October 21 – 27: “What are your best sources for research?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Please remember to always cite your sources! This week we’re asking ITW members Ellen Butler, James R. Hannibal, Raymond Benson, Lois Winston, Mark Atley, Martin Roy Hill and Marietta Miles what are your best sources for research? Follow along by scrolling down to the “comments” section below.

 

Ellen Butler is an international bestselling novelist writing edgy suspense/mystery novels. Her award winning historical spy novel, The Brass Compass, was recently listed in a top 10 List of spy fiction –  By Women, About Women, on Crime Reads Her international bestselling Karina Cardinal mystery series was inspired by her time working on Capitol Hill and for medical association in Washington, D.C. Ellen holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration and Policy, and her history includes a long list of writing for dry, but illuminating, professional newsletters and windy papers on public policy.

 

Raymond Benson is the author of approximately 40 books. His most recent thriller is BLUES IN THE DARK, from Skyhorse/Arcade CrimeWise. His previous Skyhorse suspense novels were IN THE HUSH OF THE NIGHT (2018) and THE SECRETS ON CHICORY LANE (2017). Raymond is perhaps most well-known for being the third—and first American—author of continuation James Bond novels (1996-2002) and for the 5-book serial, THE BLACK STILETTO, which is currently in development as a feature film or TV series. Raymond is also a film historian/instructor/lecturer and a working musician. He lives in the Chicago area.

 

USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is a former literary agent and an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry.

 

Born in Alabama, raised in Louisiana, Marietta Miles currently resides in Virginia with her husband and two children. Her shorts and flash can be found in Thrills, Kills and Chaos, Flash Fiction Offensive, Yellow Mama, Hardboiled Wonderland, and Revolt Daily. Her stories have been included in anthologies available through Static Movement Publishing and Horrified Press. She is rotating host for Noir on the Radio, Dames in the Dark and a contributor to Do Some Damage Writer’s Blog.

 

As a former stealth pilot, James R. Hannibal is no stranger to secrets and adventure. He has been shot at, locked up with surface to air missiles, and chased by an armed terrorist. He is a two-time Silver Falchion award-winner for his children’s Section 13 mysteries and a Thriller Award nominee for his Nick Baron covert ops series. His first Clandestine Service thriller, the Grypyhon Heist, is out now from Revell.

 

Black Rose Writing published Mark Atley’s debut novel, THE OLYMPIAN, at the end of June 2019. His short story “Amber Alert” won Honorable Mention in a local contest. Recently, Ink and Sword Magazine (Twitter) featured Mark in their December 2018 Crime Issue. Mark holds two degrees in journalism and works as a detective for a suburb of Tulsa, OK. He has overcome learning disabilities and struggled with dyslexia.

 

Martin Roy Hill is the author of the Linus Schag, NCIS, thrillers, the Peter Brandt thrillers, and the award-winning short story collection DUTY, and EDEN: A Sci-Fi Novella. Martin’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, ALT HIST: The Journal of Historical Fiction and Alternative History, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Crimson Streets, Nebula Rift, Devolution Z, and others. His latest Linus Schag thriller, The Butcher’s Bill, was named 2017 Best Suspense Thriller by the Best Indie Books Awards, the 2017 Clue Award for Mystery and Suspense from the Chanticleer International Book Awards, 2018 First Place for Adult Fiction from the California Author Project, and the 2018 Silver Medal for Thrillers from the Readers Favorite Book Awards.

 

ITW

International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

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15 Comments
  1. I spent more than 20 years in journalism as a police reporter, investigative journalist, and an editor. Because of that, research is second nature to me. As a reporter, however, I learned to distrust human sources; too often they would say one thing on the record—and on tape—then deny saying it when the story came out. Instead, I preferred using government documents for my research.

    That was in the pre-Internet days when doing document research was an incredibly time-consuming ordeal. Obtaining court documents meant hours sitting in front of a microfiche machine looking up case numbers then asking the clerk to find the file for you. Simply looking up a newspaper article meant doing much the same thing in the public library. And using FOIA was equivalent to watching grass grow. I became an expert in using what was then a new database service called LexisNexis, even to the point of lecturing on its use to J-students in local universities.

