ADVENTURES IN RESEARCH

Susan Vaughan here. I’ve written about this adventure—more correctly, misadventure—before, but readers and other writers have encouraged me to share it again. I think they need a chuckle or two.

A few years ago the Romance Writers of America conference was in Washington, D.C., so I arranged to do a little book research while there. In a book I’m currently revising, the backstory involves a theft of crown jewels at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. No, not the one in the film Night at the Museum; that one’s in New York City. I needed to see the layout of the area where the theft would take place and to decide if my fictional burglary was realistic given the security at the museum.

NH MuseumA couple of weeks before, I phoned the museum and reached the Museum of Natural History’s manager of security. I’ll call him Smith here. You’ll see why. I explained about being a novelist doing book research and asked for an appointment to discuss security background for my novel. I stressed I didn’t expect him to reveal security measures. He quickly said I needed no appointment but to come to the security office and they’d find him.

On my free afternoon, I took the Metro to the Smithsonian stop and walked to the museum. A guard directed me to the security office, deep in the bowels of the building, where a helpful uniformed guard phoned Smith, but he couldn’t meet with me for an hour.

It was time well spent seeing the exhibits I needed for my book. Various gems and crown jewels are exhibited in the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals on the second floor. cameraSecurity was visible all around—guards standing at alert, cameras on the ceiling—and invisible sensors as well, I assumed. No one seemed to care that I took loads of pictures.

In fact, I had to elbow tourists with bigger cameras out of the way to get a good shot of the Hope Diamond, which had just been reset and only recently returned to the exhibit.Hope

Finally, Smith met with me in an outer office, me beside the secretary’s desk, him leaning against a table. A burly guard stood by. I think he’d been flirting with the pretty secretary. I again explained to Smith my purpose, first asking about how Smithsonian Special Police were hired and trained. He gladly discussed that, stating proudly that many were veterans.

Then I launched into the meat of my questions, saying the burglary in my story took place years previously and stressing I didn’t need to know the exact security measures, only if my burglary was at all possible. As I ran through my scenario, his blank cop face got less blank and more hostile. He insisted no burglary could happen under his watch. As soon as I said in my story two guards were involved, he demanded—yes, demanded—I not write the story as an inside job. All the guards are honorable and honest. It couldn’t happen, he said.

All this time the burly guard and the secretary seemed to barely breathe, riveted on our conversation. Smith leaned back, arms folded, and speculated I might not be who I claimed to be. Perhaps I was using this meeting as a ruse to set up my own crime. I wanted to shout at him, “I called you two weeks ago. Why didn’t you check on my identity in the meantime?” Some security expert. But I held my tongue.

I quickly dug out my proof, such as it was. When I handed Smith my bookmarks and driver’s license, the guard and the secretary immediