Ask Me Anything 2016: Research

Dan writes:

“China Lake” will forever be one of my favorite novels of all time.

Why, thank you. You have incredible discernment and taste. I’m going to end this post here and go out dancing for the rest of the day.

Okay, fine.

As it was your first, how did you begin your research? I’m assuming that “networking” plays a big part in having technical questions answered when writing a novel. Did you have friends to rely on for questions or was there “cold calling” involved? (I was honored to be mentioned in your acknowledgements for “The Nightmare Thief” when all I did was answer a question about Toyota fuel consumption.) Were most people receptive and happy to help or was there more effort involved?

My research for China Lake started with my own observations. When I lived in Los Angeles, a wacko religious sect blanketed the city with ads warning that the Pope was the antichrist. I just shook my head, until the sect turned up at a Catholic parish where a friend was the music director. My friend found the group putting flyers under windshields, basically saying, YOU’RE GONNA BURN IN HELL. When he challenged the group, they jumped in their van to escape… and nearly ran him over.

After that, I didn’t want to do any first-hand research about religious cults.

Fortunately, copious information is available online — scholarly histories of cults, analyses of the psychology of toxic spirituality, and many, many, many websites run by bizarro religious groups, braying about the evils of music and posting countdowns to the apocalypse.

Networking does play a role in my research. Family and friends can be fantastic sources of information. For China Lake, I learned about the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake, California, from my father-in-law, who was stationed there as a naval officer. For The Memory Collector, I got a tutorial on nanotechnology from my brother-in-law, who’s a physicist. Friends have filled me in on wilderness helicopter landings, and how to serve a summons.

The biggest cold-call I made was to the Air National Guard. It took months from my first call to the California Guard’s public affairs office until a Master Sergeant at the 129th Rescue Wing phoned and offered me the chance to visit Moffett Field and meet some pararescuemen. I hate cold calling. But touring the 129th and talking to PJs gave me insight into, and appreciation for, the work they do on our behalf. And it enriched the character of Gabe Quintana, the PJ in the Jo Beckett books.

Everyone at the 129th, like almost everybody I’ve asked for help with research, was generous with their time and expertise. That includes the author of this question, Dan Kotwasinski.

For the record: Dan did more than simply answer a question for me about Toyota fuel consumption. I asked how many hours a Tacoma pickup could run if it was left abandoned with the engine idling and the gas tank full. Here’s what Dan did:

  1. He explained the rule of thumb that an engine at idle for two minutes will use approximately the same amount of fuel it takes to travel one mile.
  2. He looked up the specs for the V6 engine option with 4-wheel drive, and found the stated mileage rating (16mpg/city and 20mpg/highway, with a fuel tank capacity of 21.1 gallons).
  3. He calculated that the Tacoma will use .0625 gallons to travel one mile — meaning that every minute it burns about .03125 gallons — and estimated that it would take about 11 hours and 15 minutes to burn a tank full of gas at idle in the Tacoma. Depending, he cautioned, on ambient temperature and elevation.

He confirmed that the action sequence I’d written — along with its aftermath, and the hopes of the main characters for rescue after being kidnapped in the Sierra Nevada — were all plausible. He saved my bacon.

Research can be weird and wonderful. Writers: pay attention to the knowledge and wisdom of everybody you meet. You never know when it may help your work.

6 responses to “Ask Me Anything 2016: Research

  1. Well shucks.. It’s my turn to put on my dancing shoes. Thanks, Meg. You made me blush, which in my field may be a fireable offense.

    The suspension of disbelief is a given when reading certain crime/thriller novels, but in my opinion it’s the attention to detail and level of accuracy that separate good books from great ones. Meg: Yours are great. Thanks for all the extra effort.

  2. I love China Lake and the Evan series (as you’ve probably gathered by now!). This was interesting to read, and I remember that scene well. One thing that surprises me with research is how nice people are when you ask questions.

  3. Thanks, Lisa!

    Most people, I find, enjoy talking about their experiences and their areas of expertise — IF you ask nicely, acknowledge that they’re doing you a favor, and really take the time to listen to what they’re telling you.

    And you’ll learn all kinds of amazing and useful things.

  4. Dan is magical. Numbers. Confused. Cry.

    Whenever I have written stories, I always worry my searches will land me in some sort of trouble — tag me on some FBI list. Or come back to haunt me when I am on trial for murdering my neighbor’s sister’s brother-in-law’s abusive step sister with cyanide, when in fact, I was researching cyanide for a story.

    Don’t ask what happened to me years ago when I looked up the actress, Joanna Pettet. Those were the days of porno flash mob type rapid fire pages opening and opening and opening and I had to crawl under my computer and unplug it in my panic!

    Good times.

  5. Dana Jean, have you been to the Post Office lately? Your photo’s on the wall. Ten Most something or other. It’s a fetching picture!

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