Friday, January 21, 2011

Guest Post: Allison Brennan

I am so glad to welcome Allison Brennan to my blog today and proud to be a stop on her Love Me to Death Blog Tour. Allison has sent a very entertaining post about the fun of doing research for novels. 

It is almost enough to make me want to be a writer. Of course, once the research is done, you have to actually write a book..... I think I'll leave that to the experts.

Welcome, Allison!


Research Has Never Been So Much Fun
By Allison Brennan

I love research, but it’s certainly more fun now than before I was published.

When I was researching THE HUNT, which became my second published book, I needed to learn how to disable a car so the killer could mess with it and it would break down 3-5 miles later. The set-up—a college-age girl traveling alone, filling up her gas tank, leaving the vehicle for a few minutes either to use the restroom or buy something in the convenience store. Usually at night or when there is not a lot of traffic, at gas station in a rural area, namely Montana. I wanted the killer to put something in the gas tank that would make the care stall—only after she drove away.

Needless to say, the mechanics I spoke to were not at all helpful. In fact, they sounded as if I were crazy. (Or stupid—would I really create a phone trail calling mechanics and asking how to disable a car if I were, in fact, trying to kill someone?)

It took going to my niece’s Christening and talking to a friend of my brother-in-law who was, in fact, a mechanic and could talk to me face-to-face and know I wasn’t a psychopathic killer aiming to kill a relative for their fortune and make it look like an accident.

I learned that I needed to clog the gas filter, and because the gas filter was at the bottom of the tank, I needed something heavier than gasoline to sink to the bottom of the tank and gum up the filter, which would make the car stop or run poorly. Brainstorming, we decided on molasses. It was heavy enough to sink to the bottom, it would take a few miles before it was sucked into the fuel filter, and sugar is slow to dissolve. It’s also something that is easily attainable.

Once I was published, and had books to prove I wasn’t a lunatic trying to kill my spouse, research became easier. But as I gained access to experts—cops, FBI agents, doctors, forensic pathologists—I also found it was easy to get sucked into the fun part of research.

I met my primary FBI contact during research for my eighth book, TEMPTING EVIL. I had a secondary character, fugitive apprehension specialist in the FBI, Mitch Bianchi, who was tracking a convict who’d escaped during the earthquake that totaled San Quentin in my book KILLING FEAR. Mitch tracked the fugitive to Montana. I was working on revisions and had a few questions that my regular contacts couldn’t seem to answer, so once I Washington cleared me, I was given access to the media relations special agent (PIO) in the Sacramento FBI.

I sent him a long list of specific questions and learned real quick that my entire set-up was wrong. Mitch would never have tracked the fugitive through multiple jurisdictions. If he had information that the fugitive was in another state, he would contact that jurisdiction and they’d follow up.

This was not good news. I was on a tight deadline—I was working on editor revisions, the book was DONE, and I was just cleaning it up. I couldn’t change his character because that would change the whole book—and I’d introduced him in the first place because he was to be the hero of the next book and his obsession with tracking this specific fugitive was crucial to that story as well.

I asked the PIO a bunch of questions, trying to dig myself out of the hole I’d written (thank you television—NOT!) and then hit on the right question.

“Well, if an agent disobeyed orders or broke the rules by tracking a fugitive into another jurisdiction without following established protocols, what would happen?”

The answer? Anything from a reprimand to termination.

I love shades of gray!

Not only did this work for the book (and saved me a major last minute rewrite) but it worked for my character. Mitch doesn’t play by the rules, he’s been reprimanded many times and gone before the Office of Professional Responsibility more than once. He’s also smart, dedicated, and decorated.

So at the beginning of PLAYING DEAD, Mitch is off the case because of his blatant disregard of direct orders in TEMPTING EVIL, and is confronted with another difficult choice—if he works the case, he’ll be fired. He’s run out of chances. I had not only established his character, but his primary conflict. It worked so well you’d have thought I’d planned it.

Which I didn’t. I don’t plan out such things. I write and let the story go where the characters take it. Dodged another bullet THAT time.

