NEW YORK TIMES bestselling authors Allison Brennan and Laura Griffin discuss how spending time with cops, CSIs, and SWAT jocks helps them write edge-of-your-seat suspense novels. Brennan and Griffin’s newest book, CRASH AND BURN, is a collaboration featuring the Southern California detective duo, Moreno & Hart.
Griffin: Some of my favorite writing advice came from my first boss, who was the news editor at the paper where I landed my first job. He told me, “Don’t write from your chair.”
Each time I begin a new book, I like to go on field trips. I track down people who have the same jobs as my main characters and then go interview them about what they do. Whether it’s a police sniper or a cold case detective, people out in the field are a great source of those colorful details that bring a story to life.
I’ve toured crime labs and FBI offices, even visited a body farm. One of the most fascinating field trips I ever did was in Los Angeles, where I got to meet LAPD’s elite SWAT unit.
Brennan: SWAT is a lot of fun. Through my involvement with the FBI Citizen’s Academy, I’ve participated as a role player in numerous SWAT training sessions—both small groups and large regional training days with more than 30 teams from all over Northern California.
I’ve watched first hand (as a bad guy or a victim) how individual SWAT teams address a variety of situations, but it’s what I learn during the subsequent de-briefing that provides the most useful information to bring my stories to life. Why did they approach the target as they did? What were they thinking? Often they relate real-life scenarios that have impacted their experience, reminding me these men—and a few women—put their lives on the line every day.
Griffin: I think making split-second decisions would be one of the toughest aspects of being a cop. While researching my last book I visited an LAPD training center and got to participate in a “virtual” bank robbery using a video simulator and mock weapons.
I failed miserably. During the first session I was shot by the bank robber before I even had a chance to pull my gun. The next round I was much quicker on the draw… and shot an innocent bystander holding a cell phone. The whole experience made me really think about the challenges police officers face on a day-to-day basis. In my job, if I make a mistake a copyeditor will fix it. When you wear a badge, mistakes can be a matter of life or death.
Brennan: I’ve been on some hair-raising field trips over the years, such as touring Folsom Prison with fellow thriller writer James Rollins. 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.
Griffin: If you’re a forensics geek like I am, another fun destination is a crime lab. Every time I visit one I learn something that blows my mind. Maybe one of my grittiest research moments happened at a Texas crime lab where I watched a CSI lift a set of fingerprints from a decomposed body. Not something you want to see right before lunch!
Brennan: Ditto the morgue! A little known fact about me … when I was in junior high, I wanted to be a forensic pathologist. One of the popular shows at the time was Quincy, M.D. starring Jack Klugman. Wouldn’t it be great to find out how people died and solve crimes? Okay … you can stop laughing now. When I took biology, I decided pathology was not for me. So when I toured the Sacramento County morgue I feared I wouldn’t react well to the autopsy I planned to observe. I’m happy to report that I did just fine … had I known that I would learn how to compartmentalize, I might have gone down a different career path. Walking through the morgue, cold storage, the decomp room … observing the pathologists and asking questions and just absorbing the atmosphere has helped me in my writing.
Griffin: But if you really want action, you need to hang out with cops. My first police ride-along was a morning shift, which I figured would be pretty tame. Nope. I learned that drug deals and domestic confrontations happen round the clock. I also learned that when a distress call goes out, cops come out of the woodwork to help each other. You have no idea how many cops are lurking in your vicinity until someone needs backup.
Brennan: I agree with Laura. My first ride-along reminded me that cops often double as family counselors – the first call we had was a daughter breaking her mother’s window because she’d been locked out of the apartment; the last call was a hit and run where the baby daddy hit the car of his ex’s new baby daddy after the first had allegedly threatened him with a gun. That was the only call where my deputy said, “Wait in the car.”
Research is a valuable tool for writers. Whether it’s reading books (I have over 50 forensic, crime, psychology, true crime books) or going on field trips or picking up the phone and talking to an expert, it’s important for thriller writers to try to get it right. One important lesson I learned over 21 books is that “less is more” – meaning, sometimes, too much detail slows the pace and bores the reader. Never let them see your research on the page!
Griffin: True. The best details are the ones that feel organic to the story. They are the details that bring the character to life and make you feel like you are reading about a real person with real life experiences. The people in the trenches of law enforcement have so many amazing and oftentimes unbelievable stories to tell. Over the years I’ve heard anecdotes I could never use in a book because they would seem completely outlandish.
As any cop can tell you, sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.