In Praise of Experts

Photo credit: Luke Jones, Unsplash

By Debbie Burke


In fiction, you often walk into different worlds. Perhaps you speak a few words of the language but you’re not fluent. You have a general idea of the architecture and geographic layout. But there are secret passageways in which you can become lost and unseen chasms into which you can tumble.

But you’re committed. You must go forward on your story quest. So, you seek out natives from those worlds to guide you. 

Today, I’d like to introduce you to several insiders who shepherded me through unfamiliar terrain in my new thriller, Flight to Forever, which launches today. 

The story takes place in the rugged mountains of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. I’ve hiked and explored the area but am far from a hardcore outdoorswoman. I needed to call upon experts in various fields to fill in the gritty details.

Here’s an overview of Flight to Forever:

Main characters: investigator Tawny Lindholm and her husband, criminal defense attorney Tillman Rosenbaum.

Inciting incident: When the pandemic prevents a Vietnam veteran from seeing his wife of 50 years in a memory care lock-down, he busts her out. Because an off-duty cop is injured during their escape, law enforcement is hellbent on capturing the aging fugitives.

The couple flees into the mountains where they’ve gone camping for years. Their daughter begs Tawny and Tillman to help her parents. The determined veteran won’t go down without a fight, increasing the urgency for Tawny to find them before the cops do.

Setting: The fugitives choose an abandoned fire tower as their hideout.

In bygone days, fire spotters spent summers in isolation living on mountain summits in small wooden cottages built on high stilts.

When lightning sparked forest fires, the spotters used a mechanical device called a fire finder to pin down the exact map coordinates. Then they called in the report and crews were dispatched to fight the fires.

Satellites and advanced technology have now rendered the towers obsolete. A handful are preserved and have been renovated into vacation rentals. For $50/night, adventurous campers pack in supplies and stay in a lookout with staggering views from on top of the planet. Most lookouts have fallen into disrepair or been destroyed by fire.

One of those abandoned towers becomes the hideout for my fugitives.

My guide into that remote world is retired Forest Service employee Kjell Petersen, a former fire spotter.  He now volunteers to maintain the few surviving lookouts. Kjell is also a gifted photographer who’s snapped thousands of gorgeous mountain shots with wild critters and wild weather, taken during his career. He not only told me fascinating stories, he graciously offered a selection of his photos for the cover.

For hours, Kjell shared anecdotes full of details only a true insider knows. As he described being in a tower when it was struck by lightning, the hair on my arms stood up.

Kjell Petersen and friends

After the first draft of Flight to Forever was finished, Kjell reviewed it and fixed my goofs. At one point, I wrote that avalanches had destroyed many old lookouts. With a kind smile, Kjell gently corrected me. “Lookouts are built on top of mountains. There’s nothing above them. Avalanches happen below them.”

Well, duh.

Thanks for the save, Kjell!

Sue Purvis in Central Park

To research the setting, I could have slogged through grizzly territory in mud up to my artificial titanium knees.

While authenticity is important, with age comes wisdom. I know my limitations. 

Instead, I tapped another expert, Susan Purvis. She’s a geologist, search dog handler, and former search-and-rescue volunteer with more than her share of risky escapades. She also wrote the bestselling memoir, Go Find.

Sue gave me a quickie course about sedimentary limestone and sandstone cliffs. Harsh weather shears the rock off in massive slabs that crash down mountain sides. When rock crumbles into loose, unstable rubble, it’s called talus or scree, which is treacherous to hike or drive on–turning Tawny’s search into a white-knuckle adventure.

In conversation, Sue happened to mention she’d once slid her truck off an icy bridge and wound up hanging over the edge.

That anecdote was too good to pass up. I appropriated Sue’s harrowing experience to inflict on poor Tawny.

Legal eagle Phyllis Quatman

Since the male lead, Tillman, is an attorney, legal conundrums happen often. For that, I consult attorney Phyllis Quatman, who writes suspense under the name P.A. Moore.

Sometimes dodgy actions are necessary to move the plot forward even when they push my characters into gray areas of what’s legal vs. what’s moral.

Phyllis is an author as well as a lawyer. She understands the need to achieve story goals while also keeping the heroes out of serious legal trouble.

If I’m ever arrested, I know who to call.

Dr. Betty Kuffel


The unlucky folks in my thrillers get hurt a lot—drugged, beat up, knifed, shot, etc. Retired ER doctor Betty Kuffel has seen every injury known to humans. She is an encyclopedia of mayhem and murder methods. She also writes medical thrillers.

Paging Dr. Betty.

A subplot involves Tillman and his teenage son. While Tawny is busy tracking the fugitives up a mountain, Tillman must travel to the other side of the state when his boy is injured in an accident.

Betty upped the story stakes by suggesting complications that turned the son’s broken leg into a life-threatening crisis. She also infused realism with her insider knowledge of pandemic restrictions that keep frantic Tillman away from the bedside of his critically-ill son.

Sue, Phyllis, and Betty are my longtime critique partners and cherished friends. So it’s expected that we help each other.

