Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Research 101 by Allison Brennan

LUCY BURDETTE: I'm delighted to have Allison Brennan back as our guest today--she's got some wonderful stories about the research she does for her books. This post has me yearning for another citizens police academy...Welcome Allison!

ALLISON BRENNAN: I love my job.

I can work in my pajamas.

I can take a break in the middle of the day to go for a walk, or take the kids on a field trip, or go to a ball game. I just make up the writing time late at night.

I love writing, and my job is 90% writing. It doesn’t get much better than that … well, sometimes it does. Like the annual Regional SWAT Training put on by Sacramento FBI.

For me, research is not only important, it’s an essential part of writing. I want to get the details right. At the minimum, I need to understand what I’m writing about—not just the technical details, but the people. Every detail, personality, backstory are part of the “big picture” story.

I didn’t do much, if any, hands on research while writing my first seven books. Most of the details came from my love affair with true crime books and television shows; from my avid reading background and talking to a few people in the know—like a friend of mine who’s a retired cop. It wasn’t until I was a New York Times bestselling author that I started taking research seriously … and I’m glad I did.

My research journey landed me in the FBI Citizens Academy in 2008 where I was lucky enough to meet a variety of law enforcement types in all areas of the business, from analysts to special agents to special agents in charge to the assistant US attorney for my region. I’m invited to quarterly briefings about contemporary topics in law enforcement — such as a presentation by the lead agent in charge of the Unabomber investigation. This case was particularly interesting because I worked in the California State Capitol at the time when Theodore Kaczynski killed a lobbyist up the street.

How I got into the Citizens Academy is kind of a funny story. I had written my eighth book, TEMPTING EVIL, and the copyeditor had a couple of questions I didn’t have answers to. I contacted my local FBI media resource officer and, after I went through a background check and phone interview with national headquarters, he was authorized to speak to me. In my story, my FBI agent character was pursuing a fugitive who’d escaped during an earthquake in San Quentin (California) to Montana. My question didn’t have anything to do with that – it was more technical. But immediately, my FBI contact said, “He wouldn’t.”

I learned that if my FBI agent from Sacramento had learned the whereabouts of a fugitive, he would contact the local FBI office to follow-up – he wouldn’t pursue the fugitive himself. (File this under: Things I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know.) Yikes! My book was done. I was only going over copyedits. I began to panic because Mitch was an important character and I couldn’t just change him into another person.

Do I asked, “What if he went after the guy anyway? Against orders?”

My contact essentially said, anything. Nothing might happen. Or he’d be reprimanded. Or he’d be sent up for discipline to the Office of Professional Responsibility. Or he could be fired. Nothing? To termination? I had a big canvas to play with. As long as I kept to the reality that an FBI agent would not normally be sent to track a fugitive cross-country, I could do anything I want. And it actually worked so much better for the trilogy because in the last book, Mitch is pulled from the case and reprimanded and that created far more conflict organic to the story and the characters – because he did in TEMPTING EVIL what he felt was right. And I only had to add a brief scene in the copyedits.

The Citizens Academy opened up many other doors for me, including two trips to Quantico which were invaluable in helping me write two books set at the FBI Academy. I was able to interview a new agent in Sacramento who helped me understand what it was like being an agent-in-training now … not ten or twenty years ago.

But my favorite … FAVORITE … research trips involve role playing with SWAT.

I’m often asked what I do at these training events. Role players are either bad guys, hostages, or injured victims (during medical/triage drills.) We are live bodies who are given a role in a variety of scenarios to help SWAT teams work together to develop the mental muscle necessary to deal with high-stress situations. The same team will go through a drill multiple times, often with slight variations so they never know exactly what they’ll encounter. Having people to play the parts makes the drills more realistic, as they have to deal with us as well as take down the bad guy.

I’ve done many of these all-day training drills—as a role player and as an observer—and they’re all a little different. They use simunition (paint bullets, essentially) which hurt, but aren’t deadly. Still, they can cause serious injury to sensitive parts of the body, which is why we role players wear protective head gear.

