Thursday, April 17, 2014

My Misadventures in Research

By Robert Liparulo

Solid research is crucial to the success of any story. You’ve heard it a thousand times (see Brad Taylor’s excellent article on "The Thrill Begins": How Important is Research in a Novel?), so I won’t belabor the point.  But maybe airing my more unusual research-related experiences will embolden your own efforts to dig deep for the “good stuff” that’ll lift your stories from good to great. None of this is meant to scare you, but rather show you that you can step on toes (albeit unintentionally) in the name of research and live to tell about it.

Know when you have enough. The best knowledge comes from personal experience, but when your story extends beyond that, you have to reach out to others. My typical tactic is to first talk to someone I already know who can point me to someone else with more knowledge of the subject I’m researching. With luck, that person will in turn refer me to another source with even more knowledge . . . and so on, until I reach the person who can give me the juiciest bits. This is the person who knows not only the truth, but also the fascinating factoids that no one will find in a magazine or Wikipedia article, the stuff that gives your voice authority and supports your story’s contentions like iron scaffolding.

For my first book, Comes a Horseman, I wanted to learn more about a rumored organization that was hording financial assets and human resources in order to turn them over to the antichrist once he revealed himself. I contacted a friend at the Denver Seminary and got the ball rolling toward the All Knowing Oz. I never reached him or her. Just when I thought I’d really stumbled onto something—people I believed were on the fringes of the very group I sought—a phone call woke me at three in the morning.

The person on the other end was using an electronic voice changer: “Stop looking for us,” was all the voice said, and it was enough. I decided instantly that I had all I needed to tell my story, and not wanting to find my dog nailed to my front door, I stopped digging. But a character in the story did receive a late-night call and felt the same gut-liquefying terror I did upon hearing an electronically altered voice coming over the line.

Inquisitiveness begets inquisitiveness. For my next novel, Germ, I contacted an engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which had invented the Lifeguard, a technology that tracked bullets in flight and accurately returned sniper fire within milliseconds of a shot. I wanted to know if the system could be paired with a M134 minigun—a Gatling-style machine gun that can fire 6,000 rounds a minute—and where the technology would be in a few years; being ahead of curve makes stories informative and just-plain-cool. The engineer provided invaluable insight into the technology, but insisted on my not acknowledging him in the book, almost always a great sign you’ve uncovered true insider information.

About a week later, two FBI agents came to my door with questions of their own, all pertaining to my interest in the Lifeguard system. They left with copies of my story notes, my book contract, and Comes a Horseman. That was the last I heard from them, but knowing you’re on the FBI’s radar is a bit unnerving.

Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While researching The 13th Tribe, which tracked a group of immortal vigilantes as they traversed the globe doing what vigilantes do, I contacted an owner of a travel agency that specialized in both international travel and private jet rentals. I needed to know about small, private airfields in places like Tel Aviv and Bucharest. Next thing I know, the local PD’s knocking, but not to find out if I was an international terrorist or assassin. Shortly after my visit, the travel agency had been broken into and robbed; the owner labeled me as a “suspicious character.” Again, I showed the investigators my notes and contracts, my published books and current manuscript, and gave them my fingerprints. Turns out the owner was indicted for the crime; I was his red herring. There’s a story in that, but I haven’t done anything with it—yet.

The cautionary tales go on and on—the black-market wolf-dog breeder who tossed a steak into a pack of hungry animals while telling me, “No one would be stupid enough to turn me in”; the call from the NSA wondering why I wanted to know about satellite laser weapons (it was for my book Deadfall)—and in every case, the research and how it played out in my story was worth the scare and hassle. I write thrillers; rattling cages comes with the territory, and if I’m not rattling them enough to get some blowback—that’s when I’m really worried.

Best-selling novelist Robert Liparulo is a former journalist, with over a thousand articles and multiple writing awards to his name. His first three critically acclaimed thrillers—Comes a Horseman, Germ, and Deadfall—were optioned by Hollywood producers, as well as his Dreamhouse Kings series for young adults. His latest book is The Judgment Stone, the second in the Immortal Files trilogy, after The 13thTribe. Liparulo is currently working on an original screenplay of a political thriller with director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive, The Guardian). New York Times best-selling author Steve Berry calls Liparulo’s writing “Inventive, suspenseful, and highly entertaining . . . Robert Liparulo is a storyteller, pure and simple.” Liparulo lives in Colorado with his family.
The Judgment Stone  finds  The 13th Tribe's Jagger Baird facing a group of Immortals even nastier than the Tribe. When this group uses an ancient artifact, which allows them to see beyond the veil of this world into the next, to murder the world's most gifted people, Jagger must overcome his own doubts and fears to stop the carnage.

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