We are truly blessed writers to have so many resources at our fingertips. In the past three years, some of my research excursions included participating in two SWAT training exercises (with another scheduled in March); touring the FBI Academy at Quantico (going back in October), visited FBI Headquarters in D.C.; visiting Folsom State Prison (with the amazing bestselling thriller writer James Rollins); and two trips to the Sacramento County Morgue–once for a tour and to observe an autopsy, the second time to learn how they preserve evidence. If you really twist my arm, I’ll admit being a non-ambulatory victim during SWAT training was probably the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time . . . which shows you what a boring life I lead!

For LOVE ME TO DEATH, the first book in the Lucy Kincaid series, the initial spark of the idea came from one of these research excursions. I participated in the eight-week FBI Citizens’ Academy offered by the Sacramento FBI. The cyber crimes supervisory agent said that none of the (alleged) sexual predators “caught” by “To Catch a Predator” on Dateline were prosecuted. That stunned me, unless they were all scared straight by being exposed on television for their (alleged) sexual perversions.

So as that thought bounced around in my head, along with the information I already know about sex offenders and the fact that they have the highest recidivism rate of all criminals, and that on-line pornography is so widespread that if every cop in the country spent 24/7 working on just on-line child pornography that they’d only stop 10% of the perverts in a year. I researched what some private organizations, like Perverted Justice, were doing, and with all the information mixed together, as well as my unique characters, I came up with the premise of LOVE ME TO DEATH. I thought about this book a lot—while writing six other books—before I started it.

I’m going back to Quantico this fall--perfect timing to start writing Lucy Kincaid #5, which takes place at Quantico while Lucy is at the FBI Academy. Sometimes, I think I shouldn’t be having so much fun researching . . . but that certainly doesn’t stop me!

I’m happy to answer any questions today, so ask away. Thank you to TLC Blog Tours and Inside of a Dog for hosting me today.


Thank you, Allison! Research does sound like a lot of fun. Does anyone have any questions for Allison? Leave them in the comments.

I have one: I know Lucy Kincaid 2 is coming out in February but when can we expect 3 and 4 if you are in the research phase for 5?

Remember, too, to check yesterday's post for my review of Love Me to Death and for a chance to win a copy of the book.


  1. Hi Kathy! Thank you so much for hosting me today.

    Book Three, IF I SHOULD DIE, is coming out this September. I'm still writing that book, but have most of my research done (except for a few minor details I'll need answers for, but aren't plot critical.) #3 takes place in the Adirondack Mountains, in St. Lawrence County, bordering Canada. My husband has been there many times and I've picked his brain, plus we have friends who live there. I wish I could have gone, but most of the research was crime related, and I got that from my FBI contact. (You all will be happy to know that our law enforcement and Canadian law enforcement work very well together!)

    Book #4, which is untitled, takes Lucy and Sean back to D.C. That book doesn't need as much research because 1) part of it takes place in the Capitol Building which I know pretty well and 2) the crime/legal elements are something I'm very familiar with. Book #5 takes place at Quantico. I've been there once and have a basic familiarity, but am looking forward to a second trip. I'm not researching that book until October, during my trip. Both books should be out in 2012--I don't have pub dates yet, but should know by this summer.

    Thanks again!

  2. BTW, my husband just came into my office and reminded me that the molasses was his idea when we were talking to the mechanic at the Christening. Sorry Dan! That was six years ago and I forgot! :)

  3. Great post, Allison! Looking forward to the new Lucy book.

  4. This is a great post. I can understand how being published changed thing. Right now, I try to learn a lot of information from the Internet. I am very conscious of how I might be able to speak to people, but I haven't got anything to prove to them that I am going to use the information for fiction purposes. So any tricky bits like that, I am leaving till the end and hope it all works out :P probably not the best approach (especially after reading about your FBI thing which could have changed the story), but thankfully, my book is a Fantasy so more of my own world, and bit less of our world stuff.

  5. Allison,

    Enjoyed the guest post. Love your books.

  6. Thanks Marlyn!

    Dolly, my first book I pretty much made up everything, and got some of the details from a retired FBI agent who taught an on-line class through the Kiss of Death chapter of RWA. I'm sure there were some errors, but nothing (I hope!) plot critical. There are some great books out there for research as well--I read a lot of criminal psychology books and FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES. I've graduated to some more advanced forensic books, but still like the basics to look up stuff. And in fantasy . . . you can do almost anything you want!

    Hi Vonda! Thank you so much :)

  7. I love how you were able to get your character out of a jam by asking what would happen if the agent broke the rules.. perfect!


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