Field Trip!

By Allison Brennan

You’re probably here expecting David Corbett to challenge your mind with a smart and thoughtful essay, but we switched days because it’s his birthday and he’s out being happy. You can read his post from last Sunday here.

So you’re stuck with me today.

David is a recent addition to Murderati and after reading his first post, I emailed JT and said:

“Where’d you dig up the smart guy? Sheesh, I feel so inadequate. I think I’m going to have permanent blog-writer’s block :/”


So I’m not David, no great insights from me today! But I want to talk about one of my favorite subjects: research.

I’m giddy about my next research trip. Tomorrow I’m participating in another FBI SWAT training session, this time as a hostage. I can’t tell you how exciting these things are for me. First, I lead a boring life. It’s all writing and kids. That’s it. So when I get to research in the field, I feel like I’ve been released from prison. But most important, there’s nothing like hands on research.

90% of my research comes from books and talking with experts—cops, feds, doctors, lawyers, private investigators, coroners, rape counselors, pilots, business owners, mechanics, you name it. For my upcoming book IF I SHOULD DIE (11.22.11) I contacted the press guy for Argus Thermal Imaging Products about air surveillance; my regular contact at the FBI for information about working with Canadian law enforcement; a trauma surgeon I met through one of the hands on training programs about triage in the field; and even my daughter’s boyfriend who rides dirt bikes to get his input about ATVs. I poured over brochures and online maps related to the Adirondacks, learned the make-up of St. Lawrence County, New York, and researched mining history in upstate New York. I even pulled out my criminal psychology books to make sure I understood the psychology behind not only my primary villain, but because there are a lot of people involved in keeping this criminal organization running, I wanted a better understanding of group psychology.

But in the end, research shouldn’t be visible in the story. I absorb what I read and hear, but I can’t put any of it on the page. Research works only in context to the story. My readers aren’t going to be impressed that I now know how to dress a wound in the field—they don’t need me describing it in detail. What they want to know is what my main character Lucy is thinking and feeling while she’s assessing how seriously Sean is hurt after falling down an abandoned mine shaft. Because she is trained in first aid, she’s not going to be thinking about step A, B, C … she’s just going to do it.

The other 10% of my research is field trips. Touring Quantico and Folsom State Prison. Being a victim in an active shooter situation. Playing hostage. Viewing an autopsy and asking questions. But my questions are different than others. I can look up the procedures of an autopsy, but I want to know what the pathologists are thinking. Do they talk about what they’re doing? Do they chit-chat? Are they formal? Do they joke? What do they do to unwind after a difficult case? Do they tease the newbies? What’s their background? What are the strange cases? What do they like best about their job? Least? Pet peeves? 

Or consider how different characters view the same scene. A pathologist is going to look at a corpse much differently than a jogger who stumbles across a body in a park, so I try to view every situation from a different perspective. What does the first responder think/feel? The untrained observer? The killer? The victim’s family? What do they notice that someone else might not?

This is where the field trips really help me. I’m lucky in that I can put myself in other people’s shoes, so-to-speak. I try to understand the world from different perspectives. When I play hostage tomorrow, it’ll be running the same scenario multiple times. I can “be” the hostage and imagine that it’s real (and they way they run these drills, it feels real—I’m hyper-alert.) I can also “be” the bad guy and watch and listen and imagine why is he doing thing? What made him snap? Is it emotional or calculating? Because he’s stressed or because he wants something? And one of the my favorite parts of these drills is when, after the fact, the trainer comes through with the team and analyzes the operation. I get to listen to why decisions were made, what they were thinking, all the information they have to process immediately. If I can understand a scene from all three viewpoints—cop, suspect, hostage—I can write it.

Don’t be surprised if a hostage situation shows up in one of my upcoming stories. 🙂

Too many beginning authors spend a lot of time researching, then dump their newfound knowledge in the middle of a scene. BORING! Okay, okay, there are some people who like all the technical detail, and there are some authors who have made a name for themselves with involved, elaborate, and accurate descriptions of technology or science or forensic investigation. And sometimes, a bit more detail is necessary for the story—but as Elmore Leonard advises, try to leave out the boring parts.

I confess, I’ve been guilty of research dumps, usually because I learned something really cool and I want to share. Fortunately, my editor usually stops me from going overboard. And I never forget the advice of a good friend of mine, Karin Tabke, who’s married to a retired cop. It’s the details that’ll hang you, especially when you’re not an expert, so only share what’s necessary for the immediate story and move on. (But then I remember two emails I received a week apart on my book THE HUNT—one cop wrote that I got everything wrong, another cop wrote that I must have worked in law enforcement because I got it all right. Go figure.)

