Boots on the Ground Research

[Luncheon speech for the Poisoned Pen Conference, July 13, 2012]

Sometimes research is easy.

When I lived in Anchorage my house was right under the traffic pattern to the seaplane base of Lake Hood. One day my father was helping me with something in my back yard and a Cessna 206 was taking off with its engine at full and it was really loud. My father, a bush pilot, scowled up at it and said, “There is the sound of someone not flying their own plane.”

I pointed at him and said, “You just wrote the first line of my next book.”

Dad was always my first resource for all things Alaskan, planes, guns, who really killed who back in the day, where they were probably buried. All I had to do was pick up the phone.

Sometimes research is not that easy, but it sure is cheap. Two ridealongs with the US Coast Guard, one sixteen days in February 2004 in the Bering Sea, and the second seven weeks in the eastern Pacific Ocean in 2007, and all it cost me was airfare to the debarkation ports and my food while I was on board. I got to go on a courtesy call on another cutter in the Bering Sea, I got to jump off the side of the ship in 8,000 meters of water, I got to fly a helo off the hangar deck, and I got two <a target="_blank" href=" novels out of it, one of which hit the New York Times bestseller list. Cheap at a thousand times the price.

Sometimes, research is serendipity. In 1999 Alaska magazine approached me to ask in diffident tones that invited a response in the negative if I’d like to travel around Alaska and write about it. On their dime. For five years I did, which produced fifty monthly columns about places in Alaska many of which I never would have been able to afford to go to on my own, and many of those places wound up in the Kate Shugak and Liam Campbell novels.

For example, I went to Bethel in western Alaska to write a column about C’Mai Fest, an annual Alaska Native dance festival that features dance groups from all over Alaska, from Canada and from Outside. Sometimes groups come from Hawaii, and New Zealand. So, Kate dances with the aurora at the end of A Fatal Thaw, and Bering, my name for Bethel, is where she runs after the traumatic events of Hunter’s Moon, and is where Chopper Jim finds her again in Midnight Come Again and from where brings her home.

I went to Kotzebue to see the Kobuk Valley National Park and the yellow sand dunes that look like Lawrence of Arabia is going to come galloping over them on a camel, and all this above the Arctic Circle. And Kotzebue became the setting of a Liam Campbell short story, “On the Evidence.”

On the Evidence

Sometimes? Research is difficult and expensive as hell. I spent this April in Europe, studying anything and everything that pertained of the years 1320 to 1327 in Venice, Paris, Chartres, Troyes, London and Nottingham. Previously, I spent three weeks in 2005 in China traveling the Silk Road, two weeks in Turkey in 2011 seeing everything classical and medieval on offer, and in 1987 I went to Les Baux, all this in support of an historical novel about Marco Polo’s granddaughter traveling the Silk Road west, from China to England from, you guessed it, the years 1323-1330.

How did this happen? I read The Adventures of Marco Polo and never recovered. I love maps, and the first thing I did was try to trace his travels on a map, and then I spent a lot of time and money trying to get to as many places on those maps as I could afford.

Because I tend to read in subjects, after I read Marco Polo I then read a bunch of other books about that time, and discovered trouveres, and pilgrims, and Venetian merchants, and every European nation’s whipping boy, the Jews, and the Knights Templar, and mapmakers, and aristocratic French lady pirates, and chuggis. There’s at least one of each in my novel.

You’ve all heard that old saw, the writer’s dictum, “Write what you know.” Okay, true so far as it goes. Two caveats, however.

First, I’ve written books set in near-earth orbit, the asteroid belt, and on Mars. I know it will come as a great shock to you all to learn that I haven’t been to any of these places. I didn’t have to not breathe the air of Mars to write convincingly about its surface in Red Planet Run because NASA very kindly got there before I started writing and sent back lots of great pictures and maps for me to look at.

cover by Adam Murdoch

The point is I did look at them. I had to do my due diligence in availing myself of all extant research, and so does every writer, no matter what her subject and no matter how extensive and exhaustive that research is. “What you know” is what you see for yourself and what you can look up in books and on credible online sources. Sloppy research is productive only of an unconvincing narrative, and you better believe readers notice that kind of thing.

Second. Research is a very seductive occupation. You can spend the rest of your life looking stuff up. I can open a dictionary to look up Gog and Magog, and half an hour later be reading the definition of narthex, with stops at provost, barkentine and tricostate on the way. Research is a siren song, and comes a time to stop up your ears with wax and trim your sails between the Scylla of cinquefoil and the Charybdis of Cinque Ports, and come safely home to harbor, where your keyboard awaits.

At this point, my personal reference library for my historical novel, collected from new and used bookstores, street sales, boot sales, flea markets, museum stores, and online sources over a period of sixteen years, now includes at a conservative estimate

*116 books, like for example, Sharan Newman’s The Real History Behind the Templars, anything ever written by Frances and Joseph Gies, not one, as I recently discovered, but two copies of Madeleine Pelner Cosman’s The Medieval Wordbook (oops) and a 1937 edition of The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan by James Morier, found in an estate sale in Ireland, which includes fabulous color illustrations of zaftig harem girls with captions like “Your eyes have made roast meat of my heart.”

Also in my reference library are

*Professor Bonnie Wheeler’s Great Courses audio recording of ‘Medieval Heroines in History and Legend’ on CD

*a dozen travel documentaries on DVD, from the Silk Road to a tour of Jerusalem to a history of Venice

*countless historical novels

*some children’s coloring books (‘Je colorie les Chateaux Forts’ being my favorite)

*a bunch of recommendations for reference works from Sharon Kay Penman

*and my very own personal on demand reference librarian.

It is indeed now time to stop researching and start writing Silk and Song. I’ve read, I’ve studied, I’ve traveled to as many places as I have had time for and as I could afford.

I’ve done my due diligence. Time to write.

Last Day

[from the vaults, first posted February 19, 2004]

Today I took my leave of the USCGC Alex Haley and her crew. Ops on the sat phone

I know that for the past two weeks I’ve been writing what amounts to a recruiting poster. All I can tell you is that I wrote what I saw.

Was I able to write about everything I saw? Of course I wasn’t. The Coast Guard’s first responsibility is homeland defense. Operational security required that I ignore some things, downplay others, and to speak in only the most general terms of our geographic location. But what I wrote is what happened.

Did everything go right? Of course not. A coupling between one of the shafts and one of the engines went out, reducing our top speed by about 5 knots. The EO and his gang were up all of one night and two days figuring out what to do about it. We had to scrap boardings due to weather. There was the usual friction between shore and sea, between officer and enlisted man, between aviators and sailors, between bureaucracy and human being.

But if I were 18 again, this is where I’d want to be. I’d get to work with a bunch of smart, capable people, I’d get to play with large, powerful toys, I’d literally get to see the world from Alaska to Antarctica and all points in between, and, best of all, I’d be helping people and saving lives. (Joining up might not even interfere with my writing. Look at the name on this ship.)

One morning I heard a young lee helmsman, standing watch at the throttles which control the Alex Haley’s 6800 horsepower, say, “This is so cool.”

You’re right, kid. It is.

My thanks to the men and women of the Alex Haley for making me so welcome, for tolerating my colossal ignorance, and for being so willing to answer my million questions. You keep telling me it’s just a job, and that you’re not heroes.

You’re wrong.

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Two different days

[from the vaults, first posted February 18, 2004]

What a difference a day makes.

sunrise on the Alex Haley 2/17/04

Yesterday we worked with another cutter, testing an electronic positioning system that will help the Coast Guard prove cases in court, which required ten hours of steaming back and forth, pinging the other ship on radar and recording both positions every two minutes.