Drills may involve hostage negotiation, serving warrants, and active shooter scenarios. These can be the most fun—and scary!—because a SWAT team will come in to deal with the wounded, the witnesses, and try to find and stop the bad guy. They have to quickly separate the threat, handle triage, and secure the scene. This can happen fast, and intel is the single most important factor in knowing where the bad guy(s) are hiding. I have a great respect and admiration of law enforcement who risk their lives to save others, and have a better understanding of how fast these situations can occur—and how fast they can escalate.

I’ve watched live ammo drills, which are as intense and suspenseful as any movie. I’ve played the part of a non-ambulatory victim, a hostage, and one of my most fun roles — the wife of a wanted fugitive. We ran through this drill in a variety of ways to help train agents. For example, they will first drill on gaining access to the house when they didn’t have a warrant. I, the wife, was first told to make it easy—let them come in and arrest my no-good husband. Then I was told to make them work for it—they had to convince me to open the door. I was told to be “real” – think the COPS show – and swear at them, push all their buttons, be belligerent. Then the final drill they had a warrant and had to break down the door and detain me and search for my fugitive husband. I was told be become part of the “problem” and get in their face—but unarmed. They had to deal with me bitching and screaming at them while also knowing there could be weapons in the house as well as a violent felon.

I learned that handcuffs are NOT fun. When SWAT really gets into the drills, they will cuff, search, and secure — and make sure I’m down on my knees or prone and not moving. The training teams don’t always know what the supervisors are looking for in the drills. Once a team was criticized for not searching one of us who had been told to hide a weapon under our shirt, as part of the drill.

I have a lot of respect for law enforcement, especially the guys in the trenches. My ride-a-long with a Sacramento County Deputy Sheriff reminded me that they go into every situation not knowing what they’re going to face; few people are happy to see them; they have people swearing at them and flipping them off for no reason except that they are cops. My deputy said once he went to a call and a five year old kid answered the door, looked up at him, and said, “I hate cops.”

Well, I don’t. The stress and pressure that they’re under while trying to protect and serve is intense, and they’re required to do more with less resources and less officers in an era where every call could end in violence. Where cops are getting ambushed simply because they are wearing a uniform.

For me, as a writer, the best part of these scenarios is not the actual drill — it’s what happens after the drill. When the team goes through what they did and why, step by step. I get to listen and absorb how these men (and a few women) process a scene, how they communicate and trust each other, what they’re thinking and why they do what they do. They share experiences with all the collected teams (all over northern California) that they’ve had in real life scenarios. They learn from their mistakes (another important part of the drills) and because of the time they spend training, they are more effective on the street when we really need them.

One of the drills we did last time involved an officer down situation — the first officer through the door was shot and incapacitated, and the team has to handle the man down while there were also hostages and an active shooter.  It was probably the most intense drill of the day, but one where I learned the most.

While these drills and research trips are fun for me on the one hand, they are also very serious for those who participate. The retired SWAT leader of Sacramento FBI (who’s a big fan of my books—just saying!) had in his email signature line, “Failure to train means training to fail.” He took his role seriously, like most of these men and women do.

I take what I learn in these drills—mostly about the people I get to meet who all have their own stories and experiences and backstories—to help create believable stories for my own fictional characters. To me, that’s the best part of research—the human factor.

But as a writer, the most important part of the story is that I get it right (and believe me, sometimes I have gotten it very, very wrong ...) while making my research “disappear” in the story. I never want the research to “show” on the page, so to speak. I want my reader to be immersed in the story so deeply that the research I’ve done is simply part of the story and doesn’t stand out. I’m not an expert on anything ... my job is to entertain. And if the research points stand out and are not organic to the story, then I have failed.

What authors do you think have successfully incorporated their research? Have you ever cringed when you saw something that you are an expert about but the writer got it all wrong? 


New York Times bestselling author Allison Brennan has two books out this summer, TWO TO DIE FOR and SHATTERED. You can read more and follow her here:






46 comments:

  1. Wow, Allison. . . those training sessions sound like an amazing adventure!
    [And I can hardly wait to read "Shattered."]

    Mostly I'm a reader who just gets drawn into the story and if something is "wrong" I don't necessarily know it. But there have been times when I've asked my retired police sergeant husband about something I've read or something I didn't quite understand or that seemed "strange" to me in the story.

    Aerospace-related errors are cringeworthy for me . . . I mean, how can you possibly get Amelia Earhart's name wrong in your story? Or mess up the details of an early space flight?

