Research almost got me arrested

Among the reasons I love being a novelist, I’d have to put the fun of research at the top of the list.  Thanks to my drive for accuracy, I’ve hung around autopsy rooms, been present at the CT scanning of an ancient Egyptian mummy, and toured behind the scenes at Johnson Space Center.  Seldom do these jaunts get me into trouble.  But every so often, I’m reminded of the old adage that curiosity kills the cat.

It can put a writer in jail, too.

My near-arrest happened while I was doing research for my biological-disaster-in-space novel, Gravity.  The book takes place partly in orbit aboard the International Space Station, and partly at Johnson Space Center in Houston.  My hero, Jack McCallum, is a physician who was once in the astronaut corps, but because of a medical condition (kidney stones) will never get the chance to fly in space.  So he’s left NASA and returned to working as an E.R. doctor in a local hospital.  Now, it doesn’t really matter whether that hospital is real or fictional, but since I was already spending the week at NASA, I thought I might as well choose a real hospital for one of Gravity’s scenes, which takes place in an emergency room close to NASA.

My husband and I drove to Miles Memorial Hospital.

Since he and I are both physicians, we felt pretty comfortable walking in the front doors and taking a look around.  The lobby was busy with visitors and employees and volunteers going about their business.  I had a little notebook, in which I sketched the layout of the lobby, and my impressions of the of the place.  I checked out the gift shop, noted the location of the elevators, and just sort of wandered around trying to imprint the atmosphere in my head so that I could later write about it accurately.  We walked into the waiting area of the emergency room, took a look at where the ambulances would pull in, and again I jotted down notes.  Finally, I wanted to see which floor the ICU was on, so we rode the elevator up to that floor, just so I could see in which direction one would have to turn to walk there.  

At no time did I enter a patient area; I stayed only where a visitor who was there to see a patient might go. Finally satisfied that I’d seen enough to describe the hospital accurately, my husband and I rode the elevator back down to the lobby and headed toward the exit.

That’s when two burly security guards closed in and took us into custody.

They brought us into a back room and told us the police had been called and were on their way to arrest us. What were we guilty of?  “Trespassing,” they answered.  They’d been watching us on their security cameras, and were certain we were up to no good.  

“But we’re physicians!” we protested.  

Yeah, right.  They wanted to know what we were doing wandering around the hospital, and what exactly was I writing in that little notebook of mine?

It didn’t help that my husband had his medical license in his wallet.  It didn’t matter that I told them I was a novelist, merely there for research.  We were trespassers, and we were going to jail.

As time ticked by, and I imagined those scary Houston cops arriving to clap on the handcuffs, I kept trying to convince the two security guards that I really was a novelist. But how do you prove it?  Anyone could claim to be a writer.  Anyone could say they were doing research.  At the time, I had no website to send them to, and I had no I.D. in my wallet that said “Tess Gerritsen, novelist.”  Even worse, my pen name and my legal name are not the same.  So even if I claimed to be “Tess Gerritsen,” where was that documentation?

Suddenly, I remembered that I had a few copies of my novel Harvest in our rental car. I’d brought them along to give as gifts to my contacts at Johnson Space Center.  “Let me show you one of my books,” I told the guards.  “That will prove I really am Tess Gerritsen.”

But they wouldn’t let me walk to the car.  They wouldn’t let me out of their sight.

Finally, one of them agreed to escort my husband to the car to retrieve the book.  A few minutes later, my husband and the guard returned with the copy of Harvest.  Thank god, it had an author photo.  Also, thank god, the author photo actually looked like me.  The guards studied the book, studied my face, and suddenly broke out in smiles.

“Can we have your autograph?” they asked.

They got their autographs, and I didn’t get arrested.  We found out they were suspicious of our behavior because, several weeks earlier, a newborn had been abducted from another Houston hospital.  They thought we might be baby-nappers, there to steal an infant. Lucky for us, we never went near the obstetrics ward.

