Making It Feel Real

By John Gilstrap

Fiction writers are sleight of hand masters. We create stories about people who do not really exist doing things that never happened in places that may or may not be real, all the while painting word pictures in readers’ heads. Sometimes with our eyes closed.

One question that comes up frequently when interacting with readers is some variation of “How do you do your research?” Depending on the audience, I have a lengthy, nuanced response that deals with building an extensive contacts list of people who not only know stuff, but will return my phone calls. That’s all true, but in reality, I don’t turn to the experts all that often.

For the most part, I cheat. I make stuff up. I can’t count the number of scenes that have played out inside the suburban house I grew up in. My wife grew up in a creepier house than I did, so that one has been featured many times, too. In Total Mayhem, Gail Bonneville and Venice Alexander break into the fictional Northern Neck Academy, which looks very, very much like the swanky private school where I worked during my college summers as a counselor at a day camp for overprivileged rich kids.

By knowing in my head what a place looks like–because I’ve been there and can report from memory to the page–making the settings real for the reader is a matter of reporting what I see in the pictures in my memory banks.

My research for Six Minutes to Freedom took me to the jungles and barrios of Panama, so every time a jungle appears in a book, those are the jungles I see. I have been in the West Wing of the White House exactly one time and even managed a peek at the Oval Office, so I know the feel of the place. (NOTE: Besides the Oval itself, the West Wing looks nothing like the version shown in the television show bearing its name.)

Google Earth is a gift to writers.

My book Final Target features a lengthy escape sequence where Jonathan Grave needs to get his team and a busload of orphans to an exfiltration point on the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula while pursued by cartel bad guys. In part because the cartel bad guys are very real and quite active in those parts, I had no desire and zero intention to visit the place.

So, I cheated. Google Earth offers a “street view” function that allowed me to “drive” Jonathan’s route to the exfil point. I don’t dwell on specific structures, but I did mention landmarks at different intersections, and I was able to see where and how the nature of the vegetation changes. I even pinpointed the big house where the final shootout happened.

Everything is research.

Back when I still had my Big Boy Job, my duties took me to Ottawa, where I fell in love with the city. (Actually, I’ve fallen in love with a lot of places in Canada.) In High Treason, bad guys spirit Jonathan’s precious cargo across the border into Canada, and I needed a location for the final conflict. I remembered from my visit that islands in the middle of the Ottawa River, very near the government buildings. Those would suit my purposes perfectly. But those islands don’t have the kind of structures I needed.

So, I cheated. I remembered from an earlier vacation trip to Ireland that we visited Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, and that would be perfect. I changed its name and planted it on that island in the Ottawa River. Then I blew a lot of it up. I did get a few letters from readers who felt it necessary to tell me that there is, in fact, no prison on those islands, but not as many as I had feared.

It’s okay not to be real.

Writers are inherently inquisitive people, I think, and our passion to do research too often takes us down rabbit holes where countless hours are wasted. I work to deadlines, so I often don’t have that luxury. I have to remind myself that fiction is merely the impression of reality. I don’t have to be able to do all of the things that my characters can do. All I have to do is convince the reader that the characters are able to do the stuff they do.

It’s all a part of going on the great pretend.

How about you, TKZ family? Any research shortcuts you want 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.

16 thoughts on “Making It Feel Real

  1. Yep on Google Earth being a very useful spot-research tool. If you’re attentive, you can even get a surface “feel” for a place. And absolutely yes to “It’s okay not to be real.” ‘Cause, um, it’s fiction.

    I read somewhere several decades ago a fictionist can get away with one big lie during the telling of any story. (If you’ve engaged the reader, little lies don’t count because they will go unnoticed.)

    In my longest series, a Texas Ranger company is stationed in Amarillo TX in the 1870s. Only problem, Amarillo wasn’t founded until 1892. I picked Amarillo because, well, Amarillo, and because it’s located in the Panhandle in the heart of what used to be Comancheria.

  2. Yes things like Google Earth have made life a little easier. Also, the fact that states more and more are digitizing records gives us the ability to research without physically wading through the stacks, or the often deal-breaking expense of travel trips to locations.

    I agree it’s okay not to be real–writers generally know how to pick & choose where to not be real (and we all know readers will call us out if we take liberties in the wrong places). You can drive yourself nuts trying to make areas of your research fit together for the story–sometimes you’ve got to take liberties to break a stalemate, or you’ll get stuck in your manuscript.

  3. John, You made me smile with your story about transplanting a prison to a real island then blowing it up.

    Most of my books take place in NW Montana where I live so authenticity is easy.

    However, I’ve invented a couple of locations that don’t exist IRL.

    One is an imaginary mountain in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, comprised of a million acres running along the Continental Divide. “The Bob” is mostly roadless, so no one is likely to quibble about one fake peak that I named Forever Mountain in my book FLIGHT TO FOREVER.

    The other is Foys Junction, a fictional town with a corrupt police department. I don’t want to insult/alienate my law enforcement contacts. So I made up a place where bad cops go after they’ve been booted from real departments. Montana locals sometimes ask where Foys Junction is but otherwise no one mentions it.

  4. YouTube is another terrific resource. I used it recently to get the sound, sight and feel of a location. Adding a specific sensory detail or two completes the illusion of having been there.

