Chances are that if you write for long enough, you’ll find yourself penning a story about a topic or in a genre that you have no firsthand experience with whatsoever. It’s a humbling experience. You feel like a hack, feeling your way through the process, totally unqualified to write the story that’s begging to be told. This, of course, is where research comes in. And that, naturally, is why Rachel Amphlett is here today—a thriller author who, contrary to popular opinion and her own imagination, is neither a crackerjack fire fighter, an international spy, or a four-star general. And yet she writes thrillers. HOW IN THE NAME OF JAMES BOND DOES SHE DO IT???
One of the most common questions I’m asked as an author is, “How can you write thrillers if you’ve never served in the military/emergency services/spy agencies/etc.?” It’s a fair question. But before I explain my research process, I’d like to share some background about where I get my love of the thriller genre.
Both my parents have a passion for history. When I was growing up, our summer holidays in the UK were either spent visiting castles around Devon, Dorset and Wales, exploring old air traffic control towers on ex-World War II airfields, or visiting military museums. I soaked up the knowledge our parents passed onto us. We were always encouraged to learn more about the places we visited and to let our imaginations run wild.
By my teens, I was soaking up novels by writers like Ken Follett, Dick Francis, Alistair McLean, and Jack Higgins. I love the way these authors maintain a foot in the thriller genre while exploring both historical and international settings—in fact, I’ve always been a bit jealous of their ability to do this so seamlessly.
I enjoy the genre because of the thrill of the chase, the adrenaline rush that keeps you turning the pages well after midnight, and the twist at the end that nearly makes you drop the book in surprise. And it was a fairly effortless step to move from reading thrillers to writing them.
Obviously, you don’t have to be an expert in a particular field to write in a certain genre or about a certain topic. It’s enough to have a passion for it and an active imagination. But you still need to write your story believably and realistically. For that, you’ll have to do some serious research. I’ve developed some tried and true tips along the way, and I’d like to share those today—not only with other thriller writers, but with anyone attempting to write a story that falls outside their scope of experience.
Read the News
This is a good place to start if you don’t have firsthand knowledge of a particular subject, time period, location, or career. Some of the best material can be found by
- reading the current affairs news sections of reputable national newspapers.
- exploring the issues that defense agencies face, both globally and at a local level.
- researching articles on how your character’s career affects both the individual and the family.
- staying informed about current threats.
This is where your search engine will come in handy. Great places to start include
- Museums and Historical Sites. Visit them. Talk to the volunteers, who are often personally involved in some way with your subject of research. Remember to take your camera and either a notebook or voice recorder for taking notes. One of my favourite teenage memories is when I was allowed into the vaults of Bristol Museum in the UK to see artefacts that weren’t displayed to the general public. There’s no harm in asking an archivist if you can do the same. If you can’t visit the museum in person, contact the press office; introduce yourself, tell them what information you’re looking for, and remember to thank them afterwards!
- History Societies. These enthusiasts can save you hours of research, and if they don’t have firsthand knowledge about your subject, they can often put you in touch with someone who does.
- Military and Emergency Services Recruitment Pages. Are you looking for information about a specific role in the military? Do you need to know the hierarchy within the Army, Navy, or other branch of your country’s military? Check out the corresponding recruitment page or website—and be prepared to get distracted, because there’s a lot of great information there.
- Specialist Websites. Organizations such as the FBI or state and federal police agencies have an amazing amount of information on their websites. For example, the FBI website has detailed descriptions about all of its divisions and specialist teams, as well as information on current threats and historical accounts of cases that have been solved.
Now use your contacts to build a panel of experts. Mine now includes a doctor, a surgeon, police officers (from the UK, USA, Australia, and Canada), serving and ex-army personnel, and journalists. Trust me, we have a lot of fun discussing what I can put my protagonists and their enemies through! When building your own panel of experts, be sure to include the following:
- Friends and family. Do you have friends serving in the military? Family members who have lived or visited the international setting from your story? From my experience, people are happy to share what they know and help you get your facts straight. Sometimes, it really is as simple as asking.
- Museum Contacts. Who did you speak to on your visit or phone interview? Keep their details and stay in touch. You never know when you’ll remember a question you forgot to ask or need to check your facts.
- Social Media. Stuck on a question? Give a shout out on Twitter or Facebook. You’ll be amazed at the number and quality of responses you’ll receive.
It’s not enough to bombard your contacts and network with questions. Be prepared to listen, too. Often it’s their anecdotes and examples that create that A-ha moment, and you never know what you might find out by accident. Everyone has a story. Make it your job to listen with respect and soak up that knowledge.
And lastly, remember two old sayings that are very true:
- There’s no such thing as a stupid question.
- It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
Best of luck with your research!
Thanks for being here today, Rachel. One of my earliest novels was a historical fiction set in the California gold rush. Since I’d never even been to California, much less panned for gold, there was a lot of research involved. Rachel’s suggestions are good ones, and I’d like to personally emphasize the importance of being bold with your questions. In my research phase, I remember feeling nervous about contacting strangers and peppering them with questions. But everyone I spoke to genuinely liked talking about what they knew, and if I asked something about their particular topic that they didn’t know, they were eager to find the answer. So don’t be afraid to ask those questions.
What about you? Have you ever written in a genre or about a topic that was out of your expertise? If you’ve got any additional research techniques, please share them in the comments.
Rachel Amphlett previously worked in the UK publishing industry, played lead guitar in rock bands, and worked with BBC radio before relocating from England to Australia in 2005. After returning to writing, Rachel enjoyed publication success both in Australia and the United Kingdom with her short stories before her first thriller, White Gold, was released in 2011.
Rachel’s Dan Taylor thrillers, White Gold and Under Fire, and her standalone thriller, Before Nightfall, are all Amazon bestsellers. Rachel’s fourth novel, Look Closer, will be available for pre-order in February 2015, with a publication date of late March 2015. A further thriller is scheduled for release in June 2015 while a third Dan Taylor thriller is being written.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.