    Today, the Internet is my favorite research tool. I know, many people still believe the Internet is an untrustworthy source of information. True, there is a lot of junk information on the Net, but there is also a lot of good information, too. You just need to know how to look for it.

    For example, while writing my sci-fi novella EDEN, which deals with American soldiers discovering an ancient Sumerian temple in Iraq and the secrets hidden within, I wanted to include some Sumerian language in the narrative. Searching the Internet, I found two Sumerian-to-English dictionaries that allowed me to salt my story with the ancient language.

    My Linus Schag, NCIS, thriller, The Butcher’s Bill, culminates with a supertanker destroyed by a massive explosion. From my U.S. Coast Guard service, I was familiar with such events and witnessed the aftermath of a deadly tanker explosion. However, today’s safety measures would prevent the type of explosion that destroyed the tanker I saw. I needed a realistic means of creating a blast despite today’s safety measures.

    Scanning the Internet, I was able to obtain the official findings of investigations into tanker explosions. I also discovered a merchant marine education site that had electronic versions of shipboard safety manuals. Between those two sources, I was able identify a realistic means for making my supertanker explode that fit with my plot.

    For the same book, I also needed to know what the inside of a supertanker looked like. I’ve served on ships, but I have never been aboard a supertanker. Using the Internet, I discovered that merchant seamen like to take videos of their cruises aboard different ships. I found YouTube videos that provided virtual tours of several tankers, from the bridge to the machinery spaces, from the cargo spaces to the living quarters, including the pool. Yes, these ships are so big they have swimming pools onboard.

    How did I find such information? The best place to start is the old, reliable and ubiquitous Google. Google maintains a massive index of online information, and its search engine is powerful. The secret is in how you use it.

    In the early days of using LexisNexis, you had to use Boolean search logic which uses search parameters such as “and,” “or,” or “not” to narrow your search returns. Most people who use Google aren’t aware that the search engine can use similar parameters to narrow your search. (See: https://support.google.com/websearch/answer/2466433?hl=en).

    Even if you’re not interested in learning Boolean logic, you can narrow your Google search and improve the pertinence of your search results by carefully choosing your search words.

    For instance, I’ve been toying with a plot for a WWII spy thriller. I set out to learn more about the spy craft used by Office of Strategic Service (OSS) operators during the war. When I simply searched for “spy craft,” I received 444,000 citations. That made finding the information needed equivalent to looking for that proverbial needle in the haystack.

    However, by narrowing my search to “spy craft OSS WWII,” I received a more manageable 15,000 citations. Adding the word “handbook” to the search reduced that to just over 6,000 citations and led me to a digitalized version of a WWII-era training manual used by both the American OSS and the British Special Operations Executive to train agents.

    Scholarly articles can also be a valuable source of background research for writers. One of the best sources for such research, assuming you do not have access to a research library, is Google Scholar.

    Using the same search as above, the search term “spy craft” returned 1,100 citations. Using the extended search term “spy craft OSS WWII” narrowed that to 144 academic citations. In some cases, the full article will be available through Google Scholar; in others, a link will take you to the publisher’s website where you can purchase the report.

    Setting a scene is important for pulling readers into your story. If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you can often rely entirely on your imagination. However, if your scene takes place in a real-life location some distance away, you may need to do some on-scene research. But what if you don’t have the funds to travel?

    I use Google Maps.

    Google Maps has the ability to take you right down to a street level view of most places on earth—including some 360-degree views. Google Earth offers similar visual research capabilities. When writing my military sci-fi thriller, Polar Melt—which takes place in the Arctic Ocean—Google Earth not only gave me aerial views of the region, but also surface level views as well.

    It’s sure a hell of a lot easier doing research today than back in the day.

  2. My first book was published in 1984. Back then, it was old-school go-to-the-library research. You had to travel to get first hand information. In many ways, I miss that.

