ThrillerFest Notes: Research is vital.

As usual, Thrillerfest’s Craftfest offered some amazing guest lectures with information other than just focusing of the craft of writing. This year’s talks included representatives of the US Marshal service, arson experts, ATF officers, and behavioral analysis investigators. I love these kinds of sessions because they help point out what TV and movies often get wrong, and the people are always open to questions. As an author, I think it is critical to get the facts correct as much as possible. Readers will notice any errors or inconsistencies and that makes them twice as likely to throw down an unfinished book and walk away.

So here is a list of research possibilities that I gleaned from this year’s ThrillerFest and past ones.

  1. Experience the event first handDavid Morrell, author of the Rambo novels and more, has often said that experience helps writers pick up on all the nuances of an action or occasion. This includes going to a gun range to try a particular gun or rifle; taking a walk through a city and noting all the sights, sounds, and smells; or trying a hobby that your character might have. There are tons of ideas to put you in the same moment as your character when they are doing a specific action.
  2. Google EarthKen Follet, creator of the Pillars of the Earth and many other books, spoke at a Thrillerfest conference a few years ago. After talking about writing while using an old travel guide in the 1960s, he said he now uses Google Earth to get the lay of the land without the expense of travelling there.
  3. YouTube – I never thought of using this option until Jeff Ayers mentioned it at his seminar this year. The author of Voyages of Imagination: The Star Trek Fiction Companion pointed out that so many video diarists love to record the details of their lives. Therefore, if you need to know what to a Russian hotel looks like, you might find a video of someone walking down a hotel hallway in Moscow.
  4. Academic and other professionals – Area experts are all around us. If you need historians, economists, or scientists, look to local universities. Probably for the price of a lunch, they would be glad to discuss any questions you might have. Professors usually love people learning about their subject matter. In addition, some towns have Coffee with a Cop meetings or Citizens Academies that can provide a great time and place to talk to law enforcement people. Contact your local police department or sheriff’s public affairs office for these kinds of opportunities.
  5. FBI, U.S. Marshal Service, and other government agencies – A few years back, The ITW organization offered a day with the FBI before the actual Thrillerfest started. I signed up for it and was amazed at what I learned. The main factor I walked out with was that they want people to ask questions. In fact, they have public affairs offices that will answer questions and provide support to curious writers. They hate the bad information showing up on TV and in movies. Don’t be shy. Do a Google search and then pick up the phone and call.
  6. Librarians – Mr. Ayers also mentioned another underutilized resource: librarians. He stated that these people are the kinds that love to do research, and they would know what their institution has in terms of newspapers, photos, microfiche and more.
  7. Fellow authors – This last one took me by surprise but then made so much sense once I thought about the writers I’ve known. Most had first career and their writing is their second one. Therefore, they have some expertise in another area along with their writing career. For instance, most people don’t know that I have a degree in molecular and cellular biology. I can’t stand it when an author fails to distinguish between viruses and bacteria. For one thing, it is very difficult to “cure” a virus. At best you usually treat the symptoms and come up with a vaccine. While at Thrillerfest, I met ex-police, financiers, lawyers, political experts, and accountants. They were also all published writers. So when in doubt, check out an author’s website and ask your question. What is the worst thing that could happen?

Research by being in the moment and at the place is always going to be the best. However, it is also often going to be the most inconvenient and expensive option. Don’t let that stop you from writing though.  With some computer research and some phone calls, you can make your information the most accurate it can be.

For instance, when I worked on Independence Day Plague, I walked all over the Smithsonian Mall, the subways and parts of Virginia. I collected maps and took tons of pictures because we were already spending the summer there. However, I could not do that in South Dakota, but I had a friend that grew up there. I used her as a resource to make sure those scenes rang true.

These suggestions are not a comprehensive list. If you have other suggestions, I would love to hear them. Regardless of how you do it though, researching your book’s locations and facts will give your stories a texture that your readers will appreciate.

Success in Writing

Writing a book or short stories is a lonely business. Sure, we have our groups and beta readers, but the act itself takes place in quiet rooms away from distractions. Creating the story usually isn’t from a discussion or a team effort. It comes more from a small, quirky idea that loops round and round in our heads, growing with every lap until we sit down to let it out.

Few non-writing people understand this process. To them, it doesn’t look difficult. “Research? What research? Just make stuff up. No one will care.” Who cares if the writer gets interrupted? “Don’t worry, that idea will come back to you.” Nope. It died, disappearing into the fog of nothingness like all other ignored ideas.

Ducks and turtle

Books are like children. We create them, raise them and then set them free in the world.

When I finished my first draft of Independence Day Plague (first book), others around me expected to buy it within weeks. They didn’t understand the months of critical reading and editing or the time, often years, needed land an editor or agent. They don’t know that the production is never that easy. So, we writers have only a few milestones in this process that definitely deserve celebration.

One of these rare moments happened to me last week. I finished the first draft of Riding the Comet, an asteroid-based novel about a teenage girl trying to make her own life choices in a male-dominated mining colony. Typing those last perfect lines felt delightful. The elation of having completed the novel lasted all day long.


Because it meant I was a true author. I had undergone six months and 330 pages of text. The story absolutely itched, clawed and tore its way out of me. Sometimes it flowed like ice water down a mountain stream. Other times I felt lost in all the technical information and ready to give up.

Many people say they “could write a book if I wanted to,” but they don’t. They’re fooling themselves because they don’t have the discipline. Others might write snippets and ideas but never complete them. A true author finishes the manuscript no matter what. They then polish it up to perfection because it’s a vocation or calling, not a job they must do. The joy of finishing a manuscript elevates that person above all the naysayers, hobbyists, and dabblers. It allows them to enter the rarified air of authorship.

That alone is a reason to celebrate.

Happy writing!