Emails to friends who are experts in their field, like fellow ITW authors C.J. Lyons and Dr. D.P. Lyle, are extremely valuable. Recently, I tagged former sex crimes prosecutor turned fabulous thriller writer Allison Leotta for help in my upcoming novella 36 Hours—because she knows the legal system far better than me. I even once sent a list of questions to the fabulous romance writer Kristan Higgins to ask her firefighter husband to answer! Writers understand writers. I can give them the set-up and what I need to have happen, and they help me with the details. Or, better, if I’m stuck—if I have this great crime but haven’t been able to quite make it all work—I can explain what’s going on and we brainstorm.

I also will call upon professionals I don’t know—such as when I was researching Above Reproach, an indie novella in KILLING JUSTICE, I contacted the public information officer for Sacramento P.D. to find out how the sex crimes unit was structured. (I learned then that there were only six detectives assigned to sex crimes in the entire city of Sacramento. This authenticity—the pressure, the over-work–actually helped my story tremendously.)

Personal interviews are also valuable because conversations are proactive. I can ask follow-up questions and maybe learn something I wasn’t expecting.

While I love reading and talking to professionals, field trips are by far the most fun. I’ve been to the Sacramento County morgue where I toured the facility as well as observed an autopsy. I had been writing PLAYING DEAD at the time and wanted to know what a body looked like after being submerged in water for twenty-four hours. They had such a case! I went through Folsom Prison with fellow thriller author James Rollins and the assistant warden told us that if we were taken hostage, they would not negotiate. She was not joking. Needless to say, Jim and I stuck close to our FBI escorts.

One of my favorite activities is SWAT training where I get to role-play. Because I participated in the FBI Citizens Academy (where I earned the “My Characters Shoot Better Than I Do” award) I’m often invited to participate in training session. The instructors like to have role players to act as victims, extras, or bad guys. I’ve been “shot,” held hostage, handcuffed, and carried out as a casualty of an active shooter scenario. My next hands-on role-playing day is later this month. I’m very excited.

And one my most fun—and informative–field trips was visiting the FBI Academy at Quantico.

The first time I went was with the Citizen’s Academy in 2009, but I really wanted to go back before writing STALKED, the Lucy Kincaid book that is set in part at Quantico. I was lucky enough to arrange a private tour with the media representative thanks to my friends in the Sacramento field office. I was on the East Coast for a writer’s conference already, so it all worked beautifully!

What was wonderful was that I had the undivided attention of the Media Representative, who answered all my questions—some I had prepared and sent ahead of time, and many I came up with as we walked through the campus. I could write a dozen books set there, but then my research would start to show! My most valuable contact was meeting the SSA in charge of physical training and defensive tactics who became an invaluable resource for STALKED and STOLEN. PT is such an important part of a new agent’s training, and the SSA gave me so much information I knew I’d never remember it all. But I took good notes J

One inside tidbit I used was all the construction currently happening on campus. Detours and closed buildings and areas cordoned off. There’s a scene at a construction site on campus near the end of STALKED!

Some things frustrated me – like security issues. How could I have a killer at Quantico when everything is so secure? Access cards, security cameras, guard desk – not to mention that the campus is in the middle of a Marine Base! But I figured it out, stayed true to the story, and was able to use the security to my advantage.

But with all this research—which is a lot of fun in what can sometimes be a very solitary job—I never forget that less is more.

Most of the information I learned will never find its way into a book. But the feelings, the atmosphere, and some of the necessary details, will get there, and I hope the story is better for it. I also recognize that I write fiction—while I like to get the details as accurate as possible, the story has to come first. While some people love to read lots over technical details about computers, forensics, technology, and the like—I don’t. I like the details to work with the story, to value add to the story, not replace the story. Sometimes, I stretch the truth for the sake of the story.

STOLEN, my upcoming Lucy Kincaid thriller, takes place in New York City, which I’ve been to and explored enough that I could comfortably write about it. But STOLEN also deals with computer security, something I’m not proficient in. I had my go-to people for details, but I didn’t want to explain the how. My questions centered around: “Is this possible? Could this happen?” Tech people love to explain how to do things—but most readers don’t really care. They just want plausibility. And I hope I succeeded there.

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. One of the backstory plot points in STOLEN was that my hero, Sean Rogan, had been expelled from Stanford for hacking into his professor’s computer and revealing that his prof liked kiddie porn. I was skeptical that the school would expel him—I mean this is a GOOD thing, right? Get rid of a pedophile? But it’s an important plot point so I kept it, figuring it was believable enough.

Last week I read an article about a college student who was expelled for hacking into his university’s computer system and writing a paper to help improve security. He didn’t publicize the information, but shared with the college. And was expelled.

When I participate in SWAT training or tours, I feel like I’m almost in another career. I learn so much in such a short period of time, I can almost picture myself as a cop or FBI agent or forensic pathologist. A little known bit of trivia about me? When I was in seventh grade, I said I wanted to be a forensic pathologist when I grew up. That I’ve spent a couple days at the morgue was a genuine thrill. It was a job I could have done, and because I had an interest so long ago, I absorbed a lot more than I expected.

Being a writer is hugely rewarding, but I also get to live vicariously through my characters. I can be a new agent going through the FBI Academy. I can be a seasoned detective investigating a murder. And I can be a forensic pathologist finding the cause of death. At least for a few months.

Truly, I have the best job in the world because I can be anybody!


Allison Brennan is a New York Times bestselling author of romantic suspense and thrillers. STOLEN is her 20th novel.

To learn more about Allison, please visit her website.