Take A Long View on Research

By John Gilstrap

Some of the most common questions I encounter about the writing process involve research: Some version of “How do I find out about . . . ?”

We’ve talked in this space about ride-along programs for police agencies and other emergency response groups. There are some great conferences (when conferences are allowed to happen again) like Writer’s Police Academy, and many writer’s conferences feature tracks where technical professionals share details with the assembled group. But let’s be honest. The programs that have been cleared by the public affairs office are probably not going to give you the real scoop that you’re looking for.

Most people are afraid to speak on the record these days, especially to a writer. The fact that I’m not a journalist–people are never on the record with me–doesn’t necessarily loosen tongues, especially because the kinds of things I usually want to know are the things that public affairs offices specifically don’t want me to know. Still, I have a Rolodex filled with the names of Special Forces operators, federal agents, cops, intelligence officers, ex-cons, doctors, politicians and a host of other interesting people who will answer their phones when I call.

I thought I’d share my strategy for collecting sources.

Be 100% Trustworthy. I cannot emphasize this enough. In fact, I list it first because it is the only element of my research rules that is inviolable. These folks take a risk when they share inside scoop, and trust is as fragile as one misplaced word. I never drop names among my friends, and the Acknowledgements pages in my books never include sources who helped me unless I have received specific permission. More than a few of the names provided for those acknowledgements are are different than the ones I know them to be, and I never ask which is the pseudonym.

Try to meet everyone. True confession time. My personality meets the clinical definition of an extrovert. I enjoy meeting people and getting to know them. So, this bit of advice comes more easily for me than it will for many writers who exhibit the more typical introverted tendencies of an artist. But it’s doable.

Here’s the secret: Everyone is the hero of their own story in their minds, but most folks get few opportunities to talk about their jobs and their hobbies. And in my experience, most people are delighted to be asked. Just recently, I needed to get a document notarized on a Sunday evening in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The only notary we could find was one of the local bail bondsmen. I realized that I knew nothing about that business, so I started chatting him up. Given the hour and the day of the week–he left an evening with his family to help us out–I took a business card, gave him a challenge coin, and got permission to call him later if I had any questions. Two weeks later, he spent a half hour on the phone with me, explaining the ins and outs of being a bondsman. Fascinating.

When I chat with folks, I always tell them that they should free to push back if I ask a question that makes them uncomfortable, and I make it clear that we are never on any record–I’m just interested in what they do. With the exception of a couple steps too close to national security issues, no one has ever pushed back. (And there are ways around the national security push back, too.)

Avoid the cliches. Say you’re meeting a mortician. If you start with, “Eew, how do you work with dead people all day?” the conversation will likely be short and shallow. When I shared a hotel bar with a mortician a few years ago, I asked him why, at the last funeral I’d attended, the decedent’s fingertips had started to turn blue. He explained that there were several possible reasons, and that led to a broader discussion of embalming best practices. I’ve never had occasion to use any of that, but I still have his card, and I send him an email every time a new book comes out. I presume that if I call him sometime in the future, he’ll remember our chat and he’ll talk with me.

Hang out at the bar. When life returns to normal, find an excuse to hang out at a local hotel bar. Not the local watering hole where you know everyone and everyone knows you, but a bar where transients bide their time between the work day and bedtime. Sit at the bar–not at a table–and start a casual conversation. Something like, “Where are you from?” or “Stay away from the fried shrimp.” Sooner or later, if the spark of a conversation turns to something real, you’ll get around to “What do you do?” Bingo. You’re in.

They might not have a job that’s earth-shattering, but there’s something interesting to glean from everyone. Years ago, I was at a bar with a nurse who was attending a conference, and I asked, “What’s you’re most disgusting bedpan story?” It caught her off guard, she laughed and she shared an unprintable tale that involved geriatric incontinence and a slippery floor. I doubt I’ll ever put in a book, but at least I was more entertained than if I had sat there by myself.

Listen more than you talk. Back when I had my Big Boy Job, and more recently as I tour, I’m usually alone. Many others in a hotel bar are not. They are either part of a crowd, or they’re waiting for someone to go somewhere else. When two or more people are talking, there’s nothing wrong with eavesdropping. If what they’re talking about is interesting, don’t hesitate to say, “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhear. Do you all really work for Space X?” They’ll either shut you down or be complimented. In my experience, there’s not much middle ground.