Ever since that experience, whenever I travel anywhere on research, I bring copies of my books.  It’s not just to give away as gifts (although they’re usually very much appreciated.)  It’s also to prove I am who I say I am. 

I’m not the only author who’s been forced to resort to an author photo to get out of a fix.  One author told me about the time she had the sickening realization, while standing at an airline counter, that her wallet had been stolen.  She had a plane to catch and no I.D.  But she did have her airline ticket and a copy of her book — with her author photo.  They let her on the plane.

Another author told me that he showed up for a flight one day and was immediately pulled aside and interrogated by TSA because his name (quite an ordinary one) was on the no-fly list. Despite hours of protestations that they had the wrong guy, he finally pleaded with them to check out his author website.  One look at his author photo, and they excitedly realized he really was the famous author he claimed to be.  Their next question was entirely predictable:

“Can we have your autograph?” 

Ever since then, this author always travels with a copy of one of his books.  And makes sure it has a good author photo. 

That’s an excellent idea for any author.  Your author photo may be the only thing between you and a jail cell.




23 thoughts on “Research almost got me arrested

  1. John Dishon

    So the solution then, is to make an author website, maybe with some fake blurbs by popular writers, make it look like I’m somebody, just in case I get in a jam like the ones you described.

    Seriously though, those guards didn’t handle it that well if they really thought you were suspicious. So authors are incapable of nabbing babies, or otherwise breaking the law? They should have just escorted you out of the building though. No need to call the police.

  2. Brett Battles

    HA! That’s exactly what I’ve done on my current research trip. Thought, thankfully, I haven’t had to use my book to avoid arrest…yet! (Still 24 hours left.)

  3. Wilfred Bereswill

    Tess, that story is close to mine. I wanted to research casino security and couldn’t get anywhere with the Public Relations departments of the local casinos. So it was time for a road trip. After walking in and looking at all the dark domes on the ceiling while playing a few slots, I decided to sit at a Blackjack table. Chated with the pit boss for a minute about how good the video surveillence was when two men tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come with them. I was given the 3rd degree, but I was somewhat prepared with a copy of a book and business cards. The security chief gave me a few generic hints at what his "Baby" was capable of and had his men show me the door.

    I had asked about facial recognition. All he did was flash a file folder at me and say, "Now I have the face to go with this file."

  4. karen from mentor

    Wow Tess,
    Way to rub it in. I was at the building department yesterday asking about property setbacks and zoning ordinances so I could get something right for my WIP.
    Nobody even hit me with a rubber hose.
    Great post.
    Karen 🙂

  5. Dana King

    Seems like you had a golden opportunity for a two-fer: hospital research, and a chance to research what it’s like to be arrested, from the perspective of the person in custody. Will, same thing with you and the casino.

    This unwillingness to suffer for one’s art is disturbing. What kind of legacy are we leaving for generations of writers yet unborn? <Sigh>

  6. Louise Ure

    No wonder your books have so much verisimilitude, Tess! You’ve been there, done that, with just about everything (except maybe the astronaut part).

    I’ve found it’s sometimes safer to meet and expert in the field and get them drunk.

  7. Allison Brennan

    I’m actually with John . . . considering all the self-published authors out there, the physical quality of many of those books is pretty good, so I could make up a pretty good second identity. In fact, I can see the guard now being fired or reprimanded . . . and using the book the "author" left him to track her down and solve the crime. Hmmm . . . .

    When I was researching my second book, my first book was not yet on the shelves and I couldn’t convince any of the mechanics I spoke to that I really was a legitimate writer researching when I wanted to know how to disable a car three-to-five miles after the victim stopped for gas. I resorted to talking to my BIL’s mechanic friend at my niece’s baptism, and I’m glad I did! I would have gotten it wrong.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I’m always amazed when people take my word that I’m a novelist. I’ve been told some pretty explosive information by police captains and coroners, even NASA personnel. Things that could get them in trouble if it somehow "got out." For some reason they’ve trusted that I’m not a newspaper reporter looking for "the scoop." Only once did I experience a kind-of scary situation, when a mafia-type thug accused me of being a journalist. I told him I was only doing research for a novel. The next time I saw him, in the company of police, he looked me in the eye and said, "So, how’s your ‘novel" coming along?"

