Writing and the Unsung Heroes: Enter the Expert

BBC creditsHow many times have you watched a movie in a theater and actually stayed through the credits? You know, when stuff like “Best Boy Grip” or “Assistant to Mega Star” or “Star Stalker Head Buster” is listed on-screen? With all the films adding extra scenes at the end these days, it’s almost mandatory.

The sheer number of people required to make a movie always amazes me. The idea’s hard to wrap your head around, right? What? They need that many assistants for what’s his face because he rocks his inner diva better than a Kardashian?

Well, it got me thinking (be afraid) about what goes into writing a novel. Novelism (okay, not a word, but it should be) does not always involve the solitary wordsmith slaving away in a garret in Paris with only a flagon of wine and five-year-old cheese to sustain her. Oh, contraire, mes amis (and yes, that is the extent of my French, except for maître d’. And champagne.)

May I present the idea that it may take a village to raise a kid, but it takes many, many patient and Cargo 3Dhelpful people to finish a novel. For instance, in the latest Leine Basso, Cargo (Shameless Plug: available right now, today! Links to your upper right 🙂 ) I was unsure how many containers I could stack on a container ship, and how big of a ship I was going to need for some pivotal scenes. I began my search online, of course, but if you’ve ever looked for something on the interwebz, you know it can leave a LOT to be desired. Mainly, is the source valid? Can I believe what I’m reading? Are there extenuating circumstances I need to be aware of?

First level of twistlocks on a containership deckEnter The Expert. For this particular subject I was able to check in with my brother-in-law, Brian, who spent many years as a merchant marine aboard container ships sailing to points hither and yon. He steered me toward the perfect sized ship and corrected several of my assumptions about safety and security on board. Of course, actually knowing the expert is a plus, but I could have also called or emailed a shipping company and asked to speak with someone who would be willing to answer my questions. Most folks are happy to talk about their work, and some even enjoy helping an author out.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, writing Cargo was a huge stretch for me (as was A One Way Ticket to Dead—more about that later) but the perfect expert uncannily appeared at every stage of the book. The story deals with trafficking—human, ivory, endangered species, you name it—and sheds light on the dark, disturbing underbelly of the criminal world. Since I’ve written about the subject before, I have a crap-load (scientific term) of information on human trafficking, but when it came to smuggling, ivory poaching, Thailand, Africa, snipers, etc. I needed to turn to far more knowledgeable people.

Okay, confession time here. I set Cargo in Tanzania instead of Kenya or Democratic Republic of the Congo or New Jersey because I have a good friend who lives there. Mike has been an invaluable resource and has given me a resident’s perspective, ramping up the believability factor. The insider angle combined with hours of research has hopefully made the sections of the book set in Africa much more realistic than I could have ever done on my own. I mean, did you know that when a hyena crunches through bones it sounds similar to someone eating popcorn?Hyene amneville

Yeah. You don’t hear that every day.

Another challenge to writing this novel (and the Leine Basso series in general) is that I have not been trained as an assassin, nor have I ever killed anyone.

I know. Shocking.

In yet another spooky cool, writer-geek moment, I reconnected with an earlier contact that had served in Special Forces and now trains Special Ops. The first time I worked with him was on Yucatán Dead (I’ll refer to him as Special Forces Dude, or SFD). I’d decided to create an ex-SF operative who was helping vigilante groups fight the Mexican drug cartels, except I didn’t have a contact in that arena.

Until Zumba.

Suffice it to say, a writer friend introduced us (and yes, Zumba was involved), and SFD agreed to read the scenes I was unsure about and give me feedback. The character of Quinn and his group of soldiers is based on his detailed comments, as are the scenes involving them. Needless to say, I think they are some of the best characters and scenes I’ve written.

Then came A One Way Ticket to Dead. Wow—did I have help with that book.

cover for A One Way Ticket to DeadThe novel began as a Kate Jones/DEA/FBI thriller. I reconnected with Gary, a retired DEA supervisor from Texas who had rescued me from making some truly horrible mistakes in Bad Spirits. In the course of discussing several scenes involving my drug lord character, he suggested I use steganography which became a major plot point in the book. I’d also been introduced by a writer friend to another LE adviser for the FBI scenes, so I had that angle covered. Then I ran a gun scene past SFD, and he suggested I bring Quinn back and have Kate help with recon, exponentially upping the stakes.

Well, yeah.

So I learned about HALO jumps, extractions, how to do reconnaissance the SF way, and all sorts of amazingly cool stuff, ripping open my inner warrior—which, relatively speaking, I never knew existed. Being the amazing teacher that he is, SFD uses PowerPoint presentations to explain tricky concepts, ensuring that I understand. The visuals go a long way toward helping me write scenes.military dog w chute

There’s nothing worse than not knowing what the hell I’m writing about. To be honest it keeps me up at night. I want the best possible experience for the reader and getting details wrong prevents that from happening. There is so much I don’t know. Having access to people who do is an amazing resource and reduces the cost of therapy.

In Cargo there’s a scene where Leine reverts to her old ways. Quelle surprise (and you thought I wouldn’t find another place to insert my limited French 😀 ). As it involved taking someone out with a sniper rifle, I wanted authenticity. And yes, I’ve used a rifle, but have never been a sniper. Turns out, SFD had it covered. He also tweaked the big gunfight scene at the end. Surprisingly, I’d gotten a lot of it right.

sniper rifleWell, when you consider all the help I’ve received, maybe it’s not so surprising.