On the other hand, if the people having the conversation are very engaged with each other, and telling interesting stories, become invisible. A few years ago, I attended a week-long class in Arizona on pistols and carbines. The sessions were all taught by former Special Forces operators from various agencies, and after they got a few drinks down their gullets, they started reminiscing about past operations they’d been on. They were aware of my presence, I suppose (I was sitting in plain sight, after all), but they’d either forgotten or they didn’t care. The stories themselves were interesting in their own right, but those weren’t my big take-away. I absorbed the banter among these guys, and how much they adored what they did–and some still do as private security contractors.

Never take notes. Unless you’re a journalist, there’s no reason to take notes on a casual conversation. The presence of a tape recorder or a note pad is a quick way to get vectored back to the public affairs officer. You can always make notes to yourself after the fact.

Take the long view. The main point I’m trying to make here is that the best research is often passive. You don’t have to limit your efforts to the project you’re working on. Rather, always be in data collection mode. Never be afraid to learn more about people and what they do–who they are. Use your accidental audience with interesting people to talk about things you would never find on Wikipedia or from the public affairs folks.

Hand out and collect business cards. Back in the days of my Big Boy Job, I carried two sets of cards. If I was doing association business, I only handed out that card–even if the inquiry was about my books. I’d tell them to visit my website for more information. In every other event when a card exchange seemed appropriate, I exclusively handed out my I’m-a-writer business cards.

Lock in the contact with a friendly email. At my first opportunity after meeting an interesting person and collecting their card, I write them an email telling them how much I enjoyed learning from them, and I double down on my intent to maybe one day call them.

What say you TKZ family? Any research tricks you’d like to share?



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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.

21 thoughts on “Take A Long View on Research

  1. I have loved quietly sitting with you and your pals in the bar at TFEST the couple times I was there. Gleaned so much just absorbing.

    Speaking of notetaking, I recently narrated a book titled Raven’s Witness about an anthropologist who spent decades among the various Native Alaskan peoples beginning with the Inupiaq Eskimos as a young man. The first couple of months in the Arctic village of Wainright he made few friends and learned almost nothing about them until he was finally told by the one man who let him close in that as long as he was going to write down their oral stories in his note pad instead of listening, no one was going to share with him. He put away the note pad, and the floodgates (slowly) opened.

    That said, I am finding that research for my next series, a historical fiction spanning medieval Europe and Asia during the Mongol invasion, is proving a lot harder than for my modern thrillers. So few witnesses left to chat with and those that are around are either quite forgetful, really grumpy, or seriously deranged.

    Oh well, life in the fast lane.

  2. Good points to remember and a timely topic since one of my next areas of inquiry will be researching to what extent forensics/ballistics existed in solving crime in 1917.

    I don’t often get the chance to interview someone for research but when I do it’s a treat. Last fall I visited with someone who still owns/runs linotype machines and it was great fun learning how they operate and learning about the press operators. I really appreciate it when folks take time to share what they know.

  3. I’m an introvert, and way up in Northern Ontario, so it’s doubtful I’ll have a chance to pick someone’s brain in a bar any time soon, but that’s where LinkdIn comes in.
    Currently, I’m doing research into a floatplane crash. Specifically, how one behaves when it catches a pontoon on something and flips over.

    Anyone have any floatplane experiences they want to share? *grin*

    Thanks for a great article, John.

  4. Such good advice. I agree with all your points. I’m a total introvert, and it’s hard for me to pick up a phone and make a cold call, but it’s well worth it.
    I was taking the Civilian Police Academy in Orlando and I would introduce myself as a writer doing research and ask if I could contact the speakers. I don’t think anyone every turned me down.

    I contacted the homicide detective who spoke, and asked if I could buy him a cup of coffee and ask some questions. He said, “Is there an Ale House” near you?” Indeed there was, and then he said, “Can I bring some friends.”
    Best money I ever spent. I asked a couple of questions, but mostly I just sat back and listened to their repartee. That evening morphed into a breakfast meeting in one of my books.

