Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Seeking Help – and Not Where to Find It

As a mystery/thriller writers and novelists we are required to set our stories in real situations and locations (except if you’re writing that zombie/werewolf romance located on Deimos, one of the moons of Mars – then do what you want!). For the rest of us (wait a sec, that might be my next steampunk idea, but maybe it should be Phobos), it’s location, location, location, and experts.

Locations are fairly easy. In the O’Mara Chronicles most of the action takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area and a few other exotic locations (ones I have been to). Research can be fun, intoxicating, and fattening. For other locations Google Earth helps, as well as past vacations and recommendations from friends. Part of the fun of writing is the required research to add texture, color, and believability to the story (except for the views of the Martian sunrise). Travel often is a big part of our budgets, and besides is deductible against all of those outrageous profits we garner in this trade. But be careful about telling people the truth. I was at a writer’s conference and a very well know author of international spy thrillers admitted that he hadn’t been to some of the exotic locals in his books, the audience was stunned. If you’re writing these things, have a very good comeback for these questions, your reader wants credibility (even if you haven’t skulled down the River Ouse in York the week before Christmas with a springer spaniel sitting behind you).

But it’s finding experts who are willing to share and give up part of their time to answer questions; that search can be the most frustrating. As we start to construct the story there will be technical issues that need to be resolved. Issues like: How do you saddle a horse? What is the caliber machine gun typically mounted on a Humvee? How many people does it take to sail a catamaran? What is the effect on a shipping container when it falls off a ship? Can it float? Sometimes the premise of your whole story hinges around a correct fact.

What I normally do is first reach out and find friends who may know someone in the field you need help with. That’s happened a couple of times where I started talking with someone about the next book and they immediately volunteered a friend they knew. They even offered to make the introduction, and bingo, I had the meet. In fact, one economist I know, volunteered his son who was working with a shipping company, and bingo, more information than I knew what to do with on the container shipping industry (and they can float!). Ask and talk about your books, you never know.

Contacting people through emails and social media is tough. You have one simple question about sailboat rigging but no one returns your emails. How much do you pester them before giving up? That’s a judgment call, but it is surprising at times. I was searching for a good database that listed the proper ranking of the Waffen-SS during WWII. I had some lists from Internet posts but there seemed to be some changes in the latter years of the war. One email to one of the authors in the posts and bingo, I was straightened out. Lord knows, I don’t want to get the Schutzstaffel p.o.’ed at me. And actually he was very kind and helpful with a few other leads; you never know.

But what is important is to keep a list of those that helped, give them credit in your acknowledgements, and if they have made a serious commitment in time surely you can send them a book, signed of course.

And remember that you too are an expert on something, and when asked please share your thoughts, ideas, and expertise. Their stories will be better and so will yours.

More later . . . .


  1. Nice post, Greg. People who have never written fiction don't realize how much research goes into it.

  2. Thanks Dana, everyone should check out her site at