Writing a Novel: Even Making It Up Requires Research

You don’t research a novel, you research a world, and you better get it right, because today’s readers demand that even fiction writers be reliable witnesses.

Danny Warren/Getty

Like storytelling, in the mind of a writer the research never stops. Isaac Asimov once said he was writing every minute he wasn’t in the shower; in the shower, he was only thinking about his writing. In the same way, research for my novels has become a part of me.

Crime, intelligence, and military suspense fiction requires its writers to be reliable witnesses. Gone are the days of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. We live in the world of Zero Dark Thirty; factual accuracy has supplanted fantasy technology. Dick Tracy’s wristwatch has been replaced by satellites that can track the sweep of your own watch’s second hand from space.

Even so, writers of suspense fiction vary in their reliance on and dedication to fact. A John le Carre novel might read like a New York Times article, while Lee Child’s Jack Reacher might eschew research for the pure joy of unbridled adrenaline. Many of us strike a happy medium, leaving enough wiggle room with reality to spin a good yarn. But like an antibiotic, research has a cumulative effect. Once you start, you don’t stop.

So, a research question: in a world where governments record overseas phone calls and track the movements of citizens through GPS, a world in which a high-definition camera lens has shrunk to the size of a pinhead, where can one have a private, much less secret, conversation?

Not in a Starbucks. Or the bedroom. Or the front seat of a car. Not on the 50-yard line of a deserted football stadium or the rooftop patio of a 117-story skyscraper. Video and audio surveillance in any of these settings is child’s play.

No. To keep your secrets, you have to think bigger. Or smaller.

A safe room used to be defined as a secure space to hide in during a home invasion; a false or trapdoor leading to defendable dead space. Now we require safe rooms on steroids, not only protected from physical but technological intrusion.

In the course of my career, I’ve learned that research is not story specific. Seemingly trivial facts gathered from a variety of experiences can change the course of a future narrative.

Conducting research for an earlier book, I was invited to spend five days at a high-level U.S. government institution. I was privileged enough to view facilities laymen rarely visit. On one of those tours, I saw an unusual and, as it turned out, unforgettable room. It was fronted by what looked like a heavily reinforced bank vault door. I asked if this was an arsenal or bombproof storage area, or even a safe room for agents to sequester themselves in during an emergency. The agent at my side elected to show me the interior. With my back turned, he entered the combination to unlock the door, which was fortified by more than a foot of reinforced steel. It came open slowly and heavily.

Inside was a vault with bare walls, perhaps 10 by 12 feet. From its ceiling hung a single white bulb. Below that light was a small desk with a black landline telephone. Sitting at the desk was a man in his mid- to late 40s, balding, conventionally dressed in slacks and an Oxford shirt, no tie. He looked at us, but said nothing. My escort swung the door shut and locked it.

No explanation was ever given for what I’d seen. It was a safe. It was a room.

It’s a haunting image: a man locked in a vault with a telephone. I entered it on a page of a notebook and tucked it away.

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Last year, as I began to conceive a novel, set in shadowy Istanbul, about the sale of a gray market antiquity worth millions. I knew my story would be clouded in secrecy, overflowing with spies and agents wanting the man at the end of that deal. Secrets are often the jumping-off point for fiction. This story was, in some ways, not spy vs. spy but lie vs. lie. Where would such lies begin? I wondered.

The vault I’d seen served as my model. Equipped with Passive Eavesdropping Resistance, a group of technologies that have matured considerably since 9/11, we can now create an entirely secure space where anything can be said—or done—and never be detected. Never exist.

There’s something exciting yet inherently unethical about such a space, a room with no past, only a present. I called mine The Red Room, to denote its place in the company’s security chain, and named my novel after it. Red, the highest level of alert. Red, for anger. Red, for blood.

Research is a living DNA chain of proteins that pass compounds along, one to the other. Facts gleaned while living in China eight years ago formed the basis for my novel The Risk Agent. When I leave this week for Nairobi to investigate the illegal ivory trade and the Somali militants who use ivory sales to fund insurgency and foment revolution, I will be collecting information for a book I have yet to imagine.

My long career as an author has taught me that you don’t research a book. You research a world, and then you filter the results to fit a story. What falls on the cutting room floor can rise like a phoenix and find life in a future work. One man’s vault is my opening chapter, an allegory of the tale yet to come.