After reading Brett’s post on Thursday and Stephen’s post on Friday, I suddenly felt the urge to also talk about research.
While Brett and Stephen’s research trips sound wonderful, my approach to research is a bit different. Part of this is from necessity. As a mom of five, all of whom are still at home, overnight travel is difficult. Day trips are much easier. I toured the Sacramento County morgue (which you can read more about in July’s issue of RT Book Reviews) and I participated in the FBI’s Citizen’s Academy, an eight-week course (of sorts) that many jurisdictions around the country hold. In mine, I had a wonderfully eclectic group of fellow students—a prosecutor, a bank VP, a field rep for a US Senator, a labor lawyer, the children’s home director, and the guy who owned a vehicle light company specializing in undercover cars.
I stumbled into being invited to participate in a session while researching TEMPTING EVIL. I had a secondary character, fugitive apprehension specialist Mitch Bianchi, who was tracking an escaped convict. He followed him from San Quentin (after the big earthquake that destroyed it in KILLING FEAR) to Montana. I was working on revisions and had a few questions that my regular contacts couldn’t seem to answer, so I somehow made contact with the PIO of the Sac FBI. Once I was cleared by Washington, I sent him a bunch of questions.
Low and behold—my entire set-up was wrong. Mitch would never have tracked the fugitive through multiple jurisdictions. If he had information that the fugitive was in another state, he would contact that jurisdiction and they’d follow up.
This was not good news. I was on a tight deadline—I was working on editor revisions, the book was DONE, and I was just cleaning it up. I couldn’t change his character because that would change the whole book—and I’d introduced him in the first place because he was to be the hero of the next book and his obsession with tracking this fugitive was crucial to that story as well.
I asked the PIO a bunch of questions, trying to dig myself out of the hole I’d written (thank you television) and then hit on the right question.
“Well, if an agent disobeyed orders or broke the rules by following a fugitive into another jurisdiction without following established protocols, what would happen?”
The answer? Anything from a reprimand to termination.
I love shades of gray!
Now only did this work for the book (and saved me a major last minute rewrite) but it worked for my character. Mitch doesn’t play by the rules, he’s been reprimanded many times and gone before the Office of Professional Responsibility more than once. He’s also smart, dedicated, and decorated.
So at the beginning of the next book, Mitch is off the case because of his blatant disregard of direct orders in TEMPTING EVIL, and is confronted with another difficult choice. I had not only established his character, but his initial internal conflict in PLAYING DEAD. It worked so well you’d have thought I’d planned it.
Which of course I didn’t. Because, well, you know I don’t plan out such things. Dodged another bullet THAT time.
After eight weeks in the citizens academy, I met more than a dozen agents, many of them squad leaders. Some of them were a bit bureaucratic for my taste, some of them a bit too authoritarian in their approach to law enforcement. But the majority of them were simply dedicated cops who liked their job. The head of Violent Crimes and Major Offenders was fantastic. He had fun with his job. He acted the most like a street cop, someone who probably didn’t work well behind a desk—a lot like my hero, Mitch. (But in my books, the head of VCMO is a woman.) The SWAT team leader is probably tied with VCMO as my favorite. He’s a former Marine and was sent to Afghanistan as part of an ERT to work several bombings. (And he let me blow up a coffee can in the back lot. How cool is that?) The former Texas female cop who worked closely with the Sheriff’s Department to stop child prostitution was also hugely compelling in her down-to-earth presentation on how these girls get into soliciting themselves on Craigs List. (Or, I should say, how they are manipulated and used into having their pimps prostitute them on Craigs List.)
I got to dust for fingerprints, analyze blood spatter, and spent a day at the shooting range. (I won an award—“My Characters Shoot Better Than I Do.” I’m taking lessons from a retired cop this summer so I can, ahem, prove myself worthier than my characters. But I have excuses—after my kids were born, I stopped going to the gun range every week, and I did much better on the practice round, choking on the competitive round. And I shoot a .357, and they had me shooting 9mm. Where’s Toni when I need her, dammit?)
Anyway, being a graduate of the citizen’s academy has some perks—namely, I’m going on a trip to Quantico this fall. Perfect timing, too, since I’m launching a series in late 2010 staring Lucy Kincaid which will take place in part at Quantico. I am so excited about the trip I can hardly wait! (Sorry to rub it in, Stephen. LOL.)
