A Session with Jeremy Burns
Julius Caesar knew his moment had come. His armies gathered behind him, he was prepared to cross the point of no return. Once he crossed that pivotal river, the Potomac, he and his legion would be committed to overthrowing the King of Rome and declaring himself emperor. He looked skyward and offered a prayer to Zeus for the success of his mission, crossing himself as he finished. He had already conquered Istanbul and Tikal, but this would be the defining moment of his presidency: to conquer the capital city of the British Empire.
Some people love it. Others hate it. But it’s critical for maintaining your readers’ suspension of disbelief and sense of immersion in your story. What is it? Research.
Though the subject of research may resurrect bad high school memories of citing sources and compiling bibliographies, researching for your novel can be one of the most enjoyable elements of the writing process. For one, you’re not researching for someone else (i.e. a professor or employer). You’re researching subjects directly related to your story idea, an idea that has gripped you so deeply that you’ve decided to commit thousands of hours of your life to developing your craft and penning the story. Why wouldn’t you want to make sure your story is as right as possible?
As the first paragraph of this session rather crudely illustrates, an author getting his or her facts wrong can yank readers out of the narrative, destroying their suspension of disbelief and oftentimes turning them off the author’s work altogether. Readers have more reading options today than ever before, and if you didn’t care enough about your story to get your facts right, why should they invest their time, energy, and money in it?
Research topics can range from weaponry to weather patterns, from systems of government to city layouts. Not only can they help you get the facts right, they can also help you get the facts more right. The soldier didn’t fire his gun; he fired his M16. The millionaire didn’t drive a classic sport car; he drove a 1967 Corvette Sting Ray convertible. It’s these sort of extra-mile distinctions that will give your writing a sense of authority.
My debut novel, From the Ashes, is an example of the importance of getting your facts right. The book is steeped in historical fact and actual places, and as such required a great deal of historical, political, and site research. I was still a college student finishing my degree in history when I started writing the book, so I tailored part of my elective classwork to the subjects I knew I would need to research for the book. Further research on the Internet, as well as through library books and other sources, also helped set the historical backdrop. And with a fuller knowledge of the history – and the mysteries and motives missing from the historical record – I was able to subtly twist certain elements to create a plausible “what if” scenario that blends fact and fiction.
“Now the Nazis, an insignificant group of a few dozen members until 1919, when it was first lent the charismatic oratory skills of a young disillusioned veteran named Adolf Hitler, had been known as nothing more than a band of rabble-rousers in the early ‘twenties. Trying to stir up dissent and public discord, acts of vandalism, hate speech, threats against Jewish business owners; that sort of thing. But after the failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, when Hitler and the Nazis unsuccessfully tried to overthrow the government by force, Hitler decided that the group wouldn’t go that route again. When he got out of prison, he stated the new direction of the Nazi Party: politics. They would win seats in the Reichstag – the German parliament – and other governmental bodies to bring down the system from within.
“People didn’t take them seriously as a political force at first, and, in 1928, during the first national election where the Hitler-led NSDAP was on the ballot, their showing was fairly pitiful. Their 2.6 percent of the national vote landed them a few seats in the 491-seat Reichstag, but they were nothing more than a footnote, with no real power to speak of. The centrists held most of the power, and it kept things mostly even-keeled. But the fact that they had won some seats inspired Hitler, and thus, the party, to keep it up. So they campaigned like crazy, Hitler himself touring much of the country and presenting himself as a man of the people, angry in true Hitler fashion with the corruption that he claimed had seized the government and culture, the corruption that was destroying the German ideals of life and art, the subversion that was most often, for Hitler, embodied in the Jews.”
Mara shook her head in disgust. “Easiest way to unify a people: give them a common enemy. And Lord knows the Jews have had their share of it.”
“Of course, the Nazis weren’t the only ones villainizing the Jews then: they were just the best at it. And then they get their biggest boon: Black Thursday. The country was plunged into economic chaos again, and, just like in 1923, the extremists, like the Nazis and the Communists, seized the opportunity to stir the populace into even more of a frenzy. Only this time, the American cavalry lost their horses on the stock exchange, and their rifles had been confiscated by public isolationist sentiment. Germany was left to deal with the chaos on its own, and radical groups, left- and right-wing alike, skyrocketed in popularity.
“The radicals promised drastic changes, and it was obvious to the German people, witnessing economic, political, and social chaos, that major change was needed. Given, much of the political and social chaos was abetted, if not orchestrated, by some of these radical groups, but that was beside the point. The people wanted major change, and the far-left and the far-right were there to deliver.”
Jon took a drink of water from one of the glass tumblers on the coffee table before continuing. “The Nazis saw a huge jump in governmental representation after the elections of 1930, both at the local level and the national. In one fell swoop, they had virtual control over many regions of the country, especially in places like Bavaria, where the movement had gotten its start. Even more importantly, they were the second largest party in the Reichstag, having won over a hundred seats. Thanks to the stock market crash and its ramifications for Germany, the Nazis had gone from footnote to force-to-be-reckoned-with in less than two years. But they weren’t done yet. Hitler had his eye on total Nazi domination, and he would stop at nothing less than the ultimate power to assert his vision upon Germany and indeed the whole of Europe.
“A massive campaign was launched in the build-up to the 1932 elections. Between Hitler’s passionate orations and Joseph Goebbels’s masterful use of propaganda, the Nazis’ popularity continued to soar. The fact that the Chancellorship was a virtual revolving door as the faces inhabiting the top tiers of the halls of power kept changing, another sign that the Republic was in serious trouble, didn’t hurt either.
“The Nazis received substantial funding from industrial magnates like Fritz Thyssen and Alfred Krupp, who had a lot to lose if the country should fall to the other radical camp, i.e. the Communists, and the seizure of their vast assets in the government-controlled system they would instate should they come to power. There were rumors that the Soviets were sending money to the Communist Party of Germany, the KPD, but the Nazis? Until Hitler came to power in ’33, the Nazis really didn’t have many supporters internationally. Certainly none who would give them significant campaign funding. Nobody took them seriously as a political body. As a group not to be crossed, sure, but capable of efficiently running a country? Hardly. That’s really weird…”
“Maybe it was propaganda by the newspaper?” Mara offered. “Trying to show that the Nazis have the support of the international community, established allies if they come into power?”
“Or maybe the other way around, maybe trying to say that they’re not as purely German as they claim to be, taking funding from outsiders and thus being beholden to some foreign beneficiary?” Jon shook his head. “But Michael didn’t seem to think so. It looks like he took the international funding seriously, like it was real, like it was important.”
One of the most important types of research, and indeed the most fun and engrossing type for me, is site research. Over the course of several trips to New York City, I visited key sites that I wanted to be in From the Ashes, interviewing staff at the locations, and exploring nooks and crannies to find overlooked details where secrets could be hidden and discovered. I walked along the Brooklyn Bridge to find where a character could hang himself. I explored churches, cathedrals, museums, monuments, and parks, climbing statues and ducking under barriers to see what travel guides and online photo albums wouldn’t show. I took copious photos and videos, walking the paths that I wanted my characters to walk so that when I got back to my computer I could accurately depict what my characters would see, hear, and experience in those places. One reviewer praised the setting’s attention to detail as likely to make “displaced New Yorkers” homesick. When you’ve actually been to the places in your book, you can really make them come alive for your readers, transporting them to a living, breathing world. Writing with authority isn’t just about getting the details right; it’s about knowing that they’re right, infusing your writing with a palpable confidence that can make all the difference for your readers’ investment.
Even in its unfinished state, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, Episcopal Seat of the New York Diocese, was enormous. Composed of stones hewn by hand and built with largely medieval methods of construction, the edifice evoked images of the great churches of Europe. Despite the fact that the towers and transepts had yet to be built, a process that would take yet another 50 years, the 119-year-old building presented an imposing sight. And that was just from the outside.
Inside the nave, the ceiling rose to a height in excess of one-hundred feet, and the distant altar seemed to be leagues away from the western entrance through which Jon and Mara had just passed. Although the slightest sound could undoubtedly echo loud enough for all to hear – one of the reasons behind the use of Gothic architecture in ecclesiastical buildings during the pre-electronic-amplification days of the Middle Ages – the room was quiet, a reverence that worshippers and visitors alike seemed to hold, if not for the God worshipped within these halls then at least for the awe-inspiring artistry and dimensions of the church itself. Even to the unbeliever, the church, like most so-called “great churches,” held an aura to it, a spiritual significance that seemed to resonate from the very stone and glass that had been fashioned and forged into a place of reflection and soul-searching.
The pair of young visitors were not in search of answers for their souls, but for other answers, answers to questions that couldn’t be found in a Bible or book of liturgy, questions that Jon and Mara themselves didn’t even know how to phrase. Jon had to take a moment, a few steps inside the nave, to stop and breathe, letting the ambiance of the church, of the architectural, historical, and spiritual significance that pulsed from the buttresses to the basement, sink in to his being. He’d been to New York plenty of times, but for whatever reason, he had never made it to this grand cathedral before. Eyes closed, mouth shut, he tilted his head back and breathed the charged air into his lungs. He loved churches. Thrived on them. Especially the older, more historic ones. And although this one was relatively young, especially considering how much of the construction was almost brand new, the soaring heights and classically decorated ornamentation would normally have given off an atmosphere that Jon lived for. But today, in this cavernous, largely empty hall, he felt not peace but trepidation. The greatest and most fearful mystery this church currently held was neither ecclesiastical nor carved in stone. And thus far, it had proven lethal for all who had sought to discover its truths.
The pair started walking down the length of the nave, taking time to gaze at the ornate sculptures and brilliantly colored stained glass that graced the walls. Some sections of the walls still bore the black of smoke and ash from the terrible fire that had ravaged the church in December 2001. It was a miracle that the fire hadn’t been worse, that the church was even still standing. Like the miracle that Jon was still standing after all that had happened. And the worst, Jon feared, was yet to come.
When they reached the front of the church – the bishop’s pulpit, the altars, and the empty choir loft all in attendance – Jon checked his watch: 3:57. They needed to hurry. Although the chapel they sought lay only a few dozen yards away on the other side of the choir loft, he was well aware that, if he allowed himself to, he could take an hour walking that short distance, entranced as he was wont to be by the artistry and mystery that surrounded him, and nervous as he felt about what they might find in the chapel. Worried about what fresh terrors the truth might bring.
They walked to the right of the altar, and began to traverse the south side of the ambulatory, slowly making their way eastward. On their left, the choir rose above them with fifty-foot granite columns stretching upward behind an ornate lattice of wrought-iron fencing. On their right, a series of chapels passed by in a heart-wrenching flurry, each likely to hold historical and cultural particularities that Jon was dying to explore. But they had a job to do first. There would be other times to explore, to indulge, to immerse. The church, having been around for nearly twelve decades, probably wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And, if nothing went awry in the easternmost chapel today, Jon and Mara would hopefully be around for a while longer as well.
An intricately sculpted bronze gate was set inside the stone entrance to the Chapel of Saint Saviour, the site of their date with destiny. Angels paid homage to a golden cross set against a green and red wreath, and a stylized Alpha and Omega provided a backdrop to the beautiful metalwork. Alpha and Omega. Beginning and end.
Or the beginning of the end. Whatever end that might be.
They walked into the empty chapel. Empty save for the haunting stone stares of angels and saints above, of bishops interred, of Christ and the apostles looking holy in a giant stained-glass window as the bright of day lit them from outside. None of whom, presumably, could have sent the text message summoning them here. Jon poked his head into an alcove on the left of the chapel. Nothing but a locked door, leading to some other place in the church, inaccessible to all but clergy and lay staff. He glanced at his watch. 4:01. Their mysterious summoner was mysteriously absent.
Back in 2008, one of my readers for an early draft of From the Ashes lauded my historical research and my sense of place in the New York locations – with one exception. She noted that my description of the main branch of the New York Public Library (which she had visited) was off. This was apt, since, at the time, it was the only location I hadn’t visited to research. Since I knew far less about this site than the others I wrote about, my writing was more timid, lacking in details that I was afraid to get wrong. So, on my next trip to New York, I visited the library, and the next draft had the credible sense of place – and the confident writing – that had been missing from that scene.
What if you can’t afford to travel to all of your sites? There are many options there as well. Though I’ve visited Washington D.C. several times, I’ve never been to George Washington University, where I set an early scene in From the Ashes. For that, I used the Internet to do some research, but that scene was more focused on dialogue than on the details of setting, unlike later chapters, so here, the lighter research worked. Lonely Planet guides, YouTube videos, Google Maps, Flickr albums, and copious other materials freely or cheaply available online or in print can also help fill in enough gaps for your scene-setting purposes, as can descriptions or photos provided by friends, family, or other contacts who have either visited or currently live in the location.