    Even in the late 90s, when I was doing Bond, the Internet was still very young and didn’t have everything. I traveled to all the locations where I sent Bond and walked in his footsteps. You can’t beat allowing your senses to experience what your character experiences. (Granted, I didn’t jump out of airplanes without a parachute or get seduced by enemy female spies!)

    Today, as Martin above me says, Google Maps is your friend. You can go down to street level of a foreign city and walk around. You may not be able to go everywhere, but you can get enough of the layout and look of the place to write about it. That’s the next best thing if you can’t physically travel to a location.

    Over the years I’ve “collected” individuals who are experts in certain fields. I’ll go to them when I need help, or merely a suggestion. For example, I’m not a firearms guy–at all–and yet many times I need to write about firearms. I have a friend who is ex-Special Forces. I go to him whenever I need military or weaponry info, or if I need to ask, “Hey, what would I use if I wanted to… ?” Ian Fleming did the same thing. He collected experts. I have found that most people are flattered that you ask them something about their expertise and are happy to help.

    The Internet has been very helpful, but like Martin said, you have to be careful. Wikipedia, surprisingly, has gotten so much better than it used to be. Its reliability has improved tremendously over the last, say, 2-3 years. That’s a good place to start to get an Info 101 summary of what you need to find out. It’s a good jumping-off point.

    Research, for me, is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the writing process.

    1. I use Wikipedia to find links to primary sources and/or news stories on the topic I’m researching. As Raymond says, it has gotten better over time, but I still like to see the source material. If you go to the bottom of the Wikipedia entry, there are usually several citations for source material.

      For instance, using the same research subject “spy craft” on Wikipedia takes you to a page titled “Tradecraft,” a synonym for spy craft. The page contains a list of various techniques used in intelligence gathering. Go to the bottom of the page, and you’ll find a link to “A Compendium of Analytic Tradecraft Notes,” published by the CIA.

      1. I still haven’t forgiven Wikipedia for the days when it labeled my neurological condition (synesthesia) as a “mental disability” and cited a blog as the source for that particular zinger *eye-roll*. That was only four years ago. I go there for lists these days, that’s about it. But I agree that it has gotten better.

  3. Thanks for having me on ITw’s Roundtable Discussion.
    I didn’t have to give this question much thought, because, hands down, the most valuable resource I’ve used in research for all of my books is interviewing people. With DIAMONDS & DECEPTION, I was able to speak with former and current FBI agents, retired police detectives and a DC paramedic. All of whom helped give credence to my story line–from the organized crime, to the gang, to the human trafficking aspects.
    For my WWII spy novel, THE BRASS COMPASS, I was lucky enough to speak with WWII veterans, and a German Jew, who escaped a Nazi work camp and survived the war. I don’t think I could have written it without their help.
    In addition to the human interviews, I do deep research dives on the internet and there were some excellent websites that provided additional information on the human trafficking, such as The Just Ask Prevention Project. In my latest work, the next Karina Cardinal mystery, through networking, I’ve made contacts at National Geographic for my artifact research, and I’ve utilized varying websites to round out the rest of my plot.

  4. I generally base my plots on real-life events. I’m a total news junkie. I read two newspapers every day and watch both local and national news every night, often playing “what if” when I come across an interesting story. I have a loose-leaf binder filled with stories I’ve clipped from magazines and newspapers and downloaded from the Internet. Whenever I’m stuck for an idea, I read through my clippings, and invariably an idea will present itself. I’ve been inspired by everything from unethical fertility doctors to Ponzi schemes to local murders, not to mention a myriad of human interest stories.

    For instance, the plot for Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide, the eighth and newest book in my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, is loosely based on a murder that took place last year about twenty miles from where I live. However, going into specifics would constitute a huge plot spoiler.

    Besides the news, when it comes to research, most of the time I don’t have to look any further than my own life.

    Because I write an amateur sleuth series where my protagonist is the crafts editor at a women’s magazine, I’ve also incorporated my professional background as a crafts designer and editor into my books. For instance, Decoupage Can Be Deadly, the fourth book in the series, takes place in part at a consumer show held at a convention center. I spent many years working trade and consumer shows around the country.

    I’m also a Jersey Girl, born and bred. If you live in New Jersey, chances are you’ve known someone in the Mafia at one time or another. I not only went to school with several sons and daughters of “made men”, I had an uncle who did business with the Mafia, a great-uncle who was a Prohibition bootlegger in Atlantic City, and a grandfather who was the Elliot Ness of Essex County. (The bootlegger was his ne’er-do-well brother. How’s that for irony?) I grew up lurking in the shadows, eavesdropping on stories about organized crime. Is it any wonder I wound up writing murder mysteries?

    Finally, when it comes to characters, most spring from my imagination, but there’s one exception. Anastasia’s communist mother-in-law is based (more than loosely) on my relationship with my own deceased communist mother-in-law. You know what they say—don’t get mad, get even!

  5. Books!

    I read a lot and try to use what I read to influence the background of the story. I have a journalism background so I tend to do my research as quickly and thoroughly as I can using a wide variety of sources from books to internet to conversations. I work hard making sure the realism in my novels is present and accurate, but if there is something I don’t know, some detail, I will skip over it.

    For me, doing research and what sources I use for research are linked. For example, if I want to write about something, I learn all I can about the subject as quickly as I can so I don’t lose steam on the story. I have learned to write while researching. Finish the scene. Get the dialogue out. Go back after the fact and add the things I need to add from the research. The other thing is only use a fraction of what I have learned in my research. Let it influence the background of the characters but not the story itself. If the story doesn’t stand on its own without the source work then the story won’t interest me throughout the writing process.

    As far as doing research. Books. Books. Books. Nonfiction when I’m researching. Fiction, TV and Movies when I’m passively absorbing popular culture. I learn something from every single book I read. Usually nonfiction books are filled with great asides and take deeper dives into a subject. Most of the time they are more accurate than news clippings. I do read news articles and do the standard internet searches and scouring.

    In The Olympian, I wrote about an Olympic swimmer, who is based on Michael Phelps. I won’t hide that fact. The guy did amazing stuff. The idea for The Olympian came from a Sports Illustrated article on Michael Phelps. In addition to building my fictional character’s world, I read several biographies on Phelps and used what details on the swimming life I could. I also incorporated “jumping off points” for character ideas for the people around my character, Samuel, and then built the characters from there. It sounds complicated, but usually characters come on to the page nearly fully formed (Which is a test on if this character is worth using).

    Because I write crime fiction. A lot of my character research is taken from conversations with the people around me or mining my own experiences or those that are shared with me from others for scenes, dialogue, and character development.

    Finally, visiting locations will influence the story and add credibility to research more than almost anything else. I try hard not to write about places I haven’t visited. However, I will use locations I haven’t visited, but I take the approach of talking to others, looking at photographs, and reading what I can about that area.

    I don’t stress about the research and I don’t stress about where the information comes from. If I have to force the writing process then whatever idea I’m forcing is not a right (No I’m not talking about the muse and writing when the feeling strikes, I’m more talking about something similar to forcing a pass in sports). My advice to others is write the story, study, read, and let the information convalesce, but for all that is good and fun don’t stress!

  6. First, let me say that I’m honored and tickled to be on this roundtable with one of my writing heroes, Raymond Benson. [*coughs* Er . . . No offense to everyone else.]

    Okay, research. My go-to tools for research include tech, intelligence, and location. I have people — old friends in intelligence and military circles — but if you want those, you’ll have to find your own. You can’t have mine.

    The following are easily accessible tools:

    Technology
    Tech is a key aspect in military and spy thrillers, even without the label “techno-thriller.” But how do you create tech that’s on the edge of what will be possible when the book is published eighteen months in the future? (assuming a traditional publishing timeline)

    I peruse the current Department of Defense contracts. This may also contribute to some cynicism, so be careful. Try to keep your voice down as you read the list and exclaim, “We paid Raytheon umpteen million dollars for WHAT?” Shocking government expenditures aside, this resource can be a diamond mine. I say “diamond mine” because you’ll have to dig through all kinds of gunk to get to the gems. How did I come up with the mesospheric data vault in The Gryphon Heist? I did it by reading defense contracts and asking “What on earth is a high altitude communications node?” Google Department of Defense contracts. They have an email list. Sign up for it.

    My other great resource for tech is DARPA. I once took part in a think tank for DARPA (for the B-21 Raider — back when it was a black program and called the Next Gen Long Range Strike), and I made a few friends. I found the futurism and no-holds-barred technical optimism addicting. I follow their social media feeds and keep tabs on their website press releases. There is nearly always something fun, if not something I can use in a story.

    Location
    If you don’t have Google Earth Pro, you’re probably missing out. As an international airline pilot, I have the great advantage of being able to visit many of the places I write about. Nothing can compete with being there. However, your next best bet is Google Earth Pro with all the 3D buildings and terrain set to “ON.” Put the little yellow man on the ground and walk the path of your characters in the Google Earth virtual world. You will see things you never expected.

    Intelligence
    The news is probably not your best source, not these days. There is so much spin that it’s hard to gauge what you’re watching or reading. I use two primary sources, one to stay up to date and the other to keep a handle on language and nuances. Jane’s Defense and Security is your friend. They have lots of great info on their website. They will tell you “things you didn’t know you didn’t know” (old intelligence saying). My other sources is the CIA. Ha! Right? But seriously, the CIA puts a lot of great info on their website. Job postings. Organizational structure. They routinely declassify documents and put them in the archive. The archive documents are old, but they give you a good flavor of the community, and not much has really changed (don’t ask me how I know).

    Also, stop getting bogged down in research and write your story. That’s all I’ve got.

    1. DARPA has some interesting projects, but you have to be aware many of them are vaporware. After my journalism career, I spent 16 years as a Navy research analyst in combat casualty care. (I was, among other things, a medic in three branches of the military reserves.) One of our study sponsors spent a month at DARPA, and came to us with all these wonderful things they were doing in casualty care. However, when I went to research these programs, I found many had already been cancelled and some where just wishful thinking. However, I did get several ideas for a sci-fi war story set in the not so far future that I sold to a short story magazine

      1. Excellent point. DARPA’s futurism is great for fiction research, but don’t count on the tech showing up anytime soon (or ever). The project I worked on took 14 years and two cancellation/re-starts (that I know of) before it came to be.

    2. I’m flattered, James, thank you.

      Looks like you’re doing the kind of stuff I was doing 20 years ago with Bond.

      For those books, my initial plot concepts came from studying a map of the world and pinpointing hot spots that England would be concerned with… and finding the location was the genesis of the story. E.g., “Zero Minus Ten” was about the Hong Kong handover, and it was published in 1997, the year of the actual handover. Etc.

      1. Impressive! That had to be a lot of work in the late nineties compared to what it is today. Thinking about it reminds me of two other sources I’ve used for similar analysis in the military — since by 1999 I was just getting my start behind the big black door.

        The military intelligence game taught me where to look to avoid repeating research that others had already done. We had the usual stacks of classified files, but when world events went south, like on 9/11, I’d first go the CIA World Fact Book on the nation in question to get a fairly current overview, and then to the Congressional Research Service reports on terrorism for specifics. I haven’t used those in a while, but I bet they are still pretty good sources, and anyone can access them.

  7. I get most of my sources and inspiration from just down the street. I spend a lot of time at my local library. It’s nice to order the book or books I’m looking for and have them waiting for me. Plus, the e-sources they have available are quite extensive.

  8. Not sure what else to say except that research happens wherever and whenever it happens by any means necessary! (That sounds violent, for some reason.) These days there are so many opportunities and outlets from which a writer can gather information. Just as everyone has his or her own process in writing a book, whether you’re a “plotter” or a “pantser,” everyone has an individual method of researching.

    Are there any questions from our studio audience?

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