Second of the guest blogs I wrote for 49 Writers, No Moose in June.
The absolute best part of a writer’s life is the research. I’ve written two thrillers, Blindfold Game and Prepared for Rage. For both novels I went on patrol with the US Coast Guard, first on Alex Haley for 16 days in the Bering Sea in February 2004 and then on Munro for seven weeks off the coasts of Central and South America in March, April and May of 2007.
I grew up in a commercial fishing community in Alaska, which including all the squiggly bits has about 35,000 miles of coastline. Coasties were always around when I was growing up, and I’d always wanted to write them somewhere into my work, The original plan was to create a Coast Guard base in Newenham in the Liam Campbell novels, with recurring characters. Then, alas, Liam lost his publisher, so when my agent and editor ganged up on me to write a thriller I figured, Awwright, Coastie hero!
Of course all I really knew about Coasties was what I saw from the beach, so I got on line, found the website for the Kodiak CG base, and there found a cutter named Alex Haley. Sorta seemed like it was meant, you know? I contacted the skipper, Captain Craig Barkley Lloyd, and he said “Come on down!” The rest is Stabenow history, two ridealongs, one in the Bering Sea and one in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
Coasties are the second most welcoming and hospitable people on earth (The Irish are first.) On both cutters the crews took some time getting used to me (most writers they host on patrol are journalists looking for a story), but once they figured out I wasn’t writing a scandalous expose they threw open every hatch on every bulkhead. I was in the circle around the captain as they planned the midnight rescue of an injured fisherman offshore of the Pribilof Islands. They let me put actual hands on things, like very big guns, the cyclic of a helicopter in the air, a garden hose (to wash down the turbines). I got to jump off the side of the ship into the Pacific Ocean where it’s 8,000 meters deep, and I’m a shellback now (although they still haven’t sent me my card).
And I got a king’s ransom in the way of original source material. The crew even helped me with plot points. If you’re a beginning author, remember this: Everybody loves to talk about what they do, and if they see that you’re really listening to them they will bend over backwards to help you get the details right.
You get the details right, you’ve got yourself a credible and convincing setting, and you’ve got your foot in the door of the reader’s imagination. And then you’re home.
For more pictures of Munro and crew at work, click here.
For more pictures of Alex Haley and crew at work, click here.