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    1. Thanks -- I definitely love research. It's my favorite procrastination tool :)

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  3. Wow! What fun this research sounds like. I'm a bit jealous, in fact.

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    1. Fun, yes. But I really do lead a boring life, I have to live vicariously through others.

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  4. I love doing research. It's a fun part of my job now, but I've also spent time doing research as a hobby. Over the years that had included volunteer stints at the prosecuting attorney's office--file clerks get to read all the case files!--and with the local police department as a graduate of the citizen's police academy. Like you, Allison, I've found that most of the officers I got to know were nice people who were genuinely dedicated to the safety of the community. You only need one ride-along to know that they see a wide range of issues, from simple speeders to horrible crimes against genuinely helpless victims, plus all the people who exist in between those extremes, like the guys who live in the dumpsters, and the children who are abandoned on the street when their parents move away without them. The best cops I know have big hearts and a lot of empathy and respect for even the most desperate of citizens.

    I know that authors pick and choose their subject matter, and focus on the most exciting and entertaining crime stories, but I do expect them to at least understand how the system works. I love it when they include little details that tell me they really have hung out with patrol officers and detectives, like the way detectives keep copies of high school yearbooks on hand, stretching back many years because, as one cop told me, "all our suspects are in there." The truth, if you do the research to find it, often is much stranger and more interesting than fiction.

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    1. I've used some minor tidbits. For example, I used to work in the California State Legislature. I remember someone (I think it was a teacher, but don't quote me!) complaining about how the state had earmarked one-time funds for specific expenses. Meaning, the elected officials decided what classrooms needed, not the teachers, and will give X million to buy ONLY that thing. This happens ALL the time, in every agency. So I had the elected officials buy a really cool computer crime mapping program with a "surplus" because the oh-wise-ones thought it would be a good tool for law enforcement -- yeah. Because they don't want more training, new Kevlar, or more cops on the street. They want a computer program like they have a television ... my cop character made a really sarcastic comment about it, which was pretty much how I felt at the time :)

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    2. I love it! Yes, nothing like forgetting to ask the people who actually need the stuff about what they need.

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  5. I just figured research was always done in order to make the books as authentic as possible.

    I liked reading this piece as it gives me a little insight into what is involved in doing a book.

    I actually have one of Allison's books on the top of one of my TBR piles, The Lost Girls. I'm looking forward to checking that one out at long last.

    Allison, have you ever included something in your books where researching it made you uncomfortable and considered dropping the scene from the story?

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    1. I have been uncomfortable with research -- sometimes, you have to be careful what you google because of the types of websites that pop up (especially sex crimes.) However, I've never dropped anything. I visited the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children a few years ago and that was very uncomfortable -- learning just how many children are missing, how many have been sold or given away to people to sexually exploit. And what these people do, many cop volunteers, is gut-wrenching. I actually have mentioned it a couple of times because I think it's important for everyone to understand this serious, serious problem ... but I try hard not to get preachy about it. It becomes part of the story, not a "lesson." BREAKING POINT which comes out in February has Lucy analyzing a sex video trying to figure out where it was filmed so she could rescue a 14 year old girl sold by her step-father into the sex trade. That scene was based in part on something I learned through research.

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    2. Ann, thanks. Once in a while, I come up with a real humdinger of a question.

      Allison, thanks for answering the question. I remember reading a scene in a book and wondered if the author had done practical research or just looked up something online and winged it in the writing.

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  6. How lucky you are to have that involvement with the FBI! I attended the Writers' Police Academy a few years ago and a Citizens' Police Academy in my town, and both provided valuable details for my contemporary mysteries. I also do tons of research for my historical series, much of which doesn't make it into the books, or if it does, hardly anyone but me would know it is accurate. Still, I know it is - for example, in my 1870 manual for Massachusetts Police and Sheriffs, I learned that when saying the words "You are under arrest for X," the officer was required to touch the accused's arm. That went straight into the book!

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    1. Ooo, Edith, I'll bet that 1870 manual for police and sheriffs is a prize! How cool!

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    2. I went to the Writers' Police Academy too! It was a great learning experience for me, and I like the hands on research.

