Research Day Trips

By Allison Brennan

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?


16 thoughts on “Research Day Trips

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That is the KEY to researching complicated technical stuff, AB – find a person who is passionate about their work. It is amazing to me how willing people are to talk about what they do, and how great they are about explaining to – someone like me – who has no clue how most practical things work.

    When I was researching my fourth, BOOK OF SHADOWS, which is the first police procedural I’ve done as a novel, I took another trip to Boston to (among other things) tour the police headquarters, 1 Schroeder Plaza, and had the enormous luck of meeting up with a criminalist who gave me a three hour tour of the crime lab. It was like having a graduate school class in a day. And the miraculous thing about writing is that if you’re committed to your book, you will find DOZENS of these people to help you. The Universe really is on our sides when we write.

  2. karen from mentor

    I LOVED how fired up you were during this whole post. (caffeine anyone?)
    I kept nodding my head and saying, yep, I love it when a detail clicks like that, or a plan just comes together.

    "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?"

    I’ve recently reinvented myself. I’ve had multiple job paths through the years including the best job in the world, MOM.
    All of my jobs and life experience have led me finally to the wonderful world of WRITING FOR A LIVING.
    I can’t imagine doing anything else that makes me happier. I do have another job and it’s lovely and positive and energizing and gives me ideas all day long for more writing.
    Best of both worlds. I’m blessed.
    Thanks for the post I really enjoyed it.
    Karen 🙂

  3. billie

    Loved your story of how a problem with a scenario turned out to be "as though you had planned it" – with all the synchronicity along the way. That’s one reason I will never outline – I get too big a kick out of watching/experiencing the universe offer up just what I need for the writing, exactly when I need it. And that I’m not too locked into my own plan to see the serendipity.

    My work since the mid-eighties has been psychotherapy, mostly with clients who have experienced trauma as children. Over the past 12 years I have leaned more and more to Jungian thought, using Jungian sandplay and my horses in the therapy work. The past few years I’ve been doing writing workshops for people who are "stuck" – either in a particular project or simply not able to get started.

    Writing and horses are probably equal passions, and fortunately for me they fuel each other in a positive way.

    I studied photography seriously for a year and although I stopped shooting photographs for awhile after that year, I eventually started back and now I have a great time with my little Sony point and shoot, no PhotoShop… 🙂 The Nikon and darkroom work might be something I go back to at some point, although the black and white print supplies are in shorter and shorter supply. :/

    I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else. I think I’d enjoy selling the novels but I also know that I don’t want to be forced to write on someone else’s timeline, nor do I want to be traveling all over the country right now. Not sure how that part of my life is going to play itself out!

  4. Allison Brennan

    How cool Alex! I haven’t toured a crime lab yet, though I’m hoping the Quantico Laboratory is on the stop list in September. We have four days . . . I’m sure I’ll get some lab time. I really am not into cars, and thought I’d be bored when one evening was spent in the garage (huge). But the civilian who ran the garage made it so interesting, I loved learning about it. He explained how he outfits undercover cars, and the ERT (some civilian, some agents) explained how they process evidence from cars. This lab went on-site to gather evidence from the Yosemite murder case where the car was burned with two victims inside; and we learned how they processed the crime scene and subsequently brought the car back to the garage. My favorite was when they had two Volkswagon bugs used by drug smugglers who had developed an elaborate method of opening a hidden compartment in the dashboard. It’s definitely going in a book someday . . . if I can find a place 🙂 But passion makes all the difference in the world. I know too many people who hate their jobs.

    Hi Karen! I wrote this last night . . . but I had gone to Starbucks at 8 pm, so was still functioning with caffeine . . .

    I love my job and think it’s a huge benefit that I can work from home and have more time with my kids. When I need to, I write at night, so after school time and weekends we can go have fun. Today after church we’re going to our favorite park for a picnic (and my ulterior motive–to get the kids so worn out playing that they go to bed early tonight! LOL.)

    Hi Billie–now I would definitely want to talk to you because you obviously love your work and you’ve made it unique!

  5. Louise Ure

    The funny thing is … I never know what I need to research until I get well into the story. Sometimes it’s even after the first draft (like your example).