But I’m constantly amazed at the willingness of complete strangers to assist a curious writer.

When I contact experts and introduce myself as an author doing research, they are almost always generous and helpful.

They’re eager to talk to an interested listener about their specialties. Plus, they like to be part of the creative process of writing a book.

As long as a writer is polite, respectful, and mindful of the expert’s time constraints, most pros are happy to go the extra mile to assist you.

A small gesture of appreciation is a customary courtesy. The people who help me are listed on the acknowledgement page and I always give them an inscribed copy of the book.

Today, I raise my coffee mug in a toast to the experts who helped with Flight to Forever: Kjell, Sue, Phyllis, and Betty.


TKZers: Have you consulted experts in your research?

What sort of assistance did they provide?




Today is launch day for Flight to Forever. 

Now that you know what happened behind the scenes, I invite you to check the book out at this link. 

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writers, Author Research, research, research for novels, Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes the Tawny Lindholm series, Montana thrillers infused with psychological suspense. Her books have won the Kindle Scout contest, the Zebulon Award, and were finalists for the Eric Hoffer Book Award and Her articles received journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers.

35 thoughts on “In Praise of Experts

  1. Given I write about stuff I know very little about, I value my contacts immeasurably. I have them for cop stuff, for medical stuff, for legal stuff, for location help. They’ve always been happy to help me get things right. The hardest part about research is knowing when you don’t know something. A savvy critique partner pointed out that I’d given a vehicle a manual transmission (to keep my character from being able to get away), but that car didn’t come with a manual transmission option. I had no clue, just assumed all cars came either way.

    • Terry, so true about not knowing what you don’t know!

      Luckily I have an in-house automobile expert. 😉 When I write about a “straight eight engine” and “hydramatic transmission” in a 1954 Pontiac, I do so with confidence.

  2. I thank God for the many experts we can turn to for information in our writing. If I relied only on what I knew from personal experience I wouldn’t bother to write at all because it would be too boring (how many people consult administrative assistants to get tips on their exciting life? LOL!).

    And doing research, including talking to knowledgeable people, is a huge chunk of the fun of writing. And I don’t think I’ve ever had a story idea that didn’t require research. I keep a list of those who have helped me in my story research so they can be acknowledged later.

    Just yesterday I was trying to find what year Arizona went dry (prior to national prohibition) and wouldn’t you know? That very day the archivist at the State of Arizona Research Library put up a post on that very subject. 😎 (1/1/1915 if you’re curious).

    A big thank you to all experts in their fields who are willing to help writers out! It’s part of the fun and adventure.

    • BK, isn’t it funny how often the right tidbit of information–like the date AZ went dry–pops up just when we need it?

      Thanks to knowledgeable experts, research becomes a wonderful rabbit hole w/o bottom. It’s a wonder we ever come out of it to write.

    • Serendipity is real. One evening I was cooking supper with the kitchen TV on, and a TV show with segments on sciencey and historical things had every last segment on info I needed for the novel I was working on.

  3. Great read, Debbie. Takes me back to my kidhood and the local fire tower we had. It was accessed by a vertical ladder with about a hundred rungs and it seemed so high. I just Google Mapped and it looks like it’s still there. Made of metal, as I recall, not wood.

    Sounds like a nice inventory of experts you have in your writing closet. I agree that people are more than willing to help with a writing question. The key is just to ask 🙂

    • A metal fire tower? Sounds dangerous, Garry.

      A friend just mentioned, as a kid, she’d spent a night in a tower that had a *glass* stool to sit on during lightning strikes. Kjell talked about an insulated stool he sat on and how a person didn’t want to get in between metal objects b/c lightning arced.

      Writers are often too shy to “bother” experts. You’re right–all we have to do is ask.

  4. Hi Deb,
    Great blog, weaving in the process of Flight to Forever as the book took wing. Your stories are exciting. It’s an honor sharing our writing and skills all these years You have helped me immensely. Thanks!
    Dr. Betty – on call

  5. Great post, Debbie. I wish you massive success with Flight to Forever. Loved the story.

    I’ve nurtured my relationship with various experts for years, and I’m still amazed by their generosity. The chief forensic investigator at Grafton County Office of Chief Medical Examiner is one of my go-to experts when I have questions I can’t puzzle out on my own, as is the forensic anthropologist there. They love seeing their names in the acknowledgments when I drop off the signed paperbacks. And, of course, I bother my BFF, Garry, on a regular basis. 😉

    • One caveat on thanking experts is don’t be too specific on the thanks in the acknowledgements. I opened a cozy historical mystery, and the first page of text was the thank-the-experts info. Without thinking, I read the first few paragraphs, and the author thanked the expert on carbon monoxide poisoning very specifically. One of the main mysteries at the beginning of the book was what killed an entire family. You guessed it. Carbon monoxide poisoning.

  6. Debbie, I sit here in my warm cozy home of Montana and can’t wait to dive into your new book, Flight to Forever. I’m ready to go on a big adventure with Tawny and Tillman.