    And, one of those guests turned into my current cop contact–it’s probably been about 15 years since we met.

  5. I’ve found most experts like to be included in the Acknowledgements. Though we should always ask first, as you mentioned. I follow-up by hand-delivering a signed paperback upon release. The small thank-you’s go a long way.

    I don’t find myself in many hotel bars, but when I do I’ll be sure to keep your tips in mind. Thanks, John!

    • Great point about the Acknowledgements, Sue. I interviewed a police officer for my WIP. As we were winding up the conversation, I mentioned that I’d like to include him in the Acknowledgements, but he specifically asked me not to. I suspect a lot of law enforcement folks would prefer to fly under the radar. Glad I asked.

    • I’ve mentioned this before, but be careful what you put on your acknowlegement page which is at the front of the book. One paranormal mystery I read involved the heroine trying to figure out what had killed the ghosts in her new home. I barely glanced at the acknowledgement page as I scrolled toward Chapter One, but the first paragraph thanked someone for information on carbon monoxide poisoning. Guess what killed the family?

  6. This is great advice. I would add that if you are super motivated you could volunteer with a community group that works with your local law enforcement agency. You’d help your community and meet officers assigned to that neighborhood.

  7. Excellent tips, John, esp. about listening rather than talking. Most people are basically lonely and feel invisible, as well as unappreciated in their work. Nine times out of ten, a sympathetic, interested ear opens the floodgates.

    Grab any/every opportunity. Recently, while working on assignment for a state-wide publication, I had the option of doing a phone/email interview OR driving three hours to meet a woman who transports rescue dogs. I took the trip and spent all of 15 minutes with her b/c she was busy taking care of 27 (!!!) dogs in her van and in a hurry to reach her next stop. But it was an incredible experience of sounds, sights, and smells that couldn’t be fully described w/o physically being there.

    And my article may wind up as the cover story.

  8. Elmore Leonard said he got his hard-guy talk from listening in bars. A master of dialogue, he gleaned stuff about characters while swilling the booze.

    As my Irish grandmother used to say: Open yer
    mouth and tell all ya know.

  9. Listening at the bar is always instructive…back when the bars were actually open. If they ever open up again, always find your way to the Gilstrap section. It’s the most fun.

    Anyway, good advice as always. The one point I’d modify is about never taking notes. When I’ve set up interviews, they always know it’s for a book, and I want to make sure I get some things right (trusting my memory is too sketchy). I’ve never had any hesitation from the interviewee (I do ask permission to take notes).

    Good old Dale Carnegie said that people love to talk about what they do when given a chance. Show interest in them, and they’ll help you out. The exception is law enforcement. They have to be so careful these days and you have to establish deep trust, which is not easy. But it’s worth it.

  10. I don’t have anything interesting to say about research, other than it’s fun…but this post was great, John. Learn something new every time you’re on the hot seat.

    Thank you for this peek into research. I see now that I’ve been wrong-headed about it…it’s more about listening to interesting people talk about themselves than trying to pry information out of them. Voila! 🙂

    Off I go…

  11. I’m with you on the trustworthiness part, John. Most people can immediately sense when someone they meet is not genuine or has some ulterior motive/agenda. Like Jim says, anyone in law enforcement today is going to be real tight-lipped when talking “off-the-record” to a stranger.

    I have an internet research tip that cuts to the chase. Instead of simply Googling a subject like “homicide investigation” or “outlaw motorcycle gangs” – put PDF in the query. It sorts from click bait right to credible research material.

    As for researching in the bar, I have many years in that environment. Problem is I can’t remember most of what I learned.

  12. Research is an iceberg. There’s a lot more under the water than is showing. Insert metaphor about the book being the Titanic if that research is wrong here.

    The more the research appears on the page in the form of your main character/s, the more you need personal experience. You can fake a SCUBA scene with research but not an entire book if your character spends a decent chunk of the novel underwater. If needs must, have an expert read your book.

    If your personal life experience doesn’t remotely connect with police work, a police procedural probably isn’t the best mystery subgenre to write. An amazing variety of mystery types and main characters are out there, and your own life experience and interests can enrich your books. Find a genre that fits. Your own emotional references should be considered, as well. You may very well regret spending months or years in the viewpoint headspace of someone who is your polar emotional opposite.

