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.
You can keep in touch with Rachel via her mailing list, Facebook, and Twitter.
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.
Joe Kovacs says
Thanks for this great post, Rachel. Several years ago, I decided to write a novel about a Border Patrol agent in southwestern Arizona. I knew nothing about the Border Patrol nor had I traveled to Arizona before. So I took a two-week trip there (from my home in Washington, DC) and went on a number of ride-alongs with the line agents. I had a small tape recorder with me and peppered them with all sorts of questions. I even went on an overnight border run. I also was able to schedule a tour of the port of entry in Nogales, Arizona with some of the customs officers.
Truth be told, I was a little surprised about how easy it was to get their time, being that I was an unknown writer. I think that might have been because the border region is such a sensitive political hot spot, and the government (to its credit) may have had a policy of as much openness and transparency as possible.
Speaking with the agents and visiting Arizona (i.e. doing the research) added immensely to my understanding of my characters and was a hell of a lot of fun besides.
Thanks again and best of luck to your ongoing success.
Rachel Amphlett says
Wow – that sounds like an amazing experience, Joe! I agree – first hand knowledge from experts in the field is incredible if you can get hold of it. It must’ve made all the difference in your novel, being able to actually step into your characters’ shoes as it were.
Julie Musil says
Great advice, Rachel! Thanks. Nothing like an interview that can offer first hand experience.
Rachel Amphlett says
Thanks Julie – delighted to hear you found it useful
BECCA PUGLISI says
As a writer, I know it’s easy to shy away from topics that I feel are outside of my wheelhouse. But so many people write in genres and about subjects where they have no firsthand experience, and they do it well. I have a friend who’s writing a biography about a famous turn-of-the-century cellist—my friend, who has never written a biography or seriously played a musical instrument. And she’s doing an awesome job thanks to her research. This post is a great reminder that we can write whatever stories we want. Sometimes we just need some practical tips for how to get it done. Thanks, Rachel!
Rachel Amphlett says
Thanks, Becca – although I don’t envy you with historical fiction, what a challenge! I’ve got that next on my list to write towards the back end of this year, although mine will be set in 1950s Europe. I’m currently bombarding my 94-year-old grandfather with questions – he’s loving it!
Traci Kenworth says
Thanks for the great info!!
Rachel Amphlett says
You’re welcome, Traci – hope you find something here to help you on your way!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Great advice. I know that as Becca and I write the Setting Thesaurus books, we have to do a ton of research on different places. We visit the ones we can, but others are in locations not close to us or places we can’t go, such as a psychiatric ward or behind the scenes at a funeral home. In these cases, You tube is SO helpful. You would be amazed at the videos out there, even ones for places where cameras are not usually allowed. People find a way. 🙂
Thanks for a great post!
Rachel Amphlett says
Thanks for hosting me again, Angela – it’s always fun over here!
You’re so right about YouTube, I’ve learned so much from watching demonstrations of equipment on there!
Denise Willson says
Love this, Rachel. I don’t write thrillers, but good research advice jumps genre boundries, and I adore the research phase of a new story. My WIP has my fingers itching though. I want to research, to learn more about my protagonist’s thought process behind discovering she’s attracted to a girl, but I’m keeping myself away from the net on purpose, so I can truly convey my character’s naivete. A mistake? Perhaps. We’ll see….
Denise (Dee) Willson
Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT
Rachel Amphlett says
That’s great to hear Denise, thank you. We very much wanted to convey to writers that these tips cross genre boundaries easily, so I’m glad to know it worked!