  9. tess gerritsen

    Stephen, it’s funny how most people love to talk to novelists. They don’t feel as threatened by us as they are by journalists. And there’s something about the "glamor" that intrigues them all. Love the story about the thug!

  10. Irene

    Glad you didn’t get arrested, Tess. By the way, Gravity is one of my faves. Hmm. Babynapping couple? Sounds like a novel idea in the making. 🙂

  11. James Scott Bell

    I got stopped at customs once, Toronto, and detained. I had a name similar to a guy they were tracking. They took me to an interrogation room and videoed the exchange. Luckily I had business cards with a picture of my current novel on them, and my website. He went and checked it out, then came back and told me I was off the hook. "Maybe I’ll read one of your books someday," he said, keeping my card. (Yeah, and I hope you pay for it, I thought, moving along).

  12. toni mcgee causey

    Prior to having a book published, my first encounter with the police, I asked a lot of detailed questions about police procedure with regards to processing a crime scene at a construction site. Because I was in construction, I described pretty accurately the kinds of equipment and materials used on a site that aren’t commonly mentioned by the normal visitor to police, and since there had apparently been a murder at a construction site a few weeks earlier, I found myself being asked a host of questions. Very nicely. Incredibly friendly. Really useful in helping me visualize the murder scene. And as an author, didn’t I want to see how the fingerprint machine worked? (It was cool.)

    After a little while (and more very helpful questions), the Sergeant was told that my prints were "clean" and the Sergeant looked at me and told me that I was free to go. Um, thank you?

    [Of course, he mentioned afterward about the other murder, and since I had gotten a few of the actual details right, but others really wrong, they had also checked around town to make sure there weren’t any other construction sites that fit my description.]

    I think Louise’s method’s safer.

  13. Gerry Boyle

    Tess is right. Saying you’re a writer always sounds so implausible. I only admit it as a last resort, sometimes because I don’t want to blow my cover, sometimes because it sounds sort of wimpy.
    Doing research for PORT CITY UNDERGROUND, went into a crack house with a bunch of cops in a city that will remain unnamed for now. Ended up in a room with a sad cracked-out woman. She was talking as fast as she could trying to beat the drug charges, assumed I was some sort of detective. Then must have caught the sympathetic look I had, and started pleading her case. I don’t do drugs anymore. That isn’t my crack. It’s my boyfriend. You’re not gonna take me to jail are you? I wasn’t. They did. She and the boyfriend had held up a fast-food restaurant in their criminal past. Everybody else had body armor. I had a notebook. I didn’t take it out until they put her in the cruiser and hauled her away.

  14. Jill James

    Wow Tess, that’s scary. But in a good way, nice to know they were really watching people to protect the patients. I love Gravity, it is the most romantic non-romance book I’ve ever read. I’ve been to Johnson Space Center and so jealous of your behind the scenes look. LOL

  15. Rabid Fox

    Man oh man, that sounds like a potential nightmare. Thank goodness for having a copy of your book as evidence. In a way, I gotta give it to security for at least doing their job and watching those monitors.

  16. writtenwyrdd

    I’m not a published novelist yet, but when I was taking photos in downtown Boston for locations in a novel I’m working on, I got the hairy eyeball from security guards. I took a picture inside a building lobby and got all kinds of trouble for doing so. Everyone’s so paranoid these days about photos or notes leading to some possible trouble, they’ve gone a little wacko on the subject!

  17. Escort reviews

    To make any site famous you need to have many banners and reviews. The problem is that presently it’s hard to find a right position to set review to. Especially reviews connected with escort agencies. London escort review is the best place for your escort reviews if you want to promote escort girls.

  18. Consolidation

    Apologize for my bad english, I deem its a precarious vent one’s spleen of your writing. Famously I obtain faced alot of difficulties in this form but your article will definately relieve me in future. Offer You


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *