Researching International Thrillers
by Michael Niemann
For the past thirty-odd years, I’ve had the following conversation innumerable times.
Person at a party: “What do you do?”
Me: “I teach.”
“What do you teach?”
“Oh, that must be really interesting right now.”
I have always puzzled over this response because I knew there hadn’t been any increase or decline of the level of interestingness of world politics for as long as I’ve been teaching it.
It seemed to me a uniquely US-American response. The sheer size of this country makes it possible for many folks to live a rich, productive, and creative life without paying much attention to what happens elsewhere in the world. Those other countries are far away. Sure, those with the means go on holidays there and learn a little bit, but that’s the extend of it. It’s therefore not surprising that there’s also a lack of understanding how deeply US policies impact other countries.
Many international thrillers reflect this US-centric view of the world. But it doesn’t have to be that way. How does one write more nuanced international thrillers?
The short answer is research. I’ll focus here on two aspects.
If at all possible, visit the place you’re writing about. But don’t visit as a tourist; visit as a researcher. That means establishing contacts beforehand.
How do you find contacts? Check local news sources. Papers and TV stations often have an English version of their website. If you see an article that pertains to your topic, contact the writer or journalist. Check out local crime writers and see if you can contact them. Universities also are great places to find knowledgeable folks. For my latest thriller Percentages of Guilt I needed to learn more about the Belgian legal system, which differs from the common law tradition of the US. I emailed the dean of the law school of the University of Antwerp, stated my desire, and she put me in contact with a professor of criminal law who explained to me that my initial idea for a plot didn’t work in Belgium.
If you can’t visit, learn as much as you can through satellite view or street view available in various map apps. It’s not the same as being there, but it gives you a sense of what street life looks like. For my thriller No Right Way, I did that with the town of Kilis in southern Turkey. The imagery showed me how new and old buildings stood side by side. A tiny old grocery store next to a shiny new bank. The grocery store had a hand-written sign in the window, offering bulgur on sale. That made it straight into the novel.
Wikipedia is also an invaluable resource. Need climate information for a city somewhere? Wikipedia covers most large and medium-sized cities in the world and gives you the temperature averages and extremes as well as rainfall for every month of the year.
What’s happening in the politics of the country where your thriller takes place? What are the social issues that have people talking?
Again, news sources are helpful here, but don’t forget an often-overlooked resource: global, regional, and local NGOs. Nongovernmental organizations span the gamut from wildlife preservation to social justice to human rights. Those NGOs publish regular reports. Often those reports are issued in multiple languages or have at least an English summary. An Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch report about a specific country provides an in-depth view of what’s currently going on there.
If you need to know the current conflicts in a particular country, consult those types of reports. They may offer hints of how to enrich the conflicts in your novel, but at a minimum such information will make your novel richer and more realistic for the reader.
For my thriller Illegal Holdings (which won the Silver Falchion Award at Killer Nashville 2019), I drew on the reports of the Oakland Institute on foreign land acquisitions on the African continent. Those reports gave me insights on how foreign corporations and countries bought large acreages of land in several African countries. Those insights expanded my personal knowledge of Mozambique and helped sharpen the basic conflict in the novel.
A final treasure trove of information are international organizations. From the United Nations down to various regional organizations, the amount of information and report available for free is astounding. When I was writing Percentages of Guilt, I needed information on money laundering. The Financial Action Task Force offered a host of information including examples of schemes used by criminals to launder money.
Proper research will make your novel more plausible, help you avoid stereotypes and maybe even educate your reader. That’s something all writers aspire to.
Award-winning author Michael Niemann has long been interested in the sites where ordinary people’s lives and global processes intersect. His thrillers featuring UN investigator Valentin Vermeulen are published by Coffeetown Press. Legitimate Business and Illicit Trade were published in March 2017. Illegal Holdings came out in March 2018, and No Right Way followed in June 2019. Illegal Holdings won the 2019 Silver Falchion Award for Best Thriller at Killer Nashville. The fifth Vermeulen thriller, Percentages of Guilt has just been released.