About Research

By John Gilstrap

Let’s talk research.

I’ve never been a proponent of the old adage, write what you know.  In fact, I think it’s kind of silly.  It’s the rare crime writer who has witnessed a crime, let alone investigated one.  I’ve been fortunate in my own life to be able to look back on some exciting times in the fire service, and in the hazmat business, but those are not the exciting times I write about.  While I’ve been shot at, I’ve never been a position to shoot back.  Basically, I am the three-time survivor of poor marksmanship.  There is a point in every book where at least one of my characters is scared shitless, and those are by far my most autobiographical passages.

Yet I’m pleased to report that I frequently get emails from readers who live the lives I write about telling me that I got it right.  Those letters are always thrilling—way more thrilling than the emails I get about the typo on page 237.

It’s all in the research.  So let’s talk about that.  How can writers learn what we need to know to make our characters smart enough to do the things they do in the stories we write?  It doesn’t have to be as difficult or complicated as some might have you believe.

Research Hack One: Cheat.

The easiest way to pull off the illusion of knowledge is to eliminate the need for reality.  For example, despite have lived pretty much my whole life in Fairfax and Prince William Counties in Virginia, I choose to play out my Northern Virginia police work in Braddock County, Virginia, which does not exist.  That way, I can develop whatever standard operating procedures best serve the story, eliminating a huge research burden.  I don’t need a tour of the jail, I don’t need to know which firearms they carry, what the command structure is, or how shifts are organized.  Do the cops carry their shotguns propped up vertically, or under the front of the seat?  I can make it however I want it to be.  Because the place where the story takes place does not exist, neither do the police agencies, so I can by definition never get any of those details wrong.

Research Hack Two:  Stick to the coast you know.

More times than not, it’s the smaller details of research that screw an author up, and even if you make up cities and counties, you’re going to have to root the reader somewhere in the world.  I’m very comfortable making up locations in the South because I’ve lived here for so many decades.  It’s always the tell of a West Coast writer when a character looks for a “freeway” and gets on “the 495.”  In Virginia, we look for a “highway” and get on “Route 50” or just “50.”  Heading north or south on the Beltway says little unless we know whether you’re on the Inner Loop or the Outer Loop.  For natives, the airports are “National” or “Dulles”.  Maybe DCA for frequent travelers.  Never “Reagan.”  At least not for true locals.  Oh, and we “go to” meetings or “attend” them.  We do not “take” them.

Places like New York and L.A. (and every other famous city, I suppose) have traditions and colloquialisms that can get you in trouble.  So, stay close to home if you can.

Research Hack Three: Think like Willie Sutton

When the gangster Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”

So, where are the repositories for the information you want to know?  Let’s say you’re writing about a cop.  To be sure, there are great established resources available to you, such as a citizen’s police academy, but remember that there you’ll be getting the view of the agency that the public affairs office wants you to see.  A better choice, in my opinion, would be to attend a conference like Writers Police Academy, where you can get to know the far more interesting underbelly of police agencies.  Exchange business cards and you’ve got contacts.

Can’t afford the money or time to fly to a conference?  Try chatting up a cop.  The less formal the circumstance, the better.  In my experience, everyone—Ev. Ry. One.—likes to share stories about what they do.  Find out where cops gather for drinks after work and go there.  Just hang out and listen.  Actually, that’s a strategy for just about any specialty.  Want to write about quilting? Go where quilters go and then shut up and listen.

When I’m in DC, one of my favorite places to go for soft research is Union Station, the AMTRAK/Metro terminal that is maybe 500 yards from the Capitol Building.  There are restaurants there.  If you park yourself near a couple of Millennials in suits, there’s a 90% chance that they’re oh-so-self-important staffers to a member of Congress, and the inevitable one-upsmanship is fascinating.  The best eavesdropping spot near the White House is the very cozy bar of the Hay Adams Hotel, though given the proximity to the presidential palace, the gossip there tends to be less juicy.

One bit of advice for eavesdroppers: Don’t take notes.  For the ruse to work, you’ve got to seem disinterested.

Research Hack Four: Get a superfast Internet connection and use it.

I understand that professors are loathe to accept Wikipedia as a legitimate source, and when the time comes for me to submit a dissertation, I’ll keep that in mind.  Meanwhile, I’ll remain devoted to it as a bottomless source of really good information.  Never once have I been disappointed when seeking the finer points of weaponry, for example.  I don’t get into the depths of gun porn in my books, but when arming my good guys and bad guys, it’s good to know how much the weapon weighs, how many rounds it holds and what it looks like.  Want to see the same weapon in action?  I guarantee that YouTube has at least two videos of somebody shooting something with it.

Google Earth and its Street View feature are a godsend.  The closing sequence of Final Target includes a chase down the rural streets of Yucatan.  Thanks to Google Earth, I was able to travel the entire route with a three dimensional view, all without the burden of having to go to a place where I’d rather not be.

Research Hack Five: Know the difference between a research trail and a rabbit hole.

