Fiction Research: Black Hole or Thousand Points of Light?

The answer to this question depends on the genre. I’ll stick to what I know and focus on Technothrillers. 

Walking a fine lineReading reviews for my novels can be confusing. “If you like Clancy, you’ll love—” “Doesn’t overwhelm the reader with technical details.” “Too many equipment descriptions.” “Not Clancy.” All true, depending on the reader. For story details, I strive for the middle ground, with a tendency toward descriptions that would satisfy the pickiest Clancy readers.  On the flip side, Clancy-esque minutiae is NOT for everyone, including myself. I’ll be the first to admit, that I’ve read about three quarters of every Clancy novel. Readers skip passages no matter what you write, that’s reality—my goal is meet readers half way.  This has always been my personal preference as a reader, but as a writer, it’s necessary for survival. With most of my books purchased ($5.99 or below) and read on an e-reader, I can’t afford to lose a reader’s attention for very long. Within seconds, they can switch to something new and forget about me.

Research Bookmarks for The Perseid Collapse

Research Bookmarks for The Perseid Collapse

Been there. Done thatMany of my readers are convinced that I’m 1.)  a D.C. insider 2.) a former covert operative 3.) still involved in intelligence agency operations and 4.) have travelled extensively across every continent. There may be some truth to this. I’m not here to dispel rumors or burst anyone’s version of Steven Konkoly. What I will admit, is that I’ve never led an “off the books” Black Ops team on a raid against a Russian bioweapons facility or secretly crossed the Finnish border to investigate rumors of a virus outbreak in the Kola Peninsula.

How do I manage to capture the essence of these operations? My background gives me an advantage. I know the lingo (there’s still a ton I don’t know) and how to navigate online research. I know where to look for articles and how to tell if it’s authentic. Reading everything and anything (books, online articles, subscription sites) helps immensely. I wasn’t on the raid to capture Osama Bin Laden, but I know I could write a fictional OBL raid scene right now, and most readers would believe I had exclusive access to one of the DEVGRU operators on the mission.

How did someone like Tom Clancy get his descriptions, operational details and military jargon so close to reality? In the beginning, he must have fought for exclusive access to some incredible sources. There’s no other explanation. When he became famous, Clancy was granted nearly unfettered access to the military and D.C.  Keep in mind, Tom Clancy  worked in the insurance industry for nearly 15 years before his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, was released. Clancy never served in the military, but he managed to create the impression, from the very start, that he was an insider.

Research Bookmarks for Event Horizon

Research Bookmarks for Event Horizon

Prepping the battle field For me, initial research is critical to achieving momentum. I research on the fly, but I prefer to have the “framework research” already established. Once I finish with my version of plotting, as described in THE PROCESS, I sit back and figure out “framework” topics that need research. If a Marine Infantry Battalion plays a significant role in the story (like in The Perseid Collapse series), I need to know everything there is to know (without going crazy) about the current and future structures for a Marine Infantry Battalion. The Perseid Collapse series takes place in 2019, so I was particularly interested in papers published out of Quantico or the Navy War College about future structure and equipment concepts. This is one example of  dozens of framework research.

Don’t get bogged down here. You have to start writing at some point, and if you’re like me, I feel lost when I’m not in a story. This doesn’t require weeks of prep work. I identify the framework research and do enough to get me started on the novel. I typically like to write 20K words without breaking for heavy research.

Research on the flyThis is the land of Black Holes. Vast seas of time vanish from my day when I’m not disciplined about research on the fly. Sometimes it’s necessary to gain a solid understanding of an important concept, but there’s a difference between researching for the sake of educating yourself and researching to enhance your novel. Trust me, the line is extremely blurry. I still haven’t mastered it. Most of the time, you’ll only know it AFTER the fact. Like getting pick-pocketed. You’ll feel guilty and probably take a break—treat yourself to a snack, because…you’ve gone down a rabbit hole looking for a rabbit, and ended up finding Wonderland. I know I’ve seriously mismanaged my time, when I go on YouTube to watch a clip of a suppressed .50 Caliber sniper rifle for a scene in a book, and emerge from YouTube land 40 minutes later after watching the .50 Cal sniper scene from the movie Smoking Aces. It’s crazy if you haven’t seen it.  Careful, it’s violent and full of bad language. I just watched it again—I never learn.

Google Maps street level view of bridge in Event Horizon

Google Maps street level view of bridge in Event Horizon

Google is my travel agent:  I’ve never been to Novosibirsk, Russia, or Moscow, but I have it on pretty solid authority from a Russian author that most readers would never figure that out through my writing. Damn, I just spilled a secret. Oh well, while I’m at it—I’ve never been to Kazakstan or Argentina. My Russian author friend was surprised that I had never travelled to either Russian location. He knew I hadn’t lived there for any length of time, but the descriptions of the locations, the general feel and the “little things” passed muster.

