The Secret to Effective Research Is . . .

By John Gilstrap

Last Friday, I spent the better part of seven hours hanging out with the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team at their headquarters in Quantico, Virginia.  In addition to getting a tour of the facilities, I got a peek into their tactics, and, most importantly, into the new technology that has evolved for breaching all kinds of doors, from residential to ship-board to prisons.  Given the focus of my Jonathan Grave series, it’s hard to conceive of a day better spent.

Which brings me to the question, how did I stumble into this opportunity?  Which, in turn, triggers the question, how does a writer access research information that will make his books believable?

Okay, here it is, the secret to worthwhile research: Listen and ask questions.

Here’s how the HRT gig originated.  I was on a flight coming home from the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, and the guy in the seat next to me was reading a book by a friend of mine.  I asked him to hold up the book and smile so I could take a picture of him with the book and send it to my friend.  The guys seemed a little put off by my request, but when I explained the circumstance, he agreed to pose, and then shared with me that he was friends with the author’s brother.

Let’s call the guy with the book Mike.

It didn’t take long for the conversation with Mike to morph into my own line of work as a writer, and yada, yada, a connection was made.  Mike has a certain tactical look about him.  Forty years old, give or take five years, he’s got the physique of an operator and sports a battle beard.  I presumed that he, too, was returning from the SHOT Show, but he told me that he was not.  He was in Vegas for other business, but had dropped into the show for an hour or two.  I’m hearing code at this point: He’s spooky, but doesn’t want to talk about it.  Okay, that’s cool.

More conversation revealed that he lives fairly near me, and that he works at Quantico.  There are only two “industries” in Quantico, Virginia.  One is the United States Marine Corps and the other is the FBI.  When I asked Mike when the Marine Corps started allowing beards, he smiled.


We talked about books and about the writing process, and when I told him what I wrote, he lit up.  He is a fan of Six Minutes to Freedom, my nonfiction book about the rescue of Kurt Muse.  More conversation.  It wasn’t till we traded contact information at the end of the flight that I found out that Mike was with HRT.  Our parting conversation was about coming down to Quantico for a tour, and now, several months later, that’s what we did.

Two weeks previous to my exploits with HRT, I was in Austin, Texas with a former SEAL friend–also met at the SHOT Show, but several years ago–who taught me the ins and outs of modern night vision technology.  On that flight home, I sat next to a guy whose specialty was defending against explosive and chemical weapons threats posed by standard commercial aerial drones.  I hadn’t given that a lot of thought, but wow.  I learned about jamming technologies, about what was legal in the continental US and what was not.  In that case, once he learned that I was a writer, he clammed up.  But that was okay.  I had germs of thought that intrigued me.

One of the most common questions I receive from fans and readers deals with how I learn what I know.  These two anecdotes are merely examples of dozens of others over the years.  People love to talk about what they do and how they do it.  Since I’m not a reporter with a notebook, most speak freely because I have assured them that I wish only enough information on a topic to not embarrass myself in front of knowledgeable readers.  I am genuinely interested in what they tell me, and that interest tends to trigger more detail.

If you want to know how doctors talk and behave in clinical settings, volunteer to work at your local hospital and get to know people.  Talk to them.  Ditto cops, firefighters, or any number of other professionals whose careers are interesting (yet nowhere near as interesting in real life as we imagine them to be).  Go where they are and hang out.  Listen.  When an opportunity arises, ask an honest question from an honest place.  Don’t take notes.  Chat them up.

I think you’ll be pleased with the response.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, 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 the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

9 thoughts on “The Secret to Effective Research Is . . .

  1. Seat partners on planes can be rewarding. I got good information about how to have a ‘crisis’ with a private jet (something I’m pretty sure the flight crew wouldn’t have discussed with me), and on another flight, I learned about tunnels between Mexico and the US border. A lot is luck of the draw, however.
    I’ve found great contacts at the Writers’ Police Academy, the yahoo group crimscenewriter and simply by calling my local law enforcement agencies.

  2. Thanks, John, for sharing this experience. As writers, we should always listen, explore, imagine. Now I look forward to seeing this info creep into one of your books.

  3. Research is always a joy for me. Although I can’t say I always stay focused on my current work when there are so many intriguing paths to explore as I follow the trail created by new ideas gleaned mid-search. But especially rewarding is the chance to interact with someone who does the job you’ve written into your story. The man or woman doing the microsurgery, disarming the bomb, or even delivering mail on a rural route can reveal the rich texture and emotion that online research can’t uncover. Thanks, John.

  4. So true. Whenever I contact my State Police and Medical Examiner they all thank me for my accuracy. Often police are portrayed poorly in fiction (the drunk, the drug addict, the cop on his 5th divorce). They love it when writers want their stories to ring true. Local police, especially small town police, aren’t as accommodating.

    • I live in a wide spot on the road, and have always gotten excellent cooperation from the local Sheriff’s Office. And, since my books are set in a ‘based on’ small town, I like getting information on the way they have to handle things so I can be accurate for my books’ setting.

  5. Sound advice for obtaining raw material for stories.

    Writers tend to be curious about new things, and naturally want to experience the untried, the offbeat — then write a series of books about it. John’s advice is a great way to gain such experience.

  6. I drove TSA crazy when I got pulled out of the line to be swabbed for explosives residue. After throwing out my hands and saying “COOL!” I proceeded to ask how people were picked, how the machine worked, and in general the behind-the-counter TSA stuff. I had her laughing by the end of it. I wasn’t the usual reaction she got.

    But how come when I fly, I’m seated next to a label salesman?

    My current WIP is going to draw heavily on all that taxpayer-funded FEMA training I got on my last job.


    • How can you work a label salesman into FEMA training? Using labels to repair FEMA emergency tents? Plugging leaks in rescue boats? Maybe someone could place a poison in the adhesive in the labels which causes a national emergency by…

      … what?…

      … by driving the guys with the nuclear launch codes (who have been updating their code and contact files now that Trump’s team is in place… Hopefully it will be by the time the book hits the shelves….) into a psychotic event that makes them think the North Koreans have launched and now they must respond?

      There. Solved it.

  7. Speaking of commercial drones, I’ve always wondered why the military (in its terror fighting capacity) doesn’t arm small drones with small caliber arms so they can fly right up to an individual, identify them, and shoot. It seems they still rely on much larger drones such as Predators to fire missiles from high altitudes, a method that would seem riskier in terms of misidentifying targets and hitting civilians. Granted small drones would be easier to take down, but if they sent in a bunch of them at once, one would eventually get through. I have posed this question to a friend who manages weapons programs and was told “they’re working on it.” Related to that, I wonder about terrorists using the same technology. I once saw a video of a drone equipped with a pistol (not sure it was a “real” video, but it certainly looked it!), and also wondered why they haven’t used drones to conduct attacks. (Btw, are government buildings equipped with any anti-drone defenses, does anyone know?

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