    WORST RESEARCH SOURCES: TV shows and novels.

    A RESEARCH SOURCE I LIKE: If you need to write horses, Judith Tarr’s column at Tor.com. Search the label with her name or “SFF Horses.”

    THE MOST INTERESTING OVERHEARD RESEARCH: Mom and I were at a hotel restaurant on the NC coast, and the room was full of big guys in high-ranking officer uniforms of all the military branches, and they were chatting away about things that should not be said in public. I wasn’t stupid enough to ask them questions and would never use that info, but dang!


    Years ago, I had a chat with a world-class weapons and combat expert about fighting. (Science fiction and fantasy conventions are filled with military, police, and scientists who love to answer questions.) I asked him who was the most dangerous opponent in a fight.

    His answer– “In a bar fight most men will keep fighting until they go down. Later, they’ll get up, and we might have a beer together. A small man doesn’t do that.

    “To him, it’s not a fight, it’s survival. He’s fighting to kill because he knows he might not survive otherwise. If he goes down, he doesn’t stay down. He comes right back up and keeps fighting until he takes you down.

    “He’ll use any weapon he can find to kill you, too.

    “Never pick a fight with a small man.”

  13. I’m also an extrovert, but I think hanging out at bars in strange establishments is risky for a lone woman, of any age.

    However, I’ve had good luck picking up useful information and conflict-writing ideas in the following solo situations:

    -Eating at a counter in a restaurant: a new college graduate described her job-hunting package, which extended beyond a current resume and references to include a video-recording of her performance on a debate team and a spreadsheet documenting the amount of money she helped her sorority raise over a three-year period.

    -Plane travel: A man traveling from Salt Lake City to Boston discussed the limitations his children encountered in school and social situations because they were not Mormons.

    -Annual Open Studio in the converted Mill building where I live: I was selling my books at a table near the entrance. A woman in a wheelchair, hired to be a greeter and direction-giver, was stationed directly across from me. Our conversation consisted mostly of small talk until I asked her where she lived, which led to her statement, “Three years ago, I escaped from a nursing home.” From the next hour or so, she captivated me with a story of the politics and other barriers she faced in a years long ordeal trying to extricate herself from a nursing home.

    -Social Security Office: While I awaited my turn, a man in his 30s told me all about his mental problems (the reason he collected social security), the history of his family’s business (which involved illicit gambling, jail time, and dissolution of the family business.

    It’s amazing what a stranger will tell you about themselves and others. Of course, not all they tell may be true….

    • “It’s amazing what a stranger will tell you about themselves and others. Of course, not all they tell may be true….”

      WARNING: A bit off-topic.

      My mom’s mother was quite a colorful character. She was the best storyteller ever. My parents would drop us off at Gramma Mae’s house for 1 or 2 weeks every summer to give them a break from the 4 of us. She lived in a town about an hour away from where we lived.

      One visit, she told us how she got in a fight with a man when she was younger and bit his ear off. Another time she told us about her daddy, who lived down in Oklahoma and owned a ranch. He was involved in a range war with some ne’er-do-wells who were trying to move his fence in the middle of the night. Gramma Mae said her daddy won and the others were all put in jail and he was made the sheriff.

      When we were older, one night around the dinner table we told Mom and Dad some of the stories. Mom and Dad looked at each other. Dad cleared his throat. He said, “Kids, your gramma likes to tell stories. I don’t know about the ear thing, but your granddaddy shot one of those men in the back and spent the rest of his life in jail. And he didn’t own the ranch. He was one of the bad guys. I wouldn’t put much stock in what she says…”

      What a downer! 🙁

      Still good stories, though.

    • I remember being on a plane next to a gentleman reading a pilot’s magazine. I needed information for the book I was working on, and he was thrilled to come up with likely scenarios for me.

      Another time, flying out of Colorado Springs, which has a lot of military, I was able to pick the brain of my uniformed seatmate. He also provided great plot points.

  14. Apologies to all for being AWOL for all these fine comments. We spent the day out in the woods literally staking out the home we’re building, and thumb-typing didn’t make sense.

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