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.