In the end, research needs to serve the story, not the other way around. Raise the stakes, tighten the prose, maintain the proper pacing, and be true to each character. Incorporating research is just the window dressing.

Next week I’m off for a two week trip! Not a book tour or anything fancy like that (being a mass market original author, touring isn’t an option.) But I will be at RWA and Thrillerfest, both of which are in NYC back-to-back this year. Toni McGee Causey and I are rooming together and hopefully will have time to do tourist stuff between conferences. After six (seven?) trips to NY, I have yet to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, so that’s up this time. Any must-see Broadway shows? Go-to restaurants or shops? One of those “you have to do this before you die” experiences? Are you going to one of the conferences? Bouchercon? Maybe next year?

I printed up a promotional copy of my digital novella, Love is Murder, to give away at the conferences. Comment or say ‘hi’ and I’ll randomly send five people a copy (which also includes an excerpt of my upcoming book.)


26 thoughts on “Field Trip!

  1. Barbie

    Umm.. What I did LOVE about NYC and totally think you should do…

    The Villages (West Village and Greenwich Village) and Soho. I think that was my very favorite part out of everything. Everything is sooo pretty. It's like a small town inside of NYC, and, really, it's like being inside a Mary Higgins Clark novel. Or another book, for that matter. For us, romantic suspense lovers, it truly feels like a book. I was kinda hoping to see someone's stalker at any time 🙂

    The American Museum Of Natural History. Even if you're like me and you don't like museums, if you've never been, you just have to. Especially if you've watched Night at The Museum and you just KNOW all the pieces become alive during the night. Honestly, though, it's SO cool!!!

    Making out like crazy with a random Mauritanian guy you meet there. Oh! Right. Umm, though memorable, you're married, you should probably scratch this one off your list. Moving on.

    Toys'r'Us at Times Square. I know, you're away from home and away, you probably want distance from kids, but there's a roller coasters inside it and a T-Rex too. Also, in Times Square, they have Hershey's World (?) or something that is called, that has KitKats and Reese's and they have M&M's store!!!!

    There are probably many more, but this is all I remember right now.

  2. PD Martin

    Sounds like a great research gig! If only we could all be taken hostage in a training exercise!

    NYC – love it. One of my favourite cities in the world. We like hitting the streets and walking everywhere – getting a feel for the city's vibe. Last time we did also go to the American Museum of Natural History and like Barbie said, it's very cool! And I like just sitting in Central Park, people watching. But maybe you've done all of the above before.

    Wish I was going to Bouchercon and/or Thrillerfest. Long way for me though!

  3. Sarah Pearson

    Being English, everything I know about NYC comes from the movies! I have to say though, your SWAT training session sounds exciting. I started thinking, 'what if someone went to one of them and actually ended up in a real situation, thinking it was a drill'?'. I guess we never switch off!

  4. Sarah W

    I love hands on research!

    This year, so far, I learned to drive a squad car and been rescued during a civil defense exercise (extracted, really, since I was dead, but they didn't know, so I learned a few new vocabulary words, too), taken a couple of gun courses, and visited a women's prison with the librarian there.

    But most of my research is done by bugging my select group of longsuffering experts, most of whom I met by sidling up to them during my other job and saying, "Here's the information you wanted. Can I ask you a weird question?" Found myself a federal judge and a locksmith that way! Once you convince them it's for the *book* (no, really), it's amazing what people will share, and agree to let you use!

    I have a friend who lives in Vegas, but I think i still need to visit (it's for the *book*, no really), but until then, I have a tour of the new local casino as the next best thing.

    Writing really does open up new worlds.

  5. Sandra K. Marshall


    I agree with you about the research. For my Odyssey Mysteries trilology, I worked for nine months at a local riverboat gambling casino to get the feel of the casino life, the atmosphere, etc.

    After reading your blog, I realize I have a lot to learn.

    BTW, New York is a favorite place of mine to visit. I'm sorry I can't make it to the RWA conffernece this year.

    Thanks for a great blog.

  6. Rae

    Couldn’t agree more about being clobbered on the head with chunks of research that muck up the flow of a story. It’s one of the annoyances that will make me put a book down, pronto.

    As to New York, agree with visiting the Villages and SoHo. A couple of restaurant recommendations: Mary’s Fish Camp for lobster rolls – the best you’ll find outside of Maine. And, if you want a fancy, blow out, super treat of a dinner, try to get into the Gramercy Tavern – it’s fabulous in every way, including lovely, friendly, not-over-the-top service.

    The only conference I’m attending this year is Bouchercon. I’m really looking forward to not being in charge. Plus, Jon Jordan and crew are putting on a great event.

  7. Louise Ure

    I love research, too. And I was especially chuffed yesterday when a 90-year old distant relative asked me "how do you know all this stuff?" about my most recent book.

  8. JT Ellison

    Can't wait to see you and Toni in NYC – we need a Murderati get together like we did last time. Who's in?
    I too am a research junkie. It's a blast to learn new things. And when you're writing, and doing it right, it really is the iceberg effect. Have fun with your crapons!

    And Happy Birthday David, if you're lurking – and if you are, bad, boy, bad.

  9. Dudley Forster

    If I was in NY I’d want to see Anything Goes or The Lion King. At what point do you do your research? Since, you’re a total pantser, do you do the research as you write or after the first draft? Tried to come up with something witty to say about you and Toni prowling the streets of NY, but I got noth’n . Must need more caffeine.

  10. Pauline

    The research trips sound fascinating!
    I have never been to New York, someday I'll make it.
    But I love live shows. My daughter and I saw Billy Elliot In Toronto and absolutely loved it.
    I see it's playing on Broadway as well.
    Have fun on your trip!

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    You're killing me with this stuff, Allison. Killing me. You know how obsessed I get with research. I'm really only a writer as an excuse to do research. Exactly the kind of research you are writing about here.

    And I'm with you 150%. Everything you say here I agree with. For Beat I had 100 typed pages of research I accumulated from spending time with the SFPD and I ended up using about 1% of it in the book. But it was all there, in the background, working for me.

    Great post!

  12. Malcolm R. Campbell

    Readers like various amounts of detail in their fiction. I probably put more in my writing than most because I like to "anchor" the magic with real-world facts. I've had problems with a couple of well-written books by a successful author lately because the research shows. In both of the books I read, there are a lot of locations outside the U.S. which are covered in extravagent detail in the novel. In fact, the detail is distracting to the point of sounding like it belongs in a travel article.

    Like you say, the research needs to serve the story. Have a good time on your FBI field trip.


  13. Allison Brennan

    Barbie, great ideas. I've been to SoHo and natural history museum. I was thinking of some not-so-famous museums, or maybe if there was a cool exhibit somewhere … I'm not a big museum person, unless it's a subject that fascinates me (in Washington DC when I lived there for a few months, one of the museums had a fantastic exhibit about American writers. I LOVED that!!! And I wasn't even published then!)

    Oh, and I've been all over Times Square because the PASIC conference hotel is there. And I took the subway last time, just to say I did, but I'm not a big subway person. I'd rather walk.

    Hi PD! Yeah, it's a bit of a trip for you!! Maybe sometime you can swing it. 🙂 I've been to Central Park, but never walked through it, that would be fun. If it's not too hot and humid. I'm a wimp when it comes to the heat.

    Hi Sarah, you hit it–before I went to NYC for the first time in 2007, all I knew about was from the movies and books. A lot is accurate when the film on location, though, and I *felt* like I'd been there before even though I hadn't.

    Sarah W … Yes! Writing opens up worlds. I did very little hands on research for my first six or seven books, though that's when I beefed up my research shelf (over 40 books on crime, forensics, criminal psychology, memoirs, bios, and even two hugely expensive text books which are invaluable to me though they're dense.) But I realized that I didn't have the visuals right. I'm not a big detail person anyway and used to rely more on the common, rather than the little things that I would only notice if I were actually there (like at the morgue, only seeing the feet of the corpses, which kind of creeped me out. So I had a character who wasn't a cop go to the morgue and be creeped out; my cop character was like, "What's your problem?")

    Alafair, that's what I've heard. I'm hoping Toni and I can dig some up … maybe someone will just give them to us, LOL.

    Hi Sandra! They paid you, right? Double duty research! And it's not wasted, because anytime you're someplace where you can watch people you're doing research. My 15 year old daughter and I have a very bad habit of people watching. She's worse than me, though. 🙂

    LOL Rae — I know about not being in charge!! I want to go to Bouchercon, but it's at a bad time of the year for me … I have five kids, all in fall sports. I'm trying for next year.

  14. Allison Brennan

    LOL Louise! That's like when people look at me (usually with an odd expression) and ask how I can come up with such twisted stories. 🙂

    Absolutely JT, take a head count. I'd love to do something!

    Dudley, I take research opportunities as they come up, at least the field trips, not for any specific purpose. I just absorb as much information as I can and hope I'll remember it (or have good notes) by the time I need it. For book specific research, sometimes I need to know something before I start (like in the prison break trilogy, I did research by reading seismic reports for San Quentin prison and talking to a prison guard about where my prisoners needed to be during the earthquake to give them the best chance of escaping, as well as what the response would be. That's why I had the earthquake take down the guard tower, because they'd just shoot the escaping prisoners. With all the dust in the air after the collapse of that and the wall of the yard, visibility would be extremely poor.) But most of the time, I only call someone (or email) when I need to know something. This can halt my WIP for a day or two. I have two categories: plot critical and details. Plot critical are things that I have to know before I start; details are what I learn during the "investigation."

  15. Allison Brennan

    Thanks for the recommendation Pauline!

    Hey Stephen! Yeah, we both love the research, though you go WAAAAY deeper than I do. Except for my trip to Quantico, my research is usually day trips. But I find the contacts I make as important as the trip itself.

    Thanks Malcolm! And I completely agree that real-world details are crucial … and sometimes, writing fantasy or science fiction maybe, readers have a greater expectation of more world building and scientific details. I used to read Tom Clancy, but I'll admit I skimmed the tech stuff. Others love it. I can buy into his "real" world even without knowing the specifics of how bombs are made or how troops move.

  16. Kim Bettcher

    Great post! Love the research and getting a bit of insight into how you do it! And as a reader…appreciate how it comes across in your books!

    Have a great time as a hostage tomorrow and enjoy NYC!

  17. Karen S

    I love your books. I enjoyed hearing about your research. My son is at the Air Force Academy and really wants to work for the FBI in the future.
    Keep up the good writing and enjoy the research. It is a lot of work, but I believe it pays off in your books. Definitely keep writing for us!!

  18. Erin

    Getting to participate in F.B.I. Swat training sounds like fun!! If I get the job i'm interviewing for tommorrow than I plan on going to Thrillerfest. I'm really sad I did not come to murderati the first time I saw it mentioned in J.T.'s All The Pretty Girls. I would of have known about boucheron which was here in Indianapolis a couple yrs ago!! Enjoy your research trip Allison!

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    I, too, love doing the research. What other excuse would we have to go shoot stuff and do other cool things. Doing 180mph on the public road (in Germany) was all purely for research purposes …

    (And there, your honour, rests the case for the defence.)

    Cool stuff in NYC? Ride the Staten Island ferry. It's free, takes about 30 mins each way, and gives you just the best view of Manhattan Island the the Statue of Liberty.

    Have breakfast at Brasserie Les Halles on Park Ave South – a nice stroll from the Grand Hyatt – where Anthony Bourdain used to be head chef. Wonderful food, and not bank-breaking either.

    Go up the Empire State Building at midnight. Great views.

  20. lil Gluckstern

    What I love about the research you do-along with your compatriots is how much I learn when I read your books. It may not be written down, but it "breathes through your writing. I second Alafair. Definitely hit the Met. New York is a vast buffet. I'm looking forward to your next Lucy.

  21. Paty Jager

    I enjoyed your post. Great advice. I do the same thing with my historical books. I research like crazy and find out everything I can but only a small part of what I learn is really in the story and in such a way that the reader doesn't realize it was researched to death! LOL I love how you get into the characters and see things from every angle. I do that through diaries.

  22. Laura

    I love hearing about all the research trips… It was actually a post of PD Martin's about the research she did for "Kiss of Death" that made me think – "I have to read this book!" Have an awesome time on your trip to New York – I lived there for a year and loved it… I don't have any extra special recommendations on where to go – but the theatre that is playing "Phantom of the Opera" – almost opposite there is a fabulous little bookshop, from memory called "Broadway Books" (this was a few years ago so it may be incorrect!) However my top tip – the best public bathroom in Times Square, go into the foyer of the Marriott Hotel – up the escalators to the first floor and you'll find the nicest, cleanest bathrooms (not many people know they're public – I was lucky enough to make friends with a local who pointed them out!)
    Have a great trip!!!

  23. PD Martin

    Funnily enough, Laura my post today is on another element of research I did for Kiss of Death! Great tip about the bathrooms. It's always good to know where a decent public bathroom is.

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