Along with several kick-ass alpha and beta readers (one of whom is turning out to be a fantastic developmental editor), a truly supportive critique group, and a flat-out sterling editor, I’m so grateful to the generous people who have shared their time and knowledge with me. Because of them I’m able to craft exactly the stories I envision, and I can’t thank them enough. As others have said before, writing a novel is not a solitary endeavor.

How about you? Writers, what types of experts have you worked with? Readers, how much does it matter to you that the writer gets the details right?


About dvberkom

Bestselling author of the Kate Jones and Leine Basso thrillers. View all posts by dvberkom

17 responses to “Writing and the Unsung Heroes: Enter the Expert

  • laurieboris

    I love how much care you put into the details, and I’m so excited for you that Cargo is out. I’m a big fan of going to the experts if I haven’t experienced something myself. A large part of one of my novels is set in a TV studio, so I had a kick-ass friend with broadcast journalism experience read for any errors. For one I’m working on now, I passed a beta draft by a magician friend, to make sure I got the tricks right without giving too much away.

    Liked by 1 person

  • tdmckinnon

    Right on the money, DV, research is a large part of any novelist’s work and you can’t have assistance from too many experts.

    Liked by 1 person

  • melparish

    I’ve been to two Writer’s Police Academies where the speakers/trainers include police officers, ex FBI/Secret Service, lawyers, emergency workers, psychologists, etc. and provide sessions on everything from forensics, crime investigation techniques, SWAT, undercover detectives, to triage and the Jaws of Life. The first time I was lucky enough to go on a patrol ride-along which was fascinating and the second to participate in mock building searches which had the adrenaline pumping even though you knew that if a person leapt out of the closet or from behind the shower curtain they weren’t aiming to harm you!
    For anyone who writes crime/action novels I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dvberkom

      Oooh! I’m going to the one in WI this month, and I’m sooo excited 🙂 Good to know it lives up to everyone’s hype.

      Liked by 1 person

      • melparish

        I’m so jealous! I would have loved to go (especially seeing it’s a new location this year) but couldn’t manage both it and my Amtrak trip. Hopefully, next year… there is so much to see and learn that your biggest problem is going to be deciding which sessions to attend (you’ll wish you could clone yourself) – which is why people keep going back. And with this new location I hear they’ve added even more ‘hands on’ sessions than before. Enjoy! Hope you are going to blog about it afterwards:)

        Liked by 1 person

  • sherry fundin

    WOW. I love learning about the lengths authors go to in their research and am fascinated by this post. Enjoy your trip! I am jealous, but look forward to reaping the benefits of your research. 🙂

    sherry @ fundinmental

    Liked by 1 person

  • dvberkom

    I’m sure I’ll bring back all sorts of fun information–and yes, I’ll definitely do a post or two on the experience 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  • acflory

    Firstly…CONGRATULATIONS! Secondly…wow, just wow. I’m used to doing research but your research goes way beyond anything I could even imagine doing. One day you could do a post about finding the hutzpah to ask all these people to help. Amazing. And yes, writing is never, ever in a vacuum. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • dvberkom

      lol Andrea 🙂 I used to be more reticent when approaching people to interview for my books, but I’ve found that most people really like helping an author out–as long as the author actually uses the information correctly. And, it’s soooo much fun to learn the stuff!


      • acflory

        I’ll be honest, I only tried once. I contacted a dojo hoping for some expert info on martial arts. Didn’t even get a ‘Sorry, no can do’ in return. I kind of slunk back into my shell after that, but I may try again now I know it really is possible.


      • melparish

        I think people are far more likely to help you if you contact them personally rather than make the initial contact via email. (Maybe because it’s harder to say no face-to-face!) I know it is hard to ‘cold-call’ someone – and, believe me, there’s nothing like describing an imaginary crime to a detective on the phone to make you flustered – but I’ve always been amazed at how helpful people are and will agree to speak to you later if you catch them at a busy moment. Friends/family of friends can be a great source too as your friends can make the introduction so it is always worth asking if they know anyone who..


      • acflory

        Gah! lol I have trouble enough sending an email let alone trying a cold call. However you have reminded me that I have a nephew who is doing some sort of martial arts. Hmm…. 😀


  • acflory

    Reblogged this on Meeka's Mind and commented:
    Your jaw will hit the floor when you read how much research DV puts into her books. And while you’re being amazed, why not give this latest Leine Basso story a try? If it’s anything like the previous ones, Cargo will be a very fun read!


  • Jeri Walker (@JeriWB)

    I informally emailed a few sources to try to figure out how long it would take a body to decompose in a huge drum of diesel fuel, but never got a definitive answer. It matters so much that writers get details right and should go any means necessary to do so. Just the other day in the novel I was copy editing, I realized right away the author’s description of landing in the Munich airport was off as were some of the details about the Glockenspiel. I only knew of course since I visited last year, but there’s always going to this reader or that reader who knows their stuff, but it’s a given the author better know theirs as well and not try to fake it.


    • dvberkom

      Absolutely, Jeri. A writer short-changes the reader if they don’t. When I read a novel, I want to lose myself in the story, not be rudely interrupted when something doesn’t ring true. With all of the resources at our fingertips today, the least we can do is thoroughly research our stuff.Even so, mistakes can sneak through. Doing the research will ensure less of those little gremlins appear in our manuscripts.

      PS I’d be interested in knowing the outcome if you ever get an answer on the diesel/decomposition question 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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