“We know there are known knowns: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say we know there are things we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” —Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Department briefing, Fe. 12, 2002
As absurd as this statement sounds, I wish I had written it. It’s brilliant, in it’s own, Gertrude Stein sort of way.
It gets me thinking about my responsibility as an author. When I read a book, I trust the author to guide me through an unfamiliar world. I expect the author to be the authority on his subject. And doesn’t that seem appropriate: author = authority?
So when I catch a mistake in a book or when I see inconsistencies in a film, I begin to feel uneasy. I lose that comfortable feeling one gets when one is thoroughly immersed in a story. At that point I usually move on to something else.
I remember when I wrote a documentary about the International Space Station for the Discovery Channel. I had written a line about a meteor crater on Earth and the video editor found a crater image and dropped it in. We didn’t know the image was wrong until the Discovery Channel contacted us, having received e:mails from a dozen angry viewers. The network made our producer re-cut the piece, drop in the correct crater image, and re-deliver it at his own expense. It kinda came back to me—as the writer/researcher I was expected to have caught the discrepancy before it went in.
Beat has a few inaccuracies that got past my research readers, making it through to publication. The errors amount to a few freeway directions and a geographical mix-up or two, things you wouldn’t notice unless you were a San Francisco local. But, damn it, I’m writing my books for the locals. I’m writing them for the specialists. I’m writing them for the cops that walk the beat. I want people to read the work and say, “Yes, this is authentic. I trust this author, I trust this guide.”
The inaccuracies aren’t so terrible, and I can correct them in the second printing. But it drives me nuts, and it fuels the manic attitude I have about research.
Most everyone here knows the pleasure I get from doing what I like to call “boots on the ground research.” Sometimes I call it “method research,” or “wallowing-in-research” or “embedded research.” Others have simply referred to my process as “going native.”
And yes, it is true that I was five months late delivering BEAT because I was lost in the Land of Research, and Brett Battles had to pull me back from the brink and point me in the direction of my manuscript. So I understand that I can go a little overboard. At the same time, I can’t write what I don’t know, so if I’m gonna write it, I better know it.
I recently spoke at a Road Scholar event called “The Scene of the Crime” and I chose to discuss how research authenticates an author’s work.
In preparing for the event I identified seven steps in my researching process:
Boots on the Ground
Novels and Memoirs
1. Internet Research
The Internet is a great place to start. Basic research used to be much more difficult in college, when I’d spend eight-hours digging through dusty periodicals in the university library. In some ways it was fun, like a treasure hunt. But it was a godawful waste of time. Now one fucking keyword delivers a million links and a million points of view. In BEAT, many critical story ideas began as a basic Internet search. I was introduced to the organizations Children of the Night and S.A.G.E. (Standing Against Global Exploitation, which I fictionalized as R.A.G.E., or Rallying Against Global Exploitation). This discovery emerged as a crucial subplot in the novel. I also learned about the network of underground rivers running through San Francisco, and I learned that some of them actually rise up into the basements of existing buildings. This gave me the entry point to my climactic action sequence. I love the Internet. The Internet is my friend.
2. Book Research
Books provide a vital bridge from ignorance to elocution. I don’t really feel comfortable in a subject until I’ve read a book or two. I’ll give a couple examples: When I was researching this little known subject called…SPACE…you know, for that Discovery Channel project…I needed to interview astronauts and cosmonauts and program managers and a host of other really bright folks. NASA had sent me this giant binder of PR material which served only to confuse me. Too many bits of information. I remember struggling through an interview with some brilliant scientist when he paused and said, “You really need to get up to speed on this.” “Yes,” I said, pleading, “Tell me how!” He suggested I read a book called “Dragonfly,” about the Mir Space Station, which detailed the development of Mir and the relationship between NASA and the Russians. I read the book and, sure enough, the next time I talked to the man I was up to speed. The book TOLD ME A STORY, and I remember stories. It put all those little bits of information into context. And I love context.
Similarly, when I wrote Boulevard I did not get “boots on the ground” access to the LAPD. Fortunately, an L.A. Times journalist named Miles Corwin had spent a year with the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division and he documented the experience in his book, “Homicide Special.” The book became my bible and it let me observe the nuances of life in this elite homicide unit. It gave an authenticity to my novel that cops recognized as true.