You also want to make sure your information is up to date. For The Dubai Betrayal, my next Wayne Wilkins thriller coming this fall, much of the book is set in the booming desert metropolis of Dubai. I lived in Dubai for two years and visited most of the key sites in the novel during that time. But the city has changed in the nearly four years since I left, and since my novel is set in 2014, I had to do further research both on the Internet and with my colleagues and friends still in Dubai to ensure that my setting was current.
One of the hardest and yet most integral facets of research is going to the experts. Don’t have an established set of contacts for answering your tough questions about law enforcement techniques, political wheeling-dealing, or other subjects you want to include in your novel? Go find them! Even if you’re not naturally inclined to ask people for help, ask anyway. As my brother-in-law would say, “You’ve already got ‘no.’ What do you have to lose?” Moreover, you’d be surprised by how many experts are happy, and even honored, to help you in your research. (Just remember to give them a nod on your acknowledgements page.) Figure out what you want to know and keep your eyes open for opportunities. I’ve struck up an impromptu interview with a TSA agent while we were both waiting for our cars at a repair shop. My best friend is a former police officer who has offered insight on law enforcement procedures as well as the mannerisms and dialect of the officers. I’ve learned about White House protocol for as-yet-unprecedented crises from a former high-level staff member I met through my church. A friend’s airline pilot uncle gave me some insider insight over a family dinner. Be hungry about your subject, and recognize when and where you can increase your understanding.
Another benefit of research is the potential to discover a whole new angle for your story that you otherwise never would have discovered. I commented on one of these “aha!” moments on my Facebook page in 2012 as I was putting the finishing touches on my upcoming thriller The Danite Prophecy. The book deals with Mormon history and prophecy, including its conflicts with the United States government, an ancient weapon said to hold the power of divine kingship, and a secret plan devised by Brigham Young that could change the United States forever. Though my initial research helps steer my plotting as I discover the holes in the historical record and the mysteries left from the past, in this instance I discovered something cool while fact-checking the finished draft: a connection between a controversial Mormon prophecy, a passage in the Book of Revelation, and the aforementioned ancient weapon. I used that connection – one I had missed in my first several waves of research – to further the characterization of one of the antagonists. Always keep your eyes open for new information that could help take your story to the next level, even when you think you’re “done” with research.
A few final words of advice on research:
Don’t lose your writing momentum to check your facts. If you’re in the middle of a scene and you come across a relatively minor detail that you don’t know off the top of your head, leave yourself an in-text note to fix that detail later and keep your writing flow going. Make your note something short and searchable so you can easily find it later. I use “***”. A fellow author friend of mine uses “JTFM” (for “Just the Facts, Ma’am”). You can supplement that with a few words about exactly what you want to refine or add there, but don’t stopper your narrative juices in the middle of the flow. Research is important, but capturing as much of your narrative inspiration in the moment is more important.
Watch your info dumps. Some genres are more prone to this than others, but there can be a temptation to share all the cool stuff you learned with your readers at the expense of pacing. Moving your story along and keeping readers engaged is always your number one priority. Cut away anything that bogs down your pacing or is irrelevant to the story. Then cut it again. If it takes away from the reason your readers picked up the book, it has no place in your story.
Make sure you don’t do it halfway. For example, if you describe your character shooting a particular type of gun, make sure whatever you write about that gun being fired is accurate (e.g. if the model has a safety, magazine/clip type, how the bullets are ejected). Even though only a percentage of your readership may catch a particular mistake, it has the potential to both yank them out of the story and forever associate your brand as sloppily researched. Remember, competition is fierce. Don’t give your readers a reason to put down your book and move on to someone else’s.
Research can be addicting. Don’t lose yourself in all the fascinating information you discover and forget the reason you dove into the material in the first place: to serve your story by making it better.
Exercise 1 What are some subjects you could research that would add authority to your story and confidence to your writing? Write them down, as well as brainstorming where you would look for information on each subject (e.g. Internet, library, travel, expert).
Exercise 2 Research one of those topics, then revisit a chapter of your manuscript to see how you can add detail and depth to your writing.
About the Author…
Bestselling author Robert Liparulo calls Jeremy Burns “among the best authors of taut, historical thrillers” and Crystal Book Reviews said he was “a true espionage writer who knows when to ramp up the action and when to insert some provocative description in a well-balanced tapestry of historical, adventure-packed fiction.” Jeremy Burns writes thrillers that are at once cerebral and pulse-pounding, a combination that will leave you breathless. http://authorjeremyburns.com