    Great post today.

  7. This is a great post and your book sounds exciting. I remember learning about fire lookouts in my high school Jack Kerouac phase. Kerouac spent a summer as a fire lookout in one of those stilted cabins and he wrote about it in at least two books. I remember as a kid thinking I’d love to do that job one summer.

    • Thanks, Philip.

      I’m amazed by the number of people who remember fire towers and/or worked in them. They also would make a great location to write–no interruptions except for thunderstorms.

    • Just received a correction from Kjell. In Montana, there are 400-500 lookouts still operating that need fire spotters. Here’s your chance for that summer job, Philip.

  8. Debbie, I love reading about your expert sources — you certainly have a great group to turn to. I’m also excited to dive into Flight to Forever. It sounds like a compelling story and what a great title!

    When I was researching Dead Man’s Watch, I had lots of questions about how the police would handle the situation of finding a dead body. (Wish I had known Garry Rodgers back then.) I interviewed a local police officer, and we had a wonderful conversation. I learned some things about police procedures that I never would have guessed. However, when I told him I would include him in the Acknowledgments, he told me he would prefer not to be included. Interesting.

    The expert I use most often is Google.

    Best of luck with the new book!

    • Appreciate your kind words, Kay. Hope you enjoy the story. And, yes, I give thanks daily for knowledgeable, generous friends!

      Law enforcement and military often don’t want public recognition b/c of the sensitive nature of their work. They’re glad to share info as long as you don’t use their names.

  9. Debbie, fantastic post. And congratulations on your book launch! Thanks for the link to your book. I just added it to my wish list.

    You’re an inspiration to writers on how to use experts for research. And your story synopsis is a magnet. I want to read the book.


  10. Loved this post, Debbie…and thanks for reminding me to download your new book. Now tucked away on my Kindle, awaiting a cup of tea.

    For my debut novel, The Master’s Inn (not yet released), I talked to veterans I know, even attended a meeting of our local Point Man Ministries Outpost. The two male MCs are Marine veterans from Vietnam and Iraq, who mix it up a bit in the story. The men and women I met at the Outpost meeting were only too eager to share their stories with me.

    Even the Navy vet who clammed up told me volumes. He spoke about his experience on a ship, evacuating women and children off the coast of then S. Vietnam, as the VC pushed south. When I asked him (I’m totally clueless, of course) what’d happened to them, he looked down at his hands, then looked up with tears in his eyes and said, “Whatever you can imagine is what had happened to them.” That’s all he would say. His tenderness, big strapping guy that he is, touched me, and his comment helped me add some depth to my two characters.

  11. A generous expert is a treasure. You are lucky in yours.

    My advice to students is that experts can only go so far. An expert can help you get a SCUBA scene accurate, but, if your character is a long-time diver who spends the majority of the novel underwater or with other divers, you’d dang well better be experienced in that world because something will be missing in the experience and won’t ring true to some readers.

    It’s a rare book set in the South that I can’t spot “Yankee” errors, and, when horses are involved, I know if the author is only depending on research. There are two horse columns for writers at by Judith Tarr, and much fun is made of authors who don’t know a fetlock from a flintlock. The articles are excellent sources of info if you need it.

    • Marilynn, how true that research isn’t a complete replacement for real-life experience. But it can sure save wear and tear on an old body that isn’t as adventurous as it used to be.

  12. I am one of those experts. Periodically I get questions like, “How would you get old SnapChat messages?” (it is hard without a warrant. But if the phone hasn’t been turned on, it is easy.) and other computer stuff.

    One off hand comment made it into a book as well. I mentioned that people who use wheel chairs have ramps not steps on their houses. The killer in said book was faking a handicap. The staircase gave her away.

  13. Thanks for the terrific post, Debbie, about your latest writing journey. And congratulations on what sounds to be an absolutely terrific book!

  14. Good luck with the book, Debbie. Great post on experts. Here in L.A. I’ve had excellent contacts with lawyers from both sides of the fence, and cops and ex-cops of the LAPD. For my Try series, I got to know an RHD (the elite unit of detectives) captain, who gave me a ride along through Skid Row, pointing out drug dealers and hypes (heroin addicts) and other types. Then we walked around downtown, lunched in a favorite cop hangout, where we were joined by some of his fellows, etc.

    The best part of these interviews is getting inside argot and war stories. But you really have to build up trust. You’ll recall what happened to Mark Fuhrman during the O.J. murder trial. A wannabe screenwriter tape recorded their conversations, during which he dropped the N bomb a few times. F. Lee Bailey got those tapes and trapped him during cross-examination. That, in my view, was the turning point of the trial. So while most experts love to talk about what they do, there are some who may not be so talkative.

    • Thanks so much, Jim.

      Ridealongs are great. Wish I’d been at that lunch with you. Being a fly on the wall when a bunch of cops start swapping stories is pure gold.

      Trust is a huge factor and, once broken, it’s never regained. People have confided incredible stories to me that would make fantastic books but it would be wrong to use them.

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