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  7. I appreciate research and researchers. Without research, the novel does not seem as real to me -- oddly this is not a problem when I watch a movie or television -- reading takes more brain power? When a character goes to the library to find an answer, I am happy. This doesn't happen as much unless the setting does not have internet access.

    As for being bothered by facts not matching known work related things? I wonder why last minute ticket buyers at airports are never upset at the price of the ticket. I wonder when characters do not get jet lag when they are flying around the world chasing some one. Why does no one suffer from food poisoning after eating in 'greasy spoon' cafes?

    When I worked in the mental health field, I was honored to have several LEO's as clients. I was and am still so impressed with individuals who are dedicated to serving, enforcing and protecting us. It was an eye opening experience. I wish I could have done more to help them.

    Great cover on your new book, Allison. I am looking forward to reading this soon. Thanks for taking the time and effort to 'make it real' for your readers.

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    1. I'm with you, Coralee. Why is it that nobody ever worries about paying the rent unless it's a novel that's considered "gritty"?

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    2. There are some series that deal with the day to day situations like rent, jet lag, etc -- I remember an older series set in my backyard by I think Karen Kjewski. I can't quite remember her name ... But her main character was Kat. She was a PI and it was very "real" feeling. I loved those books (until her boyfriend was killed off.)

      I think in television, because there is so much visual going on (A picture is worth a thousand words!) we get a sense of research because we SEE things. Take Blue Bloods (my new binge this summer.) -- We know Danny is a good cop who has a problem with anger sometimes. We trust when he says something, that it's accurate, because the show established that he is a terrific detective who closes cases. We see his expressions and how he looks at situations because of the camera angles, etc. He doesn't have to say anything, but we already know a lot. In books, authors have to use words ONLY to convey a setting, scene, character -- :)

      FYI: My character Maxine Revere spends a lot of time in a library and the county offices in ABANDONED because there still are some things that can't be found on line, particularly older records. Not everything is digitized! Fortunately, I do know what a microfiche is :)

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  8. Do you have bad dreams or anxiety attacks after participating in a SWAT day? Sounds frightening. But I am so honored as a reader to know you are working so hard to get it right!

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    1. No, I'm pretty grounded. I think I could have been a cop in another life ... :)

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  10. Allison, so great! You are amazing--and your books feel incredibly realistic. Tess Gerrritsen is marvelous at this--she always talks about how she can always . tell the "highly researched" parts--because "the author's research clip is showing." Isn't that perfect?

    My experience? I went to the FBI Citizens Academy and loved it. (and the cyber crimes guy was very impressed with the plot of PRIME TIME. Great story ,but too long for here.)

    ANYWAY. Except, between us, they were angry with me. Why? They needed a volunteer for the lie detector test. Me me me! Then they told me--"Try to beat the lie detector." Sure, I said.

    Well, thing was, they had just explained what the readout looks like when a person lies, and why that happens. SO although my words were true, I made myself do all the things someone does internally when they lie. All my answers came out "inconclusive," even though what I was saying was clearly true. They were not happy with me.

    My most annoying research story? When an amazon-reviewer criticized one of my books because something happened to Jane that was right out of my own true-life experience, and the reviewer was disdainful. "Ryan clearly has no idea what reporters do," the person sneered. Really, buddy???

    Welcome Allison! And tell us about your book! (and I must add--you are my role model for juggling real life and writing life--I do not know how you manage it!) . xoxox

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    1. You are going to have to blog about the cyber crimes story! If you have and I missed it, link it ... I'll bet it's fabulous.

      I had a friend who got slammed in a contest because someone said she'd obviously never met a cop and didn't know what she was writing about. Ha -- she'd been married to a cop for 20+ years and he edited all her cop scenes.

      I got slammed in a contest once because the judge said, "The lieutenant governor of California would never be allowed out of the capitol without a full security team." Um, I worked in the Capitol for 13 years and saw the LG out and about, usually with just one of his staffers. So yeah, when the LG walked to the hotel across the street with his press secretary and legislative aide, that really did happen ...

      I sometimes screw things up, but I try hard to get them right -- and Tess is right, we can't let the research show. It's hard sometimes, but if I've established that my characters are experts in their field, then you can get away with a lot.

