Details, details . . .
“The devil is in the details” or so the phrase goes, and that’s something every writer should never forget. No matter where or when your story is set, the detail is what makes it feel real and authentic. As the author of contemporary modern action thrillers, I’m always striving to get that sense in every chapter I write.
But how does one infuse that granularity into their writing? By doing the homework!
I’m a great believer in “walking the territory” as a way of getting a feel for a location or a story element. If it’s possible for you to visit a place or expose yourself to an activity that your characters experience, even in a small way, do it. The first-hand understanding of something is always the most powerful, and you’ll always come away with something that will add truth to your fiction.
Writing my most recent Marc Dane thriller Shadow was a great experience, and as part of that process I did a lot of on-site research at the locations that play an important role in the book. For example, in my origin outline for the novel, I had planned for a short sequence to take place in the city of Reykjavík, but after visiting Iceland to explore and seeing the incredible vistas out there, I was compelled to make it play a much larger role as the backdrop to the middle act of the novel.
Reykjavík’s cathedral of Hallgrímskirkja and the Harpa concert hall appear at key moments in Shadow’s narrative, and both are amazing buildings that immediately struck me as cool places to set scenes. Experiencing the stark, barren beauty of the Icelandic countryside during a hike across the Sólheimajökull glacier and being swept by sub-zero winds was inspiring (not to mention freezing!), enough that it added a new level of reality to the scenes I set there.
Scouting locations always leads to the discovery of something unexpected that can be folded in to your narrative, from the simplest walk down a street to a hike up a mountain – but it’s not always possible to do it. In those cases, the next best thing is to find sources who have direct experience and learn from them.
I am very lucky in that I have a long list of people on call with plenty of esoteric knowledge – doctors, soldiers, law enforcement officers, scientists, technicians, hackers, pilots, divers, climbers and more. There’s no substitute for boots on the ground experience, but if you don’t have that yourself, find the people who do and learn from them. I’m constantly building my list of experts with everyone I meet, because you never know when you’ll have that one particular question that needs answering.
Read widely, talk to people in different disciplines and get first-hand experience of things as much as humanly possible. I read the news, look at scientific, political, tech and military-industrial blogs and websites, always searching for interesting stories and plot seeds. I could fill dozens of novels with all the stuff that I’ve uncovered during my research. That old adage about “truth being stranger than fiction” has certainly proved itself to me as I’ve taken deep dives into technology blogs, military-industrial reports, digital security and hacking groups. I read up on private military contractors, drone warfare, terrorism – anything I could get my hands on – and then I ask the “what if?” questions. If something is happening today, I try to extrapolate what would happen tomorrow. I lot of what I learned was pretty hair-raising things about modern cyber-security and the lack thereof in our wired society. One of the crazier examples I came across were a group of hackers who could actually duplicate digital passwords by sound, literally listening to the changes in ultrasonic frequency emanating from a computer’s central processing unit and decoding them into data, with no physical contact required!
But a word of caution; it’s easy to get bogged down with all the minutiae and end up info-dumping all over your readership. There’s an unconscious drive for writers to show their working – after all, if you did the leg-work researching all that information, you want to prove it! But the key to making it work best in your fiction is to find that perfect “telling detail” that sets the tone. The reader doesn’t need to know everything about a given story subject, but the writer does – and from that knowledge comes a confidence in the writing that flows from the sense that, yes, as far as you know, you’ve got your facts right!
(c) James Swallow
About Shadow by James Swallow:
For readers of The Fox by Frederick Forsyth and I Am Pilgrim comes an action-packed race against time to stop the release of a deadly bioweapon. The new thriller from the Sunday Times bestselling author or Nomad.
A ruthless far-right terrorist is broken out of captivity.
A mysterious bio-scientist with a terrible secret is abducted
A lethal contagion threatens millions of lives across Europe and the Middle East.
In a race against time that spans the globe, ex-MI6 officer Marc Dane and his partner Lucy Keyes are bound together in a desperate battle to stop the release of a deadly contagion that will kill millions. Operating outside the law and with only their survival instincts, their resolve and morals will be tested in a desperate fight against the sinister forces that lie behind this evil conspiracy.
What price would you pay to stop a global catastrophe
Order your copy online here.