It was a gorgeous day, sunshine, calm winds, mild swell, blue-white Aleutian Islands floating to the southeast on a deep blue sea. It would be perfect if we were launching the helo for a SAR case or doing boardings, but no. This is also a part of the job, though, so the crew sucks it up and gets to work.

Today was a light-year in the opposite direction. It’s partly cloudy and the wind has picked up. I go up to the bridge at dawn and we are literally surrounded by the lights of fishing vessels. Ops is calling one vessel after another, identifying boarding opportunities. He finds two, both roughly 165-footers fishing Pacific cod. By 9am we’ve got the starboard small boat in the water and are loading our first BT, aka Team Alpha. They board the first F/V (there is some very nice boat handling going on here which is a joy to witness) and come back to pick up Team Bravo and take them to the second F/V.

An ATON (aid to navigation) report comes in about a broken navigation light about 160 miles away. They want us to see what’s wrong with it and if we can fix it and if not to find out what it will take to fix it. Our aviators are good to go but the Captain is more cautious. What if a SAR case comes in? In the end, in the Coast Guard spirit of “We can do it” (the motto of the USCG is semper paratus, always ready), he gives the go, we retract the hangar, roll out the helo, and unfold the rotors.

In the meantime Team Alpha calls in and says they are go for pickup so we send our small boat over to pick them up, and while we’re doing that Team Bravo calls in for pickup. The small boat brings back Team Alpha and goes and gets Team Bravo. We hoist the small boat back on board and pretty much the instant it hits the cradle the conn brings the ship onto a flight course (wind coming across the port bow) and we launch the helo, as not one but both skippers of the boarded vessels call the ship to compliment us on the professionalism of our boarding teams.

This all happened before lunch.

Later I say to Ltjg. Jansen, boarding officer for Team Alpha, “Two days could hardly be more different.” He says, “After a while they kind of blur together and start looking the same.”

I look at him like he’s an alien from another planet and reply, “Well, it’s a good thing you’ve got me on board to tell you they aren’t.”

The captain, reading over this posting to the blog, says with what I believe is sincere puzzlement, “Gosh, we were busy.”

Well. Yeah.

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Courtesy Call

[from the vaults, first posted February 17, 2004]

So I got to do a courtesy call on another Coast Guard cutter.

On board the Acushnet 2/17/04

Which means I got suited up like the BTMs and took a boat ride.

I can’t tell you how hard it has been NOT to beg, plead, whine and cry to do this. I didn’t because I’ve already been given so much in just being allowed to be on board this ship, and because I don’t want to make my hosts feel bad when they have to tell me no. Also they might get used to it, and we wouldn’t want that.

And then last night in the wardroom the Captain says, oh so casually, “Want to go for a boat ride?” I nearly sprained my tongue getting the “YES!” out.

Captain Wiedenhoeft of the USCGC Acushnet has been reading my blog and since the two ships are about to meet up for a day’s worth of drilling, he has invited me to visit. He and some of his officers will come over in their small boat and will bring back the XO, me and a few others to their ship. Ltjg. Nolan outfits me with a dry suit, helmet, gloves and boots.

The next day the winds are calm with only a slight swell, hallelujah. I eel into my dry suit (a procedure XO Thorne likens to exiting the birth canal) and head for the fantail, which is outside and the only place we’re going to stay cool in those suits.

The Acushnet’s small boat noses up to our port side and we clamber down. It’s not far and it’s pretty easy, except that my too-big boots keep falling off. We cruise (there is no other word) on over to the Acushnet and repeat the process in reverse and I trip over the side of the ship and literally fall into their arms.

The Acushnet is 213 feet long, has a crew of 75, and is one of the oldest ships in the CG’s fleet. She’s got brass fittings and still sports wood trim that I haven’t seen on a boat since I was a kid on board the Celtic. She must be well loved because she shines. Her EO, Lt. Streitmatter, tours me over the ship and afterward we meet up with XO (ours) and XO LCDR. Wolter (theirs). From their deck, the view of the Alex Haley riding an easy swell against a blue sky, a bluer sea and the jagged blue-white peaks of the Aleutians is enough to take my breath away. By now, she looks like home.