      SHATTERED is next up ... it's Max's 4th book, but it's also a cross-over with my Lucy Kincaid series. Max investigates cold cases. It's always hard for me to talk about my own books ... I'm not a good saleswoman! ... But essentially, the wife of one of Max's old friends is on trial for killing their son. The husband thinks she's innocent and found three similar cases almost identical to his son's death. The oldest case, nearly 20 years, is the murder of Justin Stanton, Lucy Kincaid's nephew, when he was 7. Justin's father will only cooperate with Max if she works with his former sister-in-law, FBI Agent Lucy. Max and Lucy are very, very different characters though both focused on justice. I had never planned on solving Justin's murder -- it was a backstory in the Lucy series and his death impacted everyone in the family in different ways -- but they I figured it out. Or, rather, Max did. LOL.

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    2. Hank, I had the same response once. "She knows nothing about the English upper class and how they talk". I wanted to find this person and shout "I'm married to one! I stay in a big English house every summer! "

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    3. I love when that kind of junk happens. It makes me laugh. I have a friend who writes science fiction, and he once named a town "Humansville." His editor objected, saying nobody would ever name a town "Humansville," which must have come as a big surprise to the residents of Humansville, Missouri, where my friend's wife grew up.

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    4. Allison, that sounds great. And I love that you had already foreshadowed the plot--but you didn't realize it! (Or, Max did.)
      Rhys and Gigi--people are hilarious, right? Kind of?

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  11. Hi Allison! I love hearing about the research you do for your books. Research is one of my favorite parts of the process, and I'm always looking for new opportunities to broaden my knowledge. I've done a ride-along, been to the morgue, and gone to the gun range with my local cops.

    Is there a person or an agency that you've not yet spent time with that you would like to?

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    1. Hmmm ... good question. I'd like to go on another ride-along. I've done it once, but I know I could learn more. I've never interviewed anyone in the ATF and that might be interesting.

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  12. Great research stories. Reminds me that I must get back to Writers' Police Academy (happening this weekend, as a matter of fact) one of these days.

    I don't consider myself an "expert" in any sense of the word, but when I see something on TV or in a book that is so patently wrong, it drives me crazy. For example, The Hubby and I are watching "Criminal Minds" (on Netflix from the beginning) and an FBI agent would NEVER be allowed to bring her personal laptop in and connect to the FBI network. And would the FBI really clear a house and not search the basement?

    Sigh.

    Mary/Liz

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    1. I think some things we can willingly suspend disbelief for, and other things we can't. The laptop thing wouldn't bug me -- I would probably just assume that it has all the security protocols on it, etc. But not clearing the basement? That's just bad police work. And most LEOs are not that stupid.

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    2. I could go for that - except she makes a point of saying it has fewer security protocols and it was hacked by the bad guy. That's the point where I said, "no way."

      Mary/Liz

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    3. In that case -- you're totally right! LOL

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  13. How interesting, Allison. Putting this book on the TBR pile as we speak.

    Most of the time I haven't a clue about the research, not unless it is a subject I'm personally familiar with, nursing or medicine, and then I am a righteous critic.

    So much research has to do with the standards of the era in question. As Edith can attest, how babies were delivered in the 1800s is very different than now, although the process hasn't changed in eons. Hank, I love that some reviewer said Ryan had no idea what reporters do. I personally have no idea what reviewers do who can't be bothered to know who and what the author is! I wonder if he even read your book? I am pretty sure you ARE Ryan.

    We had dinner Monday with our federal investigator neighbor. I was dying to ask him questions about his job, but it is a subject he rigorously avoids in a social setting. And now he is off on assignment to the Middle East. I also have no idea what that's about. However if anyone ever needs a description of a DEA agent, ask me: 6'2", buff, ginger, chiseled features, polite beyond any mother's dream, late thirties, single, Coast Guard Academy. Dear God he is gorgeous.

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    1. LOL Ann -- I'm in love! Haha.

      Most of my "big" mistakes relate to medicine, forgive me. I've gotten better, however my earlier books had some cringe-worthy errors.

