The answer to this question depends on the genre. I’ll stick to what I know and focus on Technothrillers.
Walking a fine line: Reading 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.
Been there. Done that: Many 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.
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 fly : This 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 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.
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.