We cruise on back to our ship, I fumble up the ladder, losing my boots all the way, trip over the ship and splat on the deck at the feet of both captains. Charlie Chaplin would have been proud.

Remember FS3 Gallegos and the big grin he had all over his face when he came back from his first boarding? That was the same grin I had on mine.

About this blog–when I began posting news of this trip to it, I thought I was doing it just for the Danamaniacs. It turns out many family members and friends of the crew, as well as other Coasties, have been reading it, too. I’m humbled by the email I have been receiving, thanking me. You’re making me feel like I’m paying my way, so thank you.

(But don’t forget, when those pictures of me falling into both cutters start circulating on the Internet, it was the boots’ fault.)

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Pushing responsibility down

[from the vaults, first posted February 16, 2004]

The Captain scrubbed a boarding due to heavy seas. The bosun’s mate, the person who drives the boarding party over to the fishing vessel in the small boat, came to the bridge afterward, and the Captain explained the reasons why he’d scrubbed the launch. “Agreed,” said the bosun’s mate.

From the fantail - 2/9/04

This bosun’s mate looks maybe twenty years old. Maybe. Afterward, I ask the Captain, “Was that the bosun’s honest opinion?” Because, hey, the Captain is about twice the age and two feet taller than and 92 times the rank of the bosun, and that has got to be some intimidating. If it had been me, I’d have said, at most, “Yes, sir.”

But I’m not in the Coast Guard. “Absolutely that was the bosun’s honest opinion,” the Captain says. He went on to tell me of an incident where he was ready to launch the helo and they did a GAR (Green-Amber-Red) assessment, where everyone gives a number of 1 to 10 as to the crew’s readiness and fitness to perform, 1 being no risk and 10 being highest risk. A petty officer gave a 7, which sat everyone back a bit, but the PO said that they’d already done two boardings that day and that the crew was tired.

So the Captain scrubbed the launch. If they’d got a SAR that evening, he said, everyone would have been that much more tired and something bad could have happened as a result. One of his responsibilities is to keep a certain amount of crew energy in reserve, just in case.

I was down on the hangar deck with the flight crew, attending Lt. Eason’s Helo 101 class. Believe it or not, at the end I kinda sorta understood how a helo works, or this one, anyway. AET3 Lincoln, the helo’s air crewman, rides the helo on missions, and he tells me, “Mr. Eason’s a lieutenant and I’m just an airman but I’ve got the authority to call a wave-off.” I look at Lt. Eason for confirmation. He nods. “Everyone on the aircraft has the ability to call a wave-off if they’re not comfortable with what we’re doing.” Lt. Leary says, “Wave-offs are free.”

I am reminded of the debriefings after the fire drills, everyone excruciatingly honest and unafraid to express an opinion.

“The Coast Guard pushes responsibility down the chain of comand faster than any organization I’ve ever seen,” says XO Thorne.

If there is such a thing as an egalitarian autocracy, the Coast Guard is it.

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About Seasickness

[from the vaults, first posted February 15, 2004]

About seasickness, since almost every single non-Coastie person who has emailed me has asked if I’m seasick. Yes, once, the first full day of patrol. I woke up, sat up, and threw up.

Later that same day I walked into the wardroom pantry and the seaman on duty was so white you could count his individual freckles. “Are you okay?” I said. “Seasick, ma’am,” he kind of groaned, and then staggered over to kneel in front of the trash can, puked, got up, blew his nose, washed his hands, and went back to work. I think that seaman shamed me out of being seasick again. I stopped taking the Dramamine because it made me so thirsty, and I’ve been (fingers crossed) fine since.

