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The Power of Research

Image of clear beakers and other chemical equipmentYou wouldn’t think that being a fiction writer would require research. For sure, plenty of fiction authors don’t take the time to research their stories–I know because I’ve found their errors. And plenty of readers don’t mind when authors make everything up.

I mind.

In fact, given the amount of time I spend on research, I probably mind too much.

For each book, there’s a “big picture” idea, such as “family” or “reconciliation” or “true love” and then there’s the little details that support the theme and that add tension to the plot. For example, in my Cassidy Kincaid series, Cassidy is an orphan, and though she rarely thinks of her parents, this loss influences every relationship in her life. In Feeding the Fire, Zach had a younger brother that he couldn’t save, and though he’s an adult, this heartbreak lives and breathes in him and guides his relationships–from friendships to his love life–and is his core motivator in his work and activities.

Psychology Mapping

If I hadn’t become a writer, I would have become a psychologist. I’m fascinated by the human mind and how the choices we make and the events in our lives become a part of our very being and influence our behavior. Why we do what we do is a subject I never get tired of.

I’m extremely lucky to have a partner in crime for researching psychology and behavior, my good friend Craig. Several years ago, when the idea for Feeding the Fire came to me, he agreed to help me understand my main character, a 13-yr old girl named Jessie. When the story opens, she is perched on that edge between girlhood and the shift to adulthood. I wanted to add a significant event in her life that would steer her from the normal path of being a good kid to being a kid who made terrible, destructive choices. I needed to understand what type of event–how severe, how terrifying–would cause this change. Once I had that, I could design the storyline.

Craig is my lifeline for developing characters like this. He is a very busy therapist, so I only get to talk to him on the fly, usually via Facebook Messenger. Over a period of about four months, we logged over 100 messages. He also read passages of the book to check my accuracy. We also talked about Zach, and he helped me add a critical detail to his background–something I never would have thought of but that made a huge impact on his character. Craig also helped me develop Cassidy Kincaid and walked me through her mindset and motivations as well as the experience of losing Pete (so hard…I still cry when I read that book). I am indebted to Craig for this assistance.

Fine Details

Once the baseline psychology is clear and I can walk in my characters’ shoes, it’s time to figure out the day-to-day details that shape their life. My characters do the mundane things like go to school, go to work, and pursue activities. Here’s an example from a few of my stories:

Zach is a firefighter/paramedic at a municipal fire station. Even though I am married to a firefighter, I still had so many questions. For this, I reached out to retired Poulsbo Fire Chief Jeff Griffin and a friend through our firefighter family network. I begged him to help me with the details of Zach’s life. He preferred email but we texted too–sometimes when I would be in the middle of the scene.

Me: “Hey Jeff, what do the fire station tones sound like when a call comes in?”

Jeff: “There’s three short tones and then a female voice lists each engine being requested.”

Firefighter dressed in turnouts

I also enlisted my husband, who read an early draft of Feeding the Fire and caught all my firefighter/fire station errors: “Poulsbo’s turnouts are black, not tan.” “Brody can’t have a goatee as a firefighter.” He also helped design the fire in the climax scene. It had to be blazing but not too big, otherwise “Zach wouldn’t go in if the house was already fully involved.”

There’s also the jargon: “rig” for ambulance; “knocked down” to describe the flames being extinquished, “fully involved” meaning the structure is engulfed in flames all the way to the ceiling.

I also had a lot to learn about Jessie’s school life. I’m a former middle school science teacher, but things have drastically changed since 2002. For this, I reached out to my neighbor and friend, Joe Vlach, a former high school vice principal and current curriculum director of my local school district. Because Joe is also a very busy father of three teenagers and runner, I could only hit him up sparingly, but when we connected, he was a treasure trove of information. For example, cigarettes are out, vaping is in; a security officer is posted in every school nowadays, and teenagers don’t actually talk to each other anymore, they text. Joe was also kind enough to read an early draft of the book and having his affirmation gave me a huge boost in confidence.

Certainly, I could have made up or faked a lot of the details in Feeding the Fire, but that’s not the kind of writer I want to be.

My hope is that these hundreds of hours logged with experts create books that you love and savor.

Where will my research take me next?

  • an interview with a local PI
  • an interview with a former FBI agent
  • more psychology with Craig for book 3 in the Cassidy series
  • research on what it’s like to be a geology professor at University of Washington
  • a career path for Cassidy’s friend, Emily

There’s also a visit planned to the small town of Joseph, Oregon, the scene of the opening chapters for Finding Izzy Ford, the next Cassidy book. My family is planning a camping trip to Idaho this summer, and we’ll make an overnight stop here so I can get the lay of the land. And for book 4, the conclusion of this series, I will need a lot of help from law enforcement.

It may even require a trip to San Francisco…

San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge at sunset