While I was working on my master’s degree in journalism, three rules were hammered into me and my classmates.
Excellent advice for journalists—and also for novelists.
Because while our stories are made up, and the character are figments of our imagination, we write about real places…real law enforcement organizations…real military units…real careers…real medical issues. And people who have knowledge of all of those read our books. One mistake, and our credibility takes a huge hit.
So when I dive into a new book, research becomes a high priority.
Before I even begin connecting words on my laptop screen, I spend hours trolling online for any and all information that might be helpful.
That’s why, with my new release, Dangerous Illusions, I have 55 single-spaced pages of research notes and internet links on a host of topics—medical issues, homicide investigations, organized crime, forensic toxicology, private foundations, crime scene procedures, background checks, vital records accessibility, computer hacking, and internet connectivity in rural areas…to name a few.
Valuable as Web research is, however, it only takes me so far. At some point I need to run story-specific questions past an expert.
That’s where the process can get intimidating.
In fact, for many years the research challenge deterred me from diving into suspense. When I began writing novels, there was no internet (yes, I’ve been at this a while), and I had no contacts in law enforcement or the military. I was also reluctant to make cold calls.
So I shelved suspense and switched to contemporary romance. Most books in that genre do require research, but typically not at the same technical level as suspense.
Seventeen books and quite a few years later, I once again felt the urge to write suspense. At that point, the internet was available as a resource. Plus, I was acquainted with a detective captain in a large police department.
So I took the plunge. The result was my bestselling, award-winning Heroes of Quantico series.
Since then I’ve written thirteen romantic suspense novels…with more to come.
Along the way, I’ve discovered that once you have a source or two, it’s much easier to expand your network of experts. My detective friend ended up putting me in touch with a U.S. marshal, who was instrumental in helping me get it right with two books in my Guardians of Justice series—Fatal Judgment, which featured marshals protecting a federal judge, and Lethal Legacy, which involved the WitSec program. Both of these were bestselling award winners too.
Through existing sources, I’ve connected with a just-retired FBI agent, forensic anthropologist, medical examiner, private investigator, and countless others.
I also got over my aversion to cold calls—and found that once you’re an established author, most people are more than happy to answer questions about their profession.
That said, I’m very careful not to overuse my sources. If I can find information on the Web, I do. I respect my sources’ time and don’t waste it by asking questions that can be answered with online research. As a result, when I do need them, they are very responsive.
While I’ve never paid anyone to provide information, I do thank those who help me in a concrete way with a gift card to Starbucks or Panera. I want them to know how grateful I am for their help—because truth be told, I would never attain the level of precision I aspire to without their input.
And the professionals in the fields I write about who read my books appreciate my commitment to accuracy. I’ll give you my favorite example.
My first suspense novel, Against All Odds, featured the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team, and the plot involved a diplomat’s daughter and a hostage standoff in the Middle East.
A few months after it released, a short—and odd—note arrived in my inbox. It said, “I enjoyed reading your novel—but I chewed tobacco, not cigars.”
That didn’t make sense…until I checked the signature line.
The note was from a former HRT commander—who happened to have the same first name as my fictional commander.
I wrote back at once to assure him my character wasn’t based on him and that the name was just a coincidence. His response was gracious—and he also said that while he didn’t expect me to divulge my sources, he was impressed by the realism of the book, right down to the actual radio call signs the HRT used.
That made my day.
Do non-expert readers realize the effort required to nail down that kind of detail?
But I’m betting they do recognize the ring of authenticity in my books.
And I’m convinced that getting it right can help set an author apart—and contribute to best-sellerdom.
Irene Hannon is the bestselling, award-winning author of more than fifty contemporary romance and romantic suspense novels. In addition to her many other honors, she is a three-time winner of the prestigious RITA Award from Romance Writers of America (the “Oscar” of romance fiction) and a member of that organization’s elite Hall of Fame. In 2016, she received a Career Achievement award from RT Book Reviews magazine for her entire body of work. A former communications executive with a Fortune 500 company, she has no regrets about leaving behind the rush-hour commute and corporate politics to focus on fiction. She loves to interact with readers on Facebook, and invites you to visit her website: irenehannon.com.
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