    I thought i had written the perfect aha! moment in Liars Anonymous (involving two cell phones and someone else’s car) until I discovered that my big solution was disproved on Snopes. Damn. Like you, I had to walk back from that corner I’d painted myself into, but the book was all the better for it.

    And our passions? I was passionate about advertising for a quarter of a century or so. Then woke up one morning, thought about driving in to work and all I could think was "same circus, different clowns." I had fallen out of love.

  6. Fran

    I taught for ten years, and I loved loved loved the students (with a few notable exceptions) but I eventually loathed the administrative reindeer games and the parents who kept trying to push their own agendas on their kids through me, or kept trying to influence my content to make their kids look better. You’d be astonished to discover how much that happens.

    But I still miss the kids and the actual teaching process. Pretty much every day.

    However, now I get to sell books to people, and I have the absolute luxury of being able to work in a mystery shop so I can focus on one of the two genres I prefer. As I tell customers, I LOVE my homework! I just have too much, can’t keep up. And I know it’s a good book if I learn something new.

    You want a smart and savvy killer? Pick someone who reads mystery novels voracioiusly!

    But it’s hard to make a living selling books, and I’m extraordinarily blessed in that my partner/wife has a good paying job that allows me the luxury of being able to sell books. . And she’s just as passionate about her job as I am. She’s a surveyor and CADD tech, and if you want someone to stumble across a body, let me tell you, she’s seen things out there while looking up corners that creep me out. But she loves her "office" when she’s out in the field! And since in her tech aspect, she’s searching for anamolies, she’s a detective in her own right. She really loves her job.

    It sounds like you’ve done some phenomenal research, Allison, and our daughter-in-law would envy you your time with the FBI.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Reading your post is almost as good as actually attending all of these events. You definitely have my blood pumping with anticipation. My story ideas and character traits often don’t get started until I’ve done my research – they come from the reality of the world as it exists, not as I had imagined it before. I’m constantly writing myself into corners that I have to sneak out of after I’ve done the research. The title for my second novel actually came from something a few San Francisco police officers told me about the hidden history of their Central Police Station. If it weren’t for that little tidbit I wouldn’t have such a cool title – and the title works on a number of different thematic levels in the story.
    I have to admit that I’m banging my head on every surface of my house from the envy I have for the experiences you’ve experienced. I can’t wait to do the same.

  8. Pari

    A hobby? Food growing (not just gardening).

    I’ve been writing nonfiction articles about sustainability issues and food security during the last year or so. It’s been fascinating and I am so incredibly intrigued by our national food policies and how they translate onto the local scale. I’ve been meeting urban farmers — people with smallish back yards — who are raising chickens, growing quite a bit of their food etc.

    I’m not sure if all of this will end up in a book, but I’m finding it incredibly satisfying. It’s also giving me faith that not all people are drones . . .

  9. Pammy D


    "Now only did this work for the book (and saved me a major last minute rewrite) but it worked for my character."

    I LOVED this! Happened to me recently as well.

    I’ve been a chiropractor, cranio-sacral therapist and bodyworker for 25 years now. (Ahem – I was a prodigy…) I love it. It’s exhausting, but so rewarding. I treated AIDs patients who told me those were the only days they didn’t have pain. I’ve worked on newborns. Snuck into hospitals to work on patients with terminal cancer. I’ve soothed people with senile dementia. I’ve worked on the wealthy and the poor. Weekend warriors and pro athletes. Before California ruled that chiros can only work on people (so dumb) I worked on cats and dogs as well.

    It’s been an amazing journey.

    My other passion’s writing. Shocker.

    Thanks for the post!

  10. toni mcgee causey

    I so want to go to an FBI citizen’s academy, it hurts. It’s cool to go shooting with my son (when he’s in town), but I still have a ton to learn. I wish I got the chance to shoot his M-4, though. (Which I have not shot.) (I’m not all that knowledgeable about guns, though I am a decent shot.)

    Hobbies? Well, photography, though I am nowhere near as good as I’d like to be. I’d love it if there was a women’s baseball group around here somewhere–I miss baseball. Fishing, too, though I could get to the fishing camp more often. Mostly, I indulge in reading. (I am not big on traveling, though I love it once I get there. So… visiting?)