I believe we’re about three degrees of separation from everyone we need to interview for our projects. Case in point—recently I needed a good contact in a European police department. It seems like an obscure request. How would I meet someone, and how would I find someone willing to give me the straight scoop and not some sanitized, Media Relations version of the truth? While doing research for Beat I met an FBI agent who provided great information for the book. I asked if he knew any policemen in Europe and he referred me to a friend of his who works as a diplomat in the Dutch Consulate in Washington, D.C. That gentleman, in turn, referred me to a friend of his who not only works in a European police department, but is also a homicide detective and—get this—a published crime novelist and TV writer. The perfect catch. Three degrees of separation. I met with him recently and he agreed to act as my consultant and to read drafts of my next book when I’m ready.
4. Boots on the Ground
This is my favorite. I just jump right in. Steps one, two and three usually lead me to an opportunity. If I’m researching the coroner’s office, I’ll get an opportunity to witness an autopsy. If I’m researching the San Francisco Police Department I’ll get the opportunity to walk the North Beach beat, to ride shotgun in a radio car, to visit a crime scene. Once I was researching the background for a protagonist in a short story and suddenly I found myself in the back woods of Alabama, dressed in camo, on a turkey hunt. And I’m a vegetarian. Thank God we didn’t find any turkey. Another research opportunity placed me in the Navajo Indian Reservation eating peyote with the local medicine man. Boots on the Ground is where I live, it’s where it all comes together. It’s where all the really good anecdotes are born.
5. Novels and Memoirs
I separate this category from “book research” because it serves a slightly different purpose. In book research I’m looking for specific details. In novels and memoirs I’m looking for the essence of a thing. I’m looking for the mindset. If I were writing a piece set in Germany in World War II I’d probably read Rebecca Cantrell’s “A Trace of Smoke,” “The Diary of Ann Frank,” and memoirs of people who lived through that time. For Boulevard I read “What Cops Know” to get inside the heads of police officers. I read memoirs of cops who had careers in the Chicago Police Department, the LAPD and the NYPD. I let the rhythm of their voices influence me. I let the parameters of their world define the parameters of mine. For Beat I read a book called “Sex Work,” a series of memoirs by working prostitutes. I also watched TV documentaries about addiction and addictive behavior. The documentaries were like visual memoirs. All these tools served to fix my thoughts in the realism of the world I would write.
6. Personal Knowledge
This is what the writer brings to the table without having to do extensive research. By now many of us already have a working knowledge of police procedure, so we only have to delve into our memories to write the scenes. If you’ve studied karate all your life then your action-hero protagonist reaps the benefits. If I had a green thumb I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time researching Abbey Reed’s gardening techniques. In Boulevard and Beat I captured the world of sexual addiction and the Twelve Step process with such accuracy because I’ve been there. I wrote what I knew and the accuracy showed. A person who had a career as a medical examiner feels very comfortable writing a series around a medical examiner. But writing from personal knowledge alone restricts our ability to grow or to represent characters or points of view very different from our own.
7. Specialist Readers
And, finally, when all the research is done and the story has been written and rewritten, I turn back to a few of the specialists I’ve interviewed and I ask them to read the book for accuracy. This is where the rubber meets the road. I remember when I gave an early draft of Boulevard to a police officer and asked him to correct anything and everything that seemed inaccurate or seemed stupidly out-of-place. When he was done he said, “The knife on page nine should be 9 inches instead of 6.” And that was it. So, all the book-reading and interviewing and embedding seemed to have paid off. However, another officer who read the book as an ARC caught a number of jurisdictional inconsistencies that, fortunately, I had time to correct before the book went to print. That’s why it’s important to go to more than one specialist for that final read-through.
I can do all these steps simultaneously, and I can keep it up, at a slower pace, even as I delve into writing the book. And, as Barbossa said in the Pirates of the Caribbean, “Argh, they’re really more guidelines than rules.”
But they lead to great places. They take the unknowns we don’t know we don’t know and turn them into knowns we know we should know.
I’m sorry if I’ve been absent from the comments this past couple weeks – I’m in full launch mode. And today I’m traveling, so I’ll check in on the comments as the opportunities allow. Thanks!