Research Hacks Redux

By John Gilstrap

Your regularly scheduled blog post will begin following this moment of shameless self promotion. Yesterday was Launch Day for Stealth Attack, the 13th (!) entry in my Jonathan grave thriller series. It’s available wherever books are sold. For reasons not known to me, the audio version won’t be released for another couple of weeks, so if that’s your preferred method to visit fictional worlds, I beg your patience for just a short while longer.

Now let’s talk research.

If this week’s posts seems familiar to you, it means that you’ve been reading The Killzone Blog for at least five years, so thanks for that. The original version appeared in 2016, but it addresses a topic that I feel strongly about if only because I see people getting way too stressed over a topic that I think should be more fun than stressful.

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. That hardly qualifies me to write battle scenes, but combined with the fear I’ve felt in life-threatening situations, combined with discussions I’ve had with people who’ve walked that walk, and bingo! I conjure up what I think are pretty good set pieces featuring people doing heroic deeds I’ve never performed.

Research is a big word.

In this line of work, every moment we live and every person we interact with is a moment of research. More times than not, I find that the really good stuff comes less from studying books than it does from passive listening and watching. It doesn’t take work so much as it takes paying attention.

Over the years, I’ve learned some research hacks that I would like to share.

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 by definition, I can 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.  In the original version of this piece, I pointed out that one rarely hears the airport referred to as “Reagan”, but that’s changed in recent years.  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 famously 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.  Bring some business cards, chat people up and get their card in exchange. Just like that, you’ve got a valuable research contact who will answer your emails and phone calls.

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.  The place teems with restaurants.  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 deeper 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 baby goats in pajamas.  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 go back to work.

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.

Your turn, TKZ family. What are your research tricks and hacks?

And for those who are curious . . .

Two weeks ago, I whined about the frustrations of “staging” my home for sale. We worked diligently to do most of what we were told, and I’m pleased to report that that house sold within three days of being on the market, and for a price that made us very happy. Maybe stagers know what they’re doing after all . . .

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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.

29 thoughts on “Research Hacks Redux

  1. Congratulations on your new book!

    In Orlando, where I live, you can tell the tourists because they ask where (insert highway number) is. Those of us who live here have no idea (except for the 4-oh-8, mostly due to the crashes on it) but we can tell you where the Beeline, the Greenway, and the East/West are.

    Here I-4 East runs north and I-4 West runs south. That really messes with tourists. “You can’t go south on an east/west road!” Sure you can. We do it every day.

    • Oh, yes, I remember giving directions to people when we lived in Orlando. I used to tell them to “Follow the signs to Disney, but get off at Exit XXX”. Since I have zero sense of direction, I accepted I was going the directions the road signs said. But I did warn people about the East-West thing in case they did use compass directions.

  2. Good morning, John. Congratulations on the launch of Stealth Attack and on the sale of your house. That’s a great way to close off a month.

    Thanks for the great advice this morning, particularly on two fronts. One concerns diving down that research rabbit hole and finding oneself far afield. I am the champ of that. The other involves eavesdropping. I have a friend in New Orleans who selectively hops from bar to bar, away from the tourist scrum, fades into the woodwork, and aurally dips into conversations. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, you can observe a lot by listening.

    Have a great Fourth, John.

  3. An excellent, actually invaluable, post John. Thanks. I’ll share this one widely, and link to it on the Writers Resources page of my website. “Want to write about quilting? Go where quilters go and then shut up and listen.” A gem in a mine chock full of them.

  4. “…every moment we live and every person we interact with is a moment of research.”

    So true, John. We just have to absorb it like sponges.

    Nothing is ever wasted. Unused research just goes into the hopper of the subconscious and may turn up years later in another story.

    Congratulations on your new release and selling your house.

  5. Thanks, John, for the great advice on research. And congratulations on the launch of Stealth Attack.

    My favorite of your hacks is #1 – Cheat. “Eliminate the need for reality.” That’s the beauty (and fun) of fantasy. You get to make up everything, including the laws of physics.

    Glad you got your house sold. I’m just now putting an office building on the market. I hope it sells as quickly. (Fat chance.)

  6. I’m another proponent of #1. That’s why my books are rarely set in ‘real’ places. I did set one in my then home town of Orlando, and it was the hardest one to write from an accuracy standpoint. I created my Blackthorne, Inc. company so I could give my characters whatever they needed, and created my other series in ‘based on’ locations.
    All these tips are golden.
    Congrats on Release Day!

  7. Congratulation on the house sale and the new book release. Also, thank you for the research hacks.

    I have been writing about what I know, my current WIP taking place in the Middle East. Eventually, I’ll be going outside my own experiences of living there. The next two books I have planned will require a lot of looking into.