      In one of my early books, I had a character take Valium. She popped 5 or 6 pills and was drinking, and there was a question whether she tried to kill herself, or was just upset and being stupid or acting guilty (her step-father had just been killed -- she's a suspect.) Well, I've never taken Valium, and I don't know how to read prescriptions. I had a Vicodin prescription from my C-section and saw the 5/100 mg and assumed one pill had 100 mg of a drug. Um, apparently it's the 5 that's the main drug and the 100 was something else (like ibuprofen or whatever -- this was a long time ago when a nurse called me on the carpet for it!) Whatever I said, I totally messed it up.

      Now, I avoid specific details unless 1) it's essential to the story and 2) I verify it with an expert. Fortunately, my daughter is now an EMT and my cousin married a nurse and Dr. Lyle is always generous with his time!

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  14. Absolutely fascinating, Allison! Being searched by Swat? Not sure if I'd enjoy that or what. But you are right about we don't know what we don't know to ask. I e had to do last minute rewrites because a copy editor has pointed out some little error.

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    1. I would enjoy it a lot more if I was 30 pounds lighter and 20 years younger ...

      Copyeditors can be fabulous, or total idiots. I had one idiot who wrote on my manuscript, "This isn't how they do it on television." I almost had a coronary.

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  15. This is fantastic, Allison. I did the three month training with the Scottsdale Citizen's Police Academy a couple of years ago. I was so pleased with how open and approachable all of the departments were, and the officers were so patient with my many questions. I feel like everyone should go through it. Also, there is nothing more eye opening than a ride along!

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    1. Scottsdale! That's where my oldest daughter lives :) ... I agree, most LEOs are very cool, very approachable. They go through a lot to protect the public, and it's gotten so much worse over the last few years :(

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    2. I took the citizens police Academy in Key West and it was a fabulous experience! The cop who took me on the ride along ended up as a character in one of the books. I think he got a good laugh from a middle-aged woman who said she had to be home before midnight LOL. I would not have made it as a cop!

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  16. Allison, are there any books from your reference library that are your go-tos? Any books you would recommend?

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    1. I have DSM-IV Made Easy which is for psychologists/psychiatrists and is very easy to understand (though still thick and informative.) I often go to that when developing a complex villain or character. I love the manual PRACTICAL HOMICIDE INVESTIGATION but don't usually recommend it because it's huge (it's a text book) I use it mostly for reference. The Writer's Digest Book of POISON is a must have for me -- I use it all the time. The other Writer's Digest books (FORENSICS, POLICE PROCEDURE, etc) are good references -- not completely, but a good place to go for basic information. I don't pick them up as much as I used to simply because I remember, but I do refer for some things. Other books I've enjoyed but really only to research for a character or crime in general was LEAVE NO MAN BEHIND by David Isby (about special forces, history and special ops -- one of the best military books for a non-military person, IMO); MINDHUNTER by John Douglass -- I read it years ago, now it's going to be a Netflix original (oh, scary! Can't wait!); a book on tracking (I can't find it, hahaha, but it helped me a lot when writing one of my books about an escaped fugitive.)

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    2. Thanks, Allison! Great suggestions!

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  17. Fascinating! And hilarious! All these self-professed "experts" telling you what's what. I remember some women I met years ago in Ohio telling me she knew all about Texas. Her brother had driven across the Panhandle and told her about it. She's probably a book critic now. My husband was in federal law enforcement years ago and loss prevention/security afterwards. Through his job we made a lot of friends in the law enforcement community. A couple were detectives with the Cleveland, Ohio PD. The stories they told! What is the deal with a character who is a PI, knows the laws backwards and forwards having been either a police officer or a lawyer in a previous life, and still breaks the law with impunity when investigating a case? I don't get that. I quit reading a series just for that reason.

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    1. LOL.

      I don't know about the PI series ... one of the reasons I like writing Max is that she doesn't have to follow the same rules as law enforcement. She might get in trouble for some of the things she does -- but only if she gets caught :)

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  18. What amazing experiences you have had in the name of research, Allison! And so many others here have worked with law enforcement, too, and know police sources to turn to. I went to Amazon and put Shattered on my wish list. It sounds so good.

    My husband works with training Army troops in simulated programs. He's an analyst, but he does other things, too. They do onsite training at Ft. Leavenworth and travel places to do it, too. He's scheduled to go to South Korea this fall, and I'm not too happy about that.



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