I like the “little things.” Details about the culture, restaurants, beers, food, street conditions, traffic, graffiti, weather, money, trends—stuff you can find by reading traveller articles, restaurant reviews, hotel reviews, city reviews and tourism board sponsored sites. I spend time on this stuff, and in most cases, if I put a specific description of a location, hotel, street corner, park or restaurant in my novel, it’s real. I change the names (sometimes) for obvious reasons, but here’s a little hint. I rarely make us street names, and I often visualize scenes using Google Maps. If a gunfight occurs in front of 22 Bondegatan in Stockholm, disrupting a cafe with a red and white checkered awning, you’ll very likely find this to be a real place. Okay, I sort of pulled a fast one on you here. I’ve been to Stockholm—but I wrote the scenes from that book and submitted the manuscript to my editor before our Iceland Air flight left Boston.

Militia stronghold in Event Horizon-Eli Russell's place.

Militia stronghold in Event Horizon-Eli Russell’s place.

Here is an excerpt from a recent review. The reviewer is Gustavo Rossi from Buenos Aires. “…The political context is well managed too, and the references to Argentina (books 2 and 3 have long parts there) are surprisingly correct for an american writer…” I’ve never been there in person, but I’ve logged dozens of hours on the internet in “virtual Argentina.” Lesson learned? You don’t have to write on James Michener’s level to connect with a locale. 

Secret Contacts : I graduated from Annapolis with over 1,000 top notch men and women (somehow I got mixed in this crew), many of whom are still on active duty or in the active reserves. They’ve commanded warships, led SEAL platoons and Marine infantry companies in combat, served in the Pentagon, rotated on and off Unified Combatant Command staff (PACOM, CENTCOM, EURCOM, etc). During my eight years on active duty, I’ve met 100’s of other officer, enlisted and civilian contractors. It’s a vast network of professionals that doesn’t divulge secrets or pass information to celebrities. I’ll leave it at that.

The Bottom Line: For my style of writing and genre, detailed research is well worth the time. I’m always feeling the crunch to make progress on a novel, but not at the expense of the reader experience. The trick is deciding which details are essential to the story, and which are gratuitous displays of knowledge gained during a Black Hole trip through the Web. I’m still honing this process. 

 

9 Comments

Filed under Book Research, Writing Craft

9 responses to “Fiction Research: Black Hole or Thousand Points of Light?

  1. Rosemary Rolin

    It is precisely BECAUSE of your extensive research and attention to detail that I so enjoy your books. When I spend my precious hours reading, I want to get carried away from reality, into the story, and I want to LEARN something. I always achieve that when reading your books. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Rosemary! It takes me a little longer to get the books out, but I’m glad you find the time spent on research to be worthwhile. I don’t set out to teach, but it’s probably impossible to walk away from my books without learning something. I learn a ton writing the books, which is part of the fun.

      • Rosemary Rolin

        Part of what amazes me about your books is how often they depict what is actually happening in the world around us. If a person spends much time learning what’s going on in the world, they are likely to see some of it alluded to in your books, especially in the Black Flagged series.

  2. HI, just discovered your website.

    Apart from your secret contacts (you lucky, lucky devil), my fiction research is very much like yours. There are some things I will research before I start a book, to get the basic plot principles right, but most of it is on the fly. Like you say, the day can become a black hole as far as time is concerned; half a day of research for a paragraph is what one would call seriously obsessive. And yes, I have done the You Tube gun thing so many times, I must be on a watch list somewhere. And not just guns. Google Bunker Buster, 1st video on You Tube.

    And I’m with you there re:Google and the little details. Somehow, I can’t figure out the fight scene until I have a 360 degree visual of the physical space it’s set in. I need to figure where the cars/bikes/vans will come from, where the bullets will fly, where the good guys will kick the bad guys’ asses, etc. I had to move a final battle scene from Omsk to Perm in my second book just because the geography was wrong! And there’s a nice street cafe in Rome that I fictionally butchered with a powder blue Fiat 500.

    Anyway, nice to meet you and I’m glad I’m not the only author who does this!

    • Very nice to meet you too! Sounds like your process is extremely similar, especially the 360 degree visual of the physical space. I typically expand a major combat or street gun battle scene to multiple POV’s, which requires a command of the physical space. Bullets flying past one character hit a cafe window, which is witnessed by a secondary character in the cafe. All a lot of fun.

      Spending a half of a day on research can be obsessive, but if it’s a critical to a plot point, it’s well worth it in the long run. For my Black Flagged series, I easily spent several days researching encephalitis type viruses, bioweapons and methods of delivery (municipal water supply infrastructure). It was essential to creating a realistic terrorism plot.

      Hope to check out some of your work. Sounds like something right up my alley. Thank you for posting!

  3. adstarrling

    You’re welcome. I’ve downloaded the first in the Black Flagged series :)

    • Rosemary Rolin

      I hope you enjoy them as much as I have. Honestly, I haven’t read anything I’ve enjoyed more for quite some time. I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for the next one!

  4. Awesome. Where can I find your books?

  5. adstarrling

    Hi Steven,

    They are on Amazon US http://ow.ly/tF8QC
    They are action-thriller with a supernatural twist. The e-books have both been re:released in February, with the paperbacks scheduled in the next two months. But they both go down to $0.99 from Monday 24 Feb for one week as a special promo while I guest post on the Crime Fiction Collective blog! Also, Soul Meaning (Book#1) is in KDP Select at the moment, so free in Amazon Prime :)

    Looking forward to reading Black Flagged.

    AD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s