In the Galley - 2/9/04

All the veteran crew members have stories about being seasick. Captain Lloyd has never been seasick, but he’s not smug about it because it doesn’t mean he never will be. As XO Thorne says, “There is a sea out there with everyone’s name on it.”

It’s not just the seasickness that is such a challenge. The constant motion of the ship increases the difficulty of even the simplest task tenfold. We’re used to doing things with two hands, and here it’s always one hand for the ship and one hand for whatever you’re doing. I’m not walking when I’m getting around, I’m doing a combination polka-tango with crewmen, bulkheads, hatches, tables, ladders, deck rails and trash nets.

If you’re eating and the ship is rolling you’re using a fork with one hand and with the other catching water glasses, bottles of salad dressing, plates, cutlery, pitchers, and serving dishes before they hit your lap. Or not.

You have to plan out your showers, one handful of stuff at a time, separate sets of gear for each step, toiletries in the tray over the sink, shampoo and towels into the shower, clothes ready for when you get out, and then–damn it!–you’ve forgotten your flipflops again and you have to put your jammies back on and go get them. And you never remember everything (I’m always forgetting my *&^%$! towels). I’m lucky if my showers on board take me less than 30 minutes, and only a fraction of that time is spent getting wet. I’m not even going to get into the art of washing and shampooing one-handed while trying to keep under the water in a shower stall that refuses to stay upright.

Sleeping, too, is problematic. The ship rocks and rolls and corkscrews, and it creaks and moans and shudders and shakes while it does. Between the motion and the noise you catnap if you’re lucky, but I’m betting no one ever gets their REM allotment. Who can sleep when you have to hang onto the side of the bunk to keep from being thrown to the deck? Ops says that he sleeps a lot the first week back from patrol.

That’s one of the reasons such care is taken of the crew’s well-being. For example, within 24 hours we did a SAR, a fire drill and two boardings, and the next morning the Captain declared holiday routine until noon to give the crew a chance to catch up on their rest. The crew of the Alex Haley is on call 24-7. It doesn’t matter if they’ve just done a SAR, if another call comes in they suit up and go back to work. Command is acutely aware of this, and of maintaining crew fitness so they can continue their mission, saving lives.

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Poetry and pizza

[from the vaults, first posted February 14, 2004]

Two poems I found posted by the mid-watch on yellow sticky notes on a bridge window. I added the titles.

Night Watch

Cold wind blowin’
On the sea tonight
One screw turning’
One screw tight
Box steaming
In the lee tonight
Cold wind blowin’
On the sea

Davy Jones’ Plea

Please be careful overhead
When your leadsman casts the lead
My bedroom is the bottom of the sea
I used to walk the pitching decks
But now I haunt the deepest wrecks
So cast your lead with care and leave me be.

Both are signed BMC M. I believe that would be CPO Merrifield, who is an interesting guy. When he isn’t standing watch or training conn officers or running the deck crew during a docking or writing poetry, he hops in our helo to go check out a malfunctioning navigation light on the Alaska Peninsula. When they get there, they discover the light is a hundred feet in the air with no landing site next to it. The helo hovers next to the light and Chief Merrifield steps from the helo to the ground, unhitches his safety line from the helo and hitches it to the light and unpacks his tools. “How did you get back on the helo?” the captain asks. “I dove,” says Chief Merrifield.

The aviators took pictures. When I saw them I said, “No wonder some of you are buried out here.”

Coming In - 2/11/04

Tonight I was drafted into working pizza night with the Chiefs (there is a price to be paid for bunking with Chief Jamison). This has been much discussed in the Chiefs’ mess, and my bet is on Chief Affinito for best pizza, because he speaks without fear of ingredients like artichoke hearts and basil and provolone, and all anybody else is talking about is pepperoni. My judgement is entirely justified and in spite of all the whining on the serving line I notice that all four of our pizzas are gone by the end of chow, so there.

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