    For the tid-bits I do research now, Wikipedia has been a life saver. I know many out there would disagree with using Wik, but those same people don’t use the references at the bottom. This makes things easy to verify.

    I agree with the above advice, which can be used for non-fiction. In my other professional life as a Canadian OHS professional, I do massive amounts of research. Finding web friendly sites has been the key in my technical writing projects. Canada safety laws can be different across ten provinces and three territories – I just don’t have the time to research everything when the field might need a SWP that afternoon.

    Being in the Safety biz for twenty five plus years, I have found efficient and effective research can save hundreds of hours.

  8. Congratulations, John, on the release of your new book and on the release of your house after such a short time on the market.

    I’m also going to vote for Hack #1. I set my books in a fictional town and I had fun describing it as “one of those adolescent towns that sprouted out of the hip of a larger, more mature city to its east ..” I can tweak the good folks of my town in ways I wouldn’t try if it were real. It gives me a lot of leeway for creativity.

  9. So agree with Hack #1! My last series was set in a town I’d never visited but wanted to. Never again! Although I did enjoy my trips to the area. Maybe I’ll set one in Hawaii…
    Congrats on your new release!

  10. Thanks for this reminder that research should be fun.
    One of my hacks: You don’t need to know everything, you just need to know that everything you write is correct. (This actually started as a rule for grammar, back in the day when I taught student journalists.)
    For instance, I’m not a gun expert. (My copyeditor is, thankfully.) I don’t need to be. I just need to make sure that what details I use are right — the telling detail — and I only use details that I’m sure are correct. Same with locations, or newsrooms, or microbreweries in Moscow, Idaho….

  11. Great tips. I’ve gone so far as to set my stories in the year in which I was the same age as my teenaged protagonists (that is, the Seventies), so I can apply period knowledge, attitudes, and slang. Why try to mimic today’s teens when I can inflict my own period on them? As a way of saving time and dipping into an already-internalized gestalt, it’s slick as snot on a doorknob.

    It’s also a fertile field for McGuffins. Need to knock a couple of characters out of communication for an hour or two? No problem! They’re in an old split-windshield VW microbus, so the electrical system has issues. Obviously.

  12. Excellent post, John! Good tips.

    I love research. Even before I started writing, I loved research.

    With my writing, I don’t have to research weapons much (although, I did have to ask my husband what kind of handgun an ex-Marine would be likely to carry in the woods to take care of a cinnamon bear-he thought a .44 mag would do it).

    I did research monarch butterflies and praying mantis…I know, a bit girly, but they are fascinating insects.

    I’m sticking to the PNW for my settings. Grew up here, and except for a 10 year stint in the LA area (not to be repeated anytime soon!), have lived here all my life. Given current conditions, I think I’ll have to work in a heat wave or two… 🙂

    Hope all yous guys are staying cool!

  13. Congratulations on your latest book release, John! Great tips here. Thanks for sharing. Research can definitely be a rabbit hole, and it can also be a maze you lose yourself in. Your tip #5 is very on point for me, both as a writer and in my former career. One aspect of my librarian job was helping people zero in on what they needed, research wise, like the patron who wanted “books on the civil war,” when what they really wanted, after my short reference interview with them, was books on Confederate currency.

  14. “Stealth Attack” Great title, great cover!
    I usually do about the same amount of research: 40% too much. You never know what will pay off. I over-researched my WWII novel to the TMI point that I finally just added a disclaimer that liberties had been taken, that the book was only mostly factual. I listed known deviations from reality in an appendix. E.g., I had my mostly made-up “Gen. Zeitzler” resign after Hitler’s blunders. [I checked later; Zeitzler 𝘥𝘪𝘥 resign, claiming poor health. (Hitlerosis?)]
    The 40% extra paid off in 1. a locked room murder mystery, 2. the true force behind the Holocaust, 3. a new candidate for Hitler’s mystery grandfather. 4. knowledge of psychology useful in future projects.
    Never beat yourself up for doing too much research. It’s part of the craft and sparks party conversations.

  15. Figures today is the day I check in late in the day. I am one of those specialists. You will find my name in the acknowledgements of a few of Elaine Viets’ books. I am the computer geek who gets those questions like how to find “this” in snapchat?

    In her Mystery Shopper series the real teen girl who was the expert on life as a teen grew faster than her fictional counterpart. My children’s music tastes made it onto the page.

  16. Another helpful resource is Google Alerts. Choose subjects (e.g., drug cartels, DEA, etc.) and every time stories about your subjects appear in newspapers, magazines, blogs, TV news, etc., Google alerts you and provides links to the news.

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