  5. Good morning, John. Thanks for setting up this conversation.

    Your post makes a good argument for writing fantasy. In my teen fantasy series I get to make up everything.

    But, to answer your question: Two additional resources, the travel industry has created beautiful, written travel guides and video tours of countries.

    Before I started my fantasy series, I had begun a thriller series with a connection to Columbia. I found a physician who was going on a medical mission to Columbia. He agreed to take a lot of pictures, and shared them with me when he returned. They gave me a good overall impression of the rural areas of the country.

    How about social media? Would it be possible to find people in areas of our interest who would be willing to take pictures of specific places we would like to see?

    Great post and question!

  6. I like to paint in broad brushstrokes with my own world building, to given an impression of a place. With my Empowered series, I had an alternate history, which gave me a bit more latitude. The plot line jumped around the world–largely centered in my own Pacific Northwest, but visiting Iceland, Ireland, Crimea, Columbia. Those last four all took place in the countryside, so it was about evoking just a bit of the environment.

    I’m cheating with my library mystery series and setting in a fictional southwest Portland neighborhood, so I can incorporate whatever I like from the actual southwest neighborhoods I know from my time spent working at branch libraries there. Setting very much serves the story for me, and this gives me lots of flexibility.

    Great research tips–Google Earth and YouTube are super-handy. The CIA Factbook and ProQuest’s Culturegrams, can give you quick thumbnail sketches of a country or region. Culturegrams are available online via libraries that subscribe to ProQuest. The CIA Factbook is available at the CIA’s own website. For more detail, travel guides, such as Moon’s series, can give you some great local detail.

    Great post. Have a wonderful day, John!

  7. My novels are set in a fictional town in the western foothills of the Rockies, so I have a lot of latitude in my descriptions. Google Earth and YouTube are great resources.

    I do contact firemen or policemen when I need advice on procedures. Other than that, I make it all up.

  8. ❦ My thriller called for a suitable lair for the villain (Guess who?) So I moved “the Eagle’s Nest” from Obersalzberg to a place in Austria called Bludenz, for its similarity to Blut, (blood* in German). Bludenz is an easy drive from Zurich, site of Jung’s (imaginary) WWII office. The OSS office in Bern wasn’t actually leased until September, but it had a nifty secretish tunnel that could be entered surreptitiously.
    ❦ I put my imaginary, hard-core Genl. Zeitzler at two meetings where Hitler made ruinous decisions. I decided the General should then resign, having seen Hitler’s incompetence up close. I later checked the actual Zeitzler. He resigned, too.
    ❦ I added an appendix explaining my major non-factual assumptions.

    * Hitler’s story was all about blood.

  9. GUARDIAN ANGEL started at my brother’s house on Lake Norman, went to Charlotte, a dilapidated version of a warehouse my dad rented for a short time, the pre-Hugo dunes in front of my Mom’s beach house, a tiny vacation house in the mountains, and back to my brother’s lake house. My dedication was an apology to my family for spending our holidays imagining mayhem wherever we went. All that to say you don’t need exotic locales to shoot people and blow things up.

  10. Imagination. That’s the key. That supplies the impetus to sit your butt in the chair and write. An inquiring mind provides the research fodder and google earth and the internet generally are great tools for creatives. It also helps to have friends in the business that you can bounce ideas off of.

    I do think that in some cases it helps to show the milieu of a particular place-the terroir if you will by spending some time there. One of the esteemed authors on this page is from Texas and he mentioned a while ago that he’d met someone who allegedly writes about Texas but didn’t seem to know anything about regionalisms in that great state.

    That’s the downside-get it wrong and your readers will notice.

    The wonder is that all this comes out of a 2-1/2 pound piece of tissue inside our heads.

  11. Um, I am a source for an author. I am an IT Nerd (paid) and provide technical answers for a mystery writer. Some of my pizza delivery stories make it onto her pages as well.

    I did learn a bit of movie magic. In movies they don’t always use the interior and exterior of the same house. The Devil is stronger than you think. The apartment the exorcism takes place in is about five blocks from the staircase where Fr. Karas ends up.

  12. I use floorplans of places I’ve lived. I’ve used friends/relatives in places I visited at the wrong time of the year (What street trees are blooming in Salem in May?”) Google Earth works, too, but I think my biggest workaround is in my acknowledgments at the end of every novel which more or less says this:
    “I would like to give heartfelt thanks to the following for their help with this manuscript. Any errors are my own, or included for the sake of the story. It is fiction. I make some things up.”

  13. John, your comment about making stuff up instantly made me think of the final scene in the film “Jaws.” For those unfamiliar with the behind-the-scenes story, author Peter Benchley was notoriously unhappy with the now iconic ending in which Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody kills Bruce the shark by shooting the scuba tank he had shoved in the beast’s mouth in the previous scene, causing both to explode in epic fashion. A far different ending from the novel in which the fish just…sort of…dies as a result of its injuries. Benchley’s problem–later proven by the Mythbusters–was that a scuba tank simply wouldn’t explode if it was shot. Spielberg’s ending wasn’t realistic. To which the soon-to-be-famous director replied, “If I’ve done my job in the first two hours, the audience will believe anything I tell them at the end.” After the movie was released, Benchley tipped his hat to the master. Sometimes, making stuff up just creates a better story.

    • Or, as Johnny Carson said, “If they buy the premise, they’ll buy the bit.”

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