The Sound of a Distant Train

by Brett Battles

I’ve mentioned this before, but when it comes to research my favorite by far is the type that involves getting to know a new location. And since I write international thrillers, those locations are usually far from home.

In THE CLEANER, I used my experiences in both Berlin, Germany, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to guide my descriptions of the locations, making both characters within the story. In this case, these were two places I’d gone to prior to writing the book for reasons other than story research. Did I think at the time I could use them in my work? Yes, the thought did crossed my mind, but I had no idea in what context that would occur. So I just kind of soaked them in, noting things without actually realizing what I was doing…at least not until I recalled them later.

The first time I ever purposely traveled to a specific location for story research came when I was getting ready to write THE DECEIVED. I had a good friend who, at the time, was living in Singapore. I had always thought the island nation would be an interesting place to set a story, so off I went. I had a fantastic time, and my friend Rick was a wonderful guide. I was pretty happy, too, with how Singapore took shape on the pages of my book.

In SHADOW OF BETRAYAL (in the U.K. entitled THE UNWANTED), I once again used places I’ve visited in the past. For example, in the opening scene Quinn is at an abandoned church in the Irish countryside. I vividly remember this church for a visit I made many years ago with my friend Tom. In the years since that trip, I’ve often thought what a great location it would be for a scene. So when I needed something interesting for the opening of SHADOW, the church was the first thing that came to mind.

QUINN 4, due out summer 2010 and tentatively titled THE SILENCED, is already done…less some edits, of course. For this one, I took a planned trip. Last fall, I traveled to London and, via the Chunnel, to Paris. Both locations play large roles in the story. And even the trip on the train under the channel makes a small appearance. Though most people won’t get a chance to read it for another year, I can tell you I’m very excited how it all turned out. I even ended up using a house just outside of London where a friend of mine lives as the location of the climactic scene. I love when stuff like that works out.

I’m now starting to work on QUINN 5, which won’t hit stores until 2011. At this point it’s a lot of ruminating, and imagining. To help myself along, I’ve planned a new location research trip. In fact, that’s what I’m doing at this very moment. For the first two weeks of June I’m away getting to know the lay of the land of someplace unfamiliar to me, but a place that will play a major role in the new book. Though I’ve only been on the road a couple days when you’re reading this, I can guarantee you that I’m having a great time observing everything.

Because that’s how I like to do it…I like to walk around and watch. Sometimes I’ll sit at an outdoor café or bar and let the world go by. I take with me both a digital still camera and a palm-size video camera. I shoot tons of photos, and let the video run for minutes. You see, I never know exactly what I’m going to need when I sit down to actually write. When I find a particularly interesting location…say an intriguing alley or a backstreet restaurant…I’ll shoot images of EVERYTHING. The video will run and run, but it’s not just the images I’m interested in. It’s also the sounds – the sounds of the place, the voices, the vehicles, the city sounds itself…and sometimes the narration I through in so that I don’t forget something important.

In addition to the cameras, I also carry a little notebook. Inside I’ll jot down notes, maps, and rough (VERY rough) sketches. But in the end, it’s the pictures and video I rely on the most…those and my memories.

When I come home, I’ll download everything to my computer, creating folders of research photos…sometimes specific, sometimes just general. And then I don’t look at anything for several months. Not until I actually get to the point where I’m writing about the place.

Ideally, I’ll have a few months between the trip and when I need to use the research. During this time I’m back to that percolation of ideas time. Scenes start developing, taking on lives of their own. Often even the plot I had developed before the trip changes based on what I’ve come across. I love this time almost as much as I love the trip itself…Almost.

For a travel lover, nothing beats the trip, though!

Oh…and where am I right now? Well, I’m just going to keep that secret for the time being, but I’m sure I’ll have a very nice tan when I get back!

Also, apologies if I don’t answer your comments in a timely fashion today…let’s just say our time zones aren’t exactly lining up, and I’m unsure of my computer access.

So…let’s talk research. What’s your favorite type? Why? What’s the most interesting thing (or thing that immediately comes to mind) that you’ve used in a story based on research you’ve done?

BONUS: The June Sweepstakes to win an advance copy of my new book SHADOW OF BETRAYAL is underway! Click here for details.

10 thoughts on “The Sound of a Distant Train

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I love the travel research, too. Some of the best research to be had is built in to our author lives, because we get to go to all these different cities for conventions, and file away all these locations for future use.

    And the law enforcement and city/state history tracks and panels at the cons are just gold for research, too – again, you build up back files that become priceless when you least expect it!

    Plust just seeing how law enforcement people, and coroners, and criminalists ARE, in reality… again, gold!

  2. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Research is so dear to me that it is actually the subject of my second blog, so I’ll reserve most of my comments for tomorrow. However, all of the research I’ve done has been stateside, and I can’t wait to begin the process in different lands across the world. I can just imagine you sitting in some cafe in ParisLondonSingaporeFlorenceLisbonHaifaIstambulAthensWherever watching your next novel develop. I can’t wait to read the results.

  3. Allison Brennan

    Wow, I knew you travelled but not this much! I love research trips, but they’re never to foreign locations. I like the gun range, the morgue, the hospital, the fire station . . . I’m far too simple in my tastes, I fear. GREAT idea about the video, though.

  4. Louise Ure

    This sounds like a Today show teaser for "Where in the World is Brett Battles?"

    I love the idea of video note taking, complete with the audio!

    My favorite research is hands on, too. Like the time I needed to confirm that a blind woman could fly a plane. Yes, she can. I proved it with a blindfold on. (And a co-pilot beside me, of course.)

  5. Jeff Abbott

    I’m off to London and Amsterdam next week for research–I’ve gone to NY, Paris, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, Yosemite for research–and while I often have an idea of what the shape of the scene will be before I go the scenes always come more alive once I’m there and absorbing all the details and nuance. I will say that Google Maps and street view, and YouTube, can give you a much better idea of distant locales (before you go) than what we used to have before. I like the idea of the palm-sized video camera, I will have to get one. Great post.

  6. Paula

    Good post..jealous of your travels….have read many international murder books.
    looking forward to yours.


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