We’ve all been there, I’m sure.  You start out looking for the year when the Ford Ranger went out of production, and an hour later, you’ve chased links to a sweet video of singing penguins.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The secret to doing my kind of research is to abide by a certain self-imposed intellectual laziness. When I’m writing a scene and I come across a place where I realize there’s a hole in my knowledge, I drop out to the Interwebs, find out exactly what I need for that scene, and then back out.  Remember this: It’s not important that you know how to do all the things your characters do—or even to know everything they do.  Your job is simply to convince readers that the character knows enough to pull off the story they’re starring in.

Research Hack Six (and maybe it should be Number One): Respect your sources’ time.

As a weapons guy, I’m happy to help people choose a firearm for their characters, but it’s annoying when the discussion includes the difference between a pistol and a revolver.  That kind of basic information is available anywhere.  It is many times more fun to talk about important details with someone who has already done a reasonable amount of research.  Use your human resources for the esoteric details of verisimilitude, not for the 101 level of whatever you’re researching.

This entry was posted in Writing by John Gilstrap. Bookmark the permalink.

About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

20 thoughts on “About Research

  1. All good tips. I’m still very bad about falling down the rabbit hole. But gosh, there are so many things to learn! And I really do love the researching as much as the writing. Even more to the point, I find that research constantly generates new ideas.

    • I know I’ve crossed the line when I find myself making excuses for why I NEED to more about singing penguins. Generally, I find that if I click more four links deeper into a topic that I’m researching, I’m in trouble.

  2. In the early 70’s Houston had completed Loop 610 to help move traffic, San Antonio Loop 410. But Atlanta didn’t go along. They named their first “loop” the Perimeter! Ah, the mystery of why they chose that name!

    • And now folks live either OTP or ITP – Outside or Inside The Perimeter ~ I’m of the former persuasion… And talk of an Outer Perimeter surfaces every half dozen years or so…

  3. Years ago, someone compared the accuracy of Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia Britannica and found that the number of errors were comparable because Wikipedia errors are corrected so fast.
    In real life, I work in patents. Wikipedia is invaluable for background info.

  4. Good tips all around, John. There’s always going to be a specialist to object to something. I got ONE letter from a guy in a phone museum about the proper use of a wall telephone set in 1903.

    As a recovering lawyer with a specialty in 4th Amendment, I find a lot of little errors by writers about what a search is, when a warrant is required, when there’s an exception to the warrant requirement, etc. Most readers, though, wouldn’t notice.

    As far as regionalisms, if you must go to another coast, find someone who knows that place and have them read those parts. I can do L.A., but I needed someone to look over my San Francisco stuff (even though I went there personally for some onsite). They caught a few little things I was able to change, but little things (“speed bumps”) add up.

  5. Excellent advice. For me, it’s knowing what I *don’t* know that’s the problem. I can find exactly what constellations will be visible at the Oregon restaurant where my characters are dining, even though the restaurant and the town they lived in was pure fiction. It was still in Oregon, and the sky is going to be up there.

    But I had NO CLUE that you couldn’t get a manual transmission in a Highlander SUV and it never occurred to me to check. Thank goodness for a wise critique partner, because there was no Google at my fingertips then (from that point on, it was the auto edition of Consumer Reports until the internet became a cool way to look at just about everything).

  6. I’m going to my first search and rescue training session tonight, mainly as research. They told me to bring hiking boots. I have never hiked in my life, so this should be the experience of a lifetime. 😀

  7. A good rule of thumb is that you can research and recreate the deep sea diving experience even if you can’t swim if it’s only one or two scenes. If that’s what your main character does for most of the novel, that’s pretty dang hard to fake without making an ass of yourself.

    Also, memoirs or nonfiction by a person who uses the skill or setting you need is a really good resource about how something feels.

    • This is why I wouldn’t write historical fiction, where everything is a research question, from word choice to tool construction. I don’t have the patience for that level of research.

  8. Thanks for the good article. Sometimes I get so involved in the research that I forget that it has a purpose in my plot.

    I am interested in on-site research and any additional pearls about doing it, like taking notes and photos.

    • Since I’m not a journalist, and I don’t have to pull quotes from the onsite research I do, I make it a point to take relatively few notes because I find that note taking often gets in the way of effective conversation. Ditto photography.

      Whether visiting a firehouse, a police station or a morgue, (or hiking through a SAR exercise) I think there’s more to be learned through impressions than notes. What does the banter sound like? What does the place smell like? What do the tools and the operations feel like? I don’t grill my sources, I have conversations with them. I try to make friends. Later, I can always reach out to them again for more details. It’s a sin, I think, to squander moments of personal interaction.

  9. My dad got so into researching the history and historical details of late 18th century seamanship and the life and world of William Boles that I think he was “afraid” of not writing up to level of his idea ~ and there was always one more library or museum or website to visit ~ so that he never really got beyond outlining, note taking, and diagramming. Two boxes of books, a storage tub of paper notes, and a thumb-drive await me should I attempt a “Jeff Shaara” and pick up Pop’s piles.

  10. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…10/17/16 – Where Genres Collide

Comments are closed.