Saturday, July 11, 2009

Top Ten Thriller Research Misadventures

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I’ve remarked from time to time that doing research for my books is my form of continuing education. But it’s the kind of education where you’ve already fulfilled all your core requirements and now you get to choose whichever electives you want. Ever been interested in Pop Art? Sure. How about speaking !Kung? No problem—there’s an eleven a.m. seminar–you can even sleep in. And after lunch, you can take that old standby, underwater basket weaving (I know it’s proverbial and all, but was it ever real? And for that matter, why introduce the water? Is it not accomplishment enough merely to weave baskets?).

But we digress.


The point is, one aspect of writing books that I love is that I get to chose any topic that’s ever interested me—no matter (especially?) how perverse and off the beaten path, and dive into it. Here’s my top ten hit list for some notable adventures I’ve had in pursuit of a plot twist.


10. I’m not a biker dude. I don’t have the facial hair for it (after the Don-Johnson phase, I get too itchy; I’ve been told that this complaint doesn’t go over well on one’s application to the Bandidos). But for Troubleshooter, I knew that if I were to create my own outlaw biker gang, I’d have to know what I was talking about. I flew to Miami to meet with one of the only guys who has gone undercover into outlaw gangs for a long spell (almost a decade) and lived. And in talking to him, it was evident how much he loved bikes. I realized I’d have to get on one of those things—not just a motorcycle, but a big ole Harley hog—to get the vibe down. So I had a buddy with proper licensure rent one for me (let’s just keep that little detail between you and I, shall we?) and wobbled my way around the block. After a few goes, I took to the open road, zipping along the biker runs in the Malibu canyons and hitting the biker stops that ultimately appear in the book.


9. Last Shot opens with a classic locked-room prison escape from Terminal Island. I had one of my deputy marshal buddies drive me down there so I could poke around the prison and plan my escape. But when we arrived, the place was on a security lockdown. So we snuck around the perimeter (at times, when we were feeling more precise, we even sneaked) with me jotting notes and poking sensors. It didn’t take long for security to pull up on us. I was glad one of us had a badge.


8. A bunch of my SEAL buddies were teaching a SWAT entry course out in the hills of Ontario (not that Ontario, the other one). And I’d wanted to get on semi-automatic weapons for a while. So they invited me out. I rolled up on the range and hopped out—there were two SEAL instructors dressed in jeans and skull T-shirts and about three hundred guys in full SWAT gear pointing their tactical goggles my direction. Needless to say, I felt put on the spot. So I got on an MP5 and my buddy had one of the SWAT guys show me the proper form, sighting, etc. And everyone was snickering at the poor guy until I finally asked what was up. They thought—because of my poor attire and disheveled appearance—that I was actually another SEAL who the instructors had brought in just to mess with the SWAT guys. So everyone thought that I was faking not knowing how to operate the weapon. Holding an MP5 and having hundreds of SWAT-geared men urging you—“Come on. Quit messin’ around. Just fire the thing already”—is the kind of peer-pressure one isn’t taught about in junior high school pamphlets.


7. Working on the Tim Rackley books, I became pretty close with the US Marshals Service crew in downtown LA. The deputies have been terrific, taking me to the range, on ride-alongs, introducing me to the Explosive Detection Canine Team (which, in my rough draft, I referred to as the Explosive Canine Team, which calls to mind lobbing exploding dogs at fugitives). I’d finished a long day of pestering everyone with various questions and we’d wound up down in the basement where some of the guys were practicing hand-to-hand combat. And one of the deputies (who was slightly and understandably chaffing at that point about my intrusion into his work day) asked if I would volunteer. Volunteer. Sure. It’s a learning experience, right? Let’s just say that I had a roommate in college who was 6’6”, 280, and a wrestler (an Ohio wrestler for those of you who know what that means). And when said roommate played let’s-make-Hurwitz-a-ragdoll, his facility at tying me into knots paled in comparison to the indignities visited upon me in that basement. By the end, it felt like a V.C. Andrews novel.


6. My second thriller, Minutes to Burn, takes place in Gal├ípagos. And I had to get some very specific data about a species of praying mantis that is prevalent there (don’t ask—it beats underwater basket weaving). The esteemed Darwin Station located just outside of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz was pretty much the only place that had what I needed. But access can be a bit tricky. So I became a visiting scientist for the day, talking my way into the place on fake credentials so I could pore over a few of their studies. Great fun and the easiest Ph.D. I ever didn’t earn.


5. For Do No Harm, I had to get into some nitty gritty cadaver details with a lab tech at the UCLA Medical Center. But the only time slot he had was—literally—as he was carving up a body, parting it out for various departments (“joints to Ortho, feet to Podiatry.”) So I stood there, notepad in hand, interrogating away as he lowered the Sawzall reciprocating blade again and again. I wish I’d worn different shoes.


4. I was trying to work up a particular explosion and despite numerous conversations with my consultant in demolition breaching, I was having trouble visualizing it. Finally, frustrated, he said, “I’m coming over.” He brought a few other SEALs, wedged me hidden in the back of his truck, and drove me onto a demolition range. At which he promptly blew up a car. “There,” he said, pointing. “See?”


3. In one of my screenplays, I have a scene that takes place in a stunt plane. Only problem: I’d never been in a stunt plane. Other problem: I’m not a bad flyer, but I wouldn’t exactly say I love flying. I have been known to grab an armrest from time to time during bouts of rough turbulence. So stunts planes were something I considered a little out of my area of interest. But I wanted to get the sensation down. So I hooked up with a friend of a friend and wound up on the tarmac at the Santa Monica Airport, listening to elaborate instructions for bailing out in case of emergency. (One thing you don’t like hearing pre-boarding? “Put one foot here and one foot there and then jump.”) Doing barrel rolls out over the Pacific, I have to say, was a brand of beauty greater than what I would have imagined.


2. For The Program, I did a great deal of research into mind control. It’s one of the most fascinating topics I’ve covered, and a perfect example of using books to explore something I’d always been darkly curious about. I read everything I could get my hands on—techniques used during wartime (technically brainwashing, not mind-control, but the same principles apply), talking to survivors, interviewing psychologists. But I got to a certain point where I realized that I had to experience all this first-hand. So I went undercover into mind-control cults. (People often ask, “How ever did you find a cult?” and those people inevitably live outside of Los Angeles). I participated in an eight-hour lock-in, and underwent some cult testing. Of everything I’ve done, it’s the only experience I had to pull back from in my fiction because if I wrote the personalities and techniques the way they really are, the suspension of disbelief would be too great.


1. With The Crime Writer, I had something of a shift in the tone of my books, from a more action tech-heavy approach to one geared primarily toward suspense. Taking a common experience or setting and turning it slightly on its head creates a different type of drama, anxiety, and paranoia, and that’s a direction I’ve been increasingly interested in heading. In keeping with my new approach, in Trust No One, there is a unique and bizarre restaurant that Nick Horrigan visits. I don’t want to say what makes it such a crazy culinary experience since that would give away too much, but I will say that my wife took me there and—like Nick—I had no idea what I was getting into. Until I was in. It was very fun and prodigiously cool, and I hope the reader has the same experience of surprise and excitement as I did when she enters the restaurant and prepares to dine.