  11. Allison Brennan

    OMG Louise, I burst out laughing when I read this:

    "And our passions? I was passionate about advertising for a quarter of a century or so. Then woke up one morning, thought about driving in to work and all I could think was "same circus, different clowns." I had fallen out of love."

    Insert "politics" for "advertising" (and 13 years, not 20!) and I could have written this. I used to love my job in the Capitol . . . then the love was gone and all I saw were the flaws.

  12. Tom

    Building. Repairing the broken. Smart and adaptive re-use. Yes, Pari, backyard agriculture. Music, the spoken word, I can’t escape them. Wish my knees weren’t giving out, since I came to dance late in life.

    Gotta find that clown supplier, Louise; we have more than we need already.

  13. JT Ellison

    I miss caffeine…

    I love this part of the research too. I want to do the FBI Citizen’s Academy, but there isn’t one anywhere near me.

    My cop (he’s mine, back off) told me once "Yeah, you’re stretching it a little there, but this is fiction., You can do anything. I’ve seen much worse." I love the freedom that comes with that. It’s wasn’t a stretch on the facts, so I had all the leeway I needed. But I do wish the crime show writers would at least read Lee Lofland’s blog, or do a tiny bit of research. Drives me nuts. If I make a mistake, it’s a mistake, and I own it. They seem to flaunt the rules purposefully.

    ANYWHOO… my passions are forensics and crime and psychology and golf and wine and Randy and carmex. And a few other unmentionables… : ) Great post, Allison.

  14. Allison Brennan

    Fran, some parents I just don’t get . . . Most of the time I side with the teachers, but every so often there’s a teacher who drives me batty. So far, with five kids and about 25 years of combined schooling thus far, there’s only been two teachers I’ve ever had real conflicts with. It’s fantastic that you can run a bookstore, because honestly, I’ve always wanted to own a book store. (Well, a bookstore slash coffeehouse.) When I walked into the Tattered Cover downtown in Denver, I thought "This is my store!" Unfortunately, they don’t care much romance and don’t care more than 2 copies of my book, so I was a bit disillusioned. There was a store in Palo Alto that I used to go to that I loved. Coffee and books. They go hand in hand 🙂

    Stephen, are you in LA or SF? I thought you were LA. I know that SF has an FBI Citizens Academy. If you need a contact, let me know. I don’t know about LA but if you’re interested, I can find out for you. It was definitely a fantastic experience, at least here in Sacramento.

    That’s interesting, Pari . . . sort of when a hobby takes on a far bigger meaning, almost like a calling 🙂

    Pammy, California has a lot of idiot laws. But it’s not as if they have to concern themselves with finances or anything, just micromanage every aspect of every life and career . . . .

    LOL Toni. I hate to travel and love to visit, too! I used to love fishing with my grandpa until he died. I think it was more the grandpa time than the fishing time . . . we could sit for hours. Me. Sit still. For hours. I know a little bit about a lot of guns, but am an expert in none. Pretty much the same for everything else in my life . . .

  15. Allison Brennan

    LOL JT. I bend the rules all the time. My PIO says the same thing–it’s fiction. As long as I can justify it on paper, I’m good with it. It has to make sense for the context and the characters. Like Mitch following the fugitive. 99% of the time it wouldn’t be done, but after meeting the squad leader of VCMO, I knew he absolutely would do the same thing under the right circumstances, and deal with the fall-out later. I think readers are far more forgiving of characters who make mistakes or break the rules for the right reasons. I told my oldest daughter recently that I had no problem with her standing up to a teacher who she was having a disagreement with, but she’d have to take the consequences of her actions. I’d stand by her of course, but because it was an opinion it wasn’t like I’d fight any punishment (like detention.) Standing up for what you believe in is noble–you just need to be willing to accept the consequences.

    I, too, love forensics and criminal psychology 🙂 . . . amazing how much we have in common! 🙂 But I don’t have Randy . . . ha ha ha ha.

    Hello Ms. Hank!!! Nice to see you visiting!! Thanks for the paper. I don’t think I have any except the first time I was on . . . sad, I know.

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