Confession, in the late '90s, until my best bud Johnny got shipped to Iraq, I was one of those tactical wannabe guys who read books by Navy SEALs and trained for the peak oil apocalypse.
I got better.
Helped to have a friend telling me the Joseph Heller-esque charlie foxtrot of the "War on Terror" from the sandbox ... damn, I nearly slipped into that snacktical wannabe mindset again. There's a lot of silliness there. I read a bunch of books ghost-written for SEAL Team Six Commander Richard Marcinko, and met him and Jesse Ventura (right before he ran for Governor of Minnesota) and took them as realistic, even though everything after his Rogue Warrior memoir is fiction. And really childish wanker fiction co-written with a guy who wrote like Penthouse Forum meets Soldier of Fortune.
But there were a couple of gems in there, and one makes for a good analogy to writing research. When you depend on intelligence, there are different types. Human Intelligence, Signal Intelligence, Technical, Financial, and so on. But let's concentrate on the first two. Human intel is gathered first hand, by observing, doing, and talking to people. Signal is reading briefings based on satellite, and so on. That's like when you research by watching YouTube videos,using Google Maps and Earth to scout scene locations, reading Wikipedia pages, watching TV shows set in the city you're writing about, reading books about it, and so on. It is worthwhile research, and gives you a picture that may be different than the one you have prejudged from overhearing about your subject. This is a cornerstone of writing, and I'm not knocking it. But this is only a shaky foundation, and you need stronger research, especially these days when so many more people travel, and your audience is global in breadth and deeper in reach.
You need human intelligence before you write about people and places you don't know much about. If you want to write about France, you don't need to fly to Paris. But you might want to talk to someone who has lived there. Same goes with writing about your own country, if your characters' backgrounds are very different from yours. Sure, you may "know" how your character lived, but if you want the proper verisimilitude, you might want to get some human intelligence.
Talk to people.
Yeah, I know for every gregarious writer there are ten introverts who want to be locked in a room with their own thoughts and emerge with a masterpiece, and maybe that happens. I've read some great short stories set in cities by writers who've never been there, and wrote them before the Internet made some research easy. But I'm gonna bet green money he talked to someone who lived there, or observed them in conversation. I know some research gets done more easily than others. Guys who write about strip clubs have no problem asking the pole dancers questions about the life. You're paying for time, it's a different dynamic than asking a friend or acquaintance, or a friend of a friend, to sit down over coffee and let me ask some questions that may make us both uncomfortable. But that's better than approaching a story with a premise that is only believable if you've never lived like the people you're writing about.
Here's an example, if you live with or around junkies, your shit is going to get stolen. You are gonna get mad, but you won't become Gramma's TV Avenger and shoot the pawn shop guy who gave the guy fifty bucks for it, and stick the junkie full of needles taken from your grandma's tin of Royal Dansk cookies. You're gonna say fuuuuuuck and ask around to find who the corner wino saw carrying a big-ass TV down the hill, and hunt down the guy (or woman! junkies are like ants, they can lift ten times their body weight) to get the pawn ticket so you can get it back for $50 instead of paying $100 that's on the tag. If your bike gets jacked you're gonna be mad you didn't spring for the gorilla chain lock and bought the crap one that anybody with a hammer and a can of Freon could pop. (Or a soft plastic pen, those circle locks were a joke back in the day). Now maybe you didn't know this, but a guy like Dennis Tafoya who wrote Dope Thief because he talks to people. Julia Dahl wrote a few books that deal with the Orthodox Jewish community. She's an investigative journalist, so her books ring true. They are interesting reads, because you may learn things that you did not know.
And let's face it, that's one the best hooks in crime fiction: learning about new people and places. Like the guys who scrap ships on the coasts of Africa, as I recall one of the better stories in Best American Mystery Stories in the past five years or so. That was probably second hand, from a news article, but the characters felt true; I'm betting the author talked to someone from the country that he knew. In my books, when you see the thank you to Cindy Ardoin, Andre du Broc, Les Edgerton, Drake Broussard, and Aresa J'von... it's for the human intelligence.
Here's a little evidence of hands-on research I've done. I went to the Angola prison rodeo, and bought some crafts from the inmates in the fenced area where they can move freely. I bought a buckle fashioned from a silver half dollar from a fellow named Darrell Aucoin, who was reserved and thankful. We chatted a short while.
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