My answer: Heroin.
I love doing research. It’s like cheating, but with permission.
Here are some of the things I have done in the name of Research: learned to ride a motorcycle; became a certified EMT for both New York State and Monterey County, California; had my sneakers stick to the floor in a peep-show booth back when Times Square was not a place where you took the kids; drunk tea with nuns; crawled through the Portland Shanghai Tunnels; watched a domme flog her sub in an S&M club while he hung on a St. Andrew’s Cross; visited the Oregon State Police Crime Lab; learned to play guitar from a former member of Everclear; learned how to field-strip an M1911; gone on countless ride-alongs in countless cities; fired an HK MP5 on single, three-round, and full-auto; fired a Tommy Gun (only full-auto); fired many other types of firearms; hung out with junkies; hung out with methheads; hung out with rock bands; argued politics with a Political Officer at the State Department; gotten bronchitis standing in Lancashire fields taking reference photographs; been politely asked to leave the premises of Vauxhall Cross; run a day-long “scavenger hunt” through New York City and the boroughs (had to see if the route was possible, and to get the timing down); gotten sick-drunk with men who wouldn’t talk to me sober; been attacked by rats; trespassed; eavesdropped; learned the best way to burn someone alive; used a Starbucks bathroom seat-cover dispenser for a dead drop; been laughed at, mocked, threatened, and ignored.
Some of the things I’ve done.
In this day and age, it’s easy to be lazy with research, possible to fake it altogether. I say this as a fan of the web, of search engines and the dark corners of the Net where the strange facts lurk. My own research, in fact, normally starts in two places—on the web and in the library. I hit sites like Google Earth to get the lay of the land and YouTube to see the places that I cannot reach myself for one reason or another (say, Dubai); I abuse free trials at sites like Jane’s Information Group, and I pay for the right to comb Highbeam for articles and photographs. Ten minutes with a search engine—five if your webfu is really cracking—and you’ll find sites even more esoteric, more specific, more . . . well, insane, really. Web forums discussing the best yeast to use in making your Malbec, or how to fit a SOCOM silencer to a Walther P99.
And all of that looks good, but if it ends there, it is cheating. The best stuff is rarely posted online. To get that, you need the people. I met one of my best resources because I cold-called the local FBI office one day early in my career with questions. The agent who took the call knew someone who knew someone who was ex-Army, trained in personal protection. The resulting introduction was one of the best, most enduring friendships I’ve ever enjoyed.
That kind of serendipity isn’t as rare as you might think. Some of the best moments I’ve ever written have come about because someone, somewhere, blew my preconceptions out of the water and dropped a detail in passing that took the work in an entirely new, entirely unexpected, direction.
There’s a flip side. You can’t unlearn what you learn. There are facts I encountered while researching Walking Dead that I would much rather forget. But these are facts I believe must be shared, ugliness that must be confronted, albeit through the veil of fiction. The world must be illuminated. Good fiction can both entertain and light up those dark corners where nice people don’t want to go.
I think of research as an iceberg. The one-eighth of it that makes it onto the page rises from the seven-eighths nobody sees. The Twainism applies: “I never write Metropolis for seven cents because I can get the same price for city. I never write policeman because I can get the same money for cop.” For me, fiction lives and dies on two factors—its emotional sincerity and its choosing of the right details. The first comes from the writer’s heart as much as the imagination, the honesty of our lives, no matter how we dress it up, no matter where or when we set our stories. The second comes from that chunk of iceberg nobody sees, and knowing when, and how, to deploy the facts to service the story. In concert, there is resonance, meaning to the story, power in the telling.
As a writer of fiction I’m a professional dissembler, but I have my rules. Story comes first. Confronted by a choice between the Facts and the Fiction, my duty is to the Fiction, thank you very much. If I can somehow manage to do that right, I’ll perhaps, just perhaps, reveal the Truth.
Or at least a truth.
The story doesn’t need to be real.
But it must be realistic.
Pick the details to serve the story.
Find the heart to make it matter.
[Editor's Note: We are proud to announce today that Greg Rucka is joining Mulholland Books with an all-new series, three thrillers of a "reverse Bourne Identity" scenario involving a former Delta Force operator who discovers that his allies are pursuing a dark agenda far different than his own.]
Greg Rucka is the author of more than a dozen novels and innumerable comic books. His new novel, The Last Run, is an espionage tale featuring Tara Chace, and will be released on October 26th. He is currently researching his new novel, Alpha, which is proving a tough nut to crack. You can find his website at www.gregrucka.com, and his irregular tweets @ruckawriter.