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.