To Snipe a Sniper


The opening scene of the book. Danny Wolfe is on a roof. He has a rifle. The target has not yet appeared.

But, you may be asking yourself, what roof is he on, what kind of rifle is he using, and where is this target? A bit later you might even be asking who and where is his target's target? I can assure you, as the writer I ask myself these same questions - all writers have their equivalents - and to answer them we have the process of research, and that wonderful world called the Internet.

...But that's not all we have.

First of all, don't be intimidated by the word "research." For the purpose of writing most novels, research is simply finding things out - learning the basics and a few details on something to increase realism and keep that tight grip on your readers. I never cited Wikipedia in my academic training, but I did use it a lot. I went there to generate a list of key words and basic knowledge so that I could then find more acceptable academic journal articles and sources. That's elite academia, and the bar for research there is as high as it gets. For writing, Wikipedia does just fine, and it is truly a depository of a significant portion of the world's knowledge at this point. It is organized, easy to navigate, and one can easily follow a chain of articles to get as much detail as you need. use the outside links and sources too; they will point you to websites, books, articles, and other great sources.

But as I said, the Internet isn't all we have - we have real people too. Researching by this method is simple: Find someone who knows what you want to know, and ask them. Most people I've approached have been very receptive to be asked questions for a novel. Most are even quite flattered to be seen as an expert in his or her field.

The approach can be as casual as a quick word, or a conversation over coffee, or as formal as a recorded interview with questions given to the subject beforehand. I lean toward the former, and like to take brief notes by hand rather than record things, and then expand them alone, immediately after talking to the person. If I have any further questions, I get in touch later for clarification. Most of the time, they'll offer that kind of ongoing help anyway.

So what do we want to know from these experts? Well, the superficial information can be found on the Internet (and I recommend you familiarize yourself with it beforehand), so don't waste time with an expert asking about the generalities and big-picture questions. Instead, go after the little things.

My favorite question is this: "What is something about what you do, something common and everyday maybe, that only someone in your line of work would know?"

You might get answers like "My shoulders get so sore from slouching at a computer all day," or "We put corn starch down the front of our pants to keep from chafing when we drive through hot states," or "The helicopter can actually glide if the engines cut out, because the rotors spin against the air during emergency descent; it's a rough landing, but not an all-out drop." (That last one is one of my favorites!)

What you want is some little detail - a phrase used, a common complaint or annoyance, or a little-known fact that brings realism to your work, and imparts some new and interesting knowledge. Maybe you learn that amnesia is nothing like how it is represented on TV and in the movies. Maybe you learn what kind of paperwork a cop has to fill out before and after every shift. Maybe you learn about torrid affairs between doctors and nurses during those late-night emergency room shifts.

It doesn't matter what it is, if it is of note to the expert, it should be useful to you. It will bring power to your work, because you will write it from an insider's point of view, at least a little. And then, if the stars align and the gods of ink and pulp are in benevolent moods, you might get that golden blessing of a comment in your reviews, from some doctor or cop or helicopter pilot who says, with joy and connection, that "this author really knows what it's like to be one of us; this stuff is really on the nail."

And there's little feedback out there, that is better than that.

Jeff SpenceComment