Another fantastic thing about the academy is the ideas that started coming. The research I love the most is not about forensics, or shooting, or the rate of decomposition—though all that is fun and extremely interesting. But the research I love the most is people.
Why do people do what they do? What makes them tick? Why do they become cops or soldiers or FBI agents or doctors or lawyers or killers? I am hugely fascinated by human psychology. While my husband prefers to figure out how things work, I like to figure out how people work.
One young agent who specialized in domestic terrorism shared a case he’d worked where ELF (Earth Liberation Front) were claiming responsibility for setting construction sites on fire. He went through the entire investigation and how they caught them. The whole thing was fascinating largely because the agent really understood how these kids thought (and they were all older teens/early 20s.) He didn’t condone or condemn them, other than of course their illegal activities, but explained why they did things the way they did them—the psychology behind not only the crime itself, but the relations between the people involved.
He then shared a case that stuck with me. They were investigating an Anarchist terrorist conspiracy but had next to nothing. A young woman contacted the FBI and offered to be an informant. She was privy to inside information about the conspiracy that was planning on making a major political statement through bombings in Northern California. While the facts of the case were interesting, I was far more interested in why this young woman became an informant.
The way the FBI agent who worked with her talked about her, I thought he was a bit in love. (Ok, that’s the romance writer in me. So shoot me.) I started thinking about why she did what she did. What was her background? Who were her parents? How did she live? Where? I thought about writing a book very similar to the true story, but it just wasn’t working for me.
Fast forward a year.
I was writing CUTTING EDGE and my heroine is the heard of the domestic terrorism squad. I didn’t know anything about her. In fact, I thought she was a bitch and I was having a hard time dealing with her. I had a great premise and set-up, but my heroine was just not cooperating.
So I stop and thought: Who is she? Why is she a domestic terrorism agent? Why is she so confident? Why did she pick this particular focus? Who were her parents? How was she raised? What type of house does she live in? Had she ever married? If not, why? How were her past relationships with her boyfriends? What’s her relationship to her sister?
And it came to me. She’s that girl I’d heard about . . . twenty years later. I made up her backstory, imagining what type of person would become an FBI informant. Especially someone who’s raised in an environment that is naturally distrustful of law enforcement. As soon as I knew who she was in the past, I understood every action she took in the present. She was no longer a bitch–she was a bit icy, a bit callous on the surface, but with cause. And as long as I did a good job showing her motivation and goals to the reader, I believe they’ll forgive her the icy, reserved exterior.
I can’t travel a lot, or do a lot of ride-a-longs, though I long to. I live vicariously through others. I’m really good asking questions and listening to what they say . . . and don’t say. For example, my son’s former babysitter’s daughter (say that ten times fast) was in paramedic training. All I had to do was ask what she’d done that week and I had an hour long dissertation from someone who was 1) excited about what she was doing and 2) had all the information right there because she’d just gone through it. My favorite story was when she played a “hostage” during a mock high school shooting drill. As the hostage, she was actually in the room with the head hostage negotiator who was playing the bad guy, so she heard everything that was going on. (Okay, I hate to put this in writing, but boy oh boy do I wish I could have played the hostage!)
But the thing is, while I love hearing the stories, I’m not passionate about being a paramedic (or a hostage.) I’m not passionate about being an FBI Agent, or a coroner, or a private investigator. That’s why talking to people who are passionate about their jobs is so exciting. (Okay, okay, not everyone is—but my heroes and heroines need to want to be doing their job, otherwise I’m not interesting in writing their stories. Who wants to write a book about a cop who hates his job? Maybe he hates PARTS of his job, but he has to be passionate about SOMETHING otherwise he doesn’t interest me.)
It’s the human nuances that intrigue me. That’s my favorite part of research.
So in the name of research, I have a few questions if ya’ll want to share (I’ve been talking to Toni too much lately! Haha.)
What do you do for a living and is it something you love (for the most part) and why? If not, what would you rather be doing and why?
Is your passion more with your career or something you do outside your career? Why?
If you have a hobby that you spend time with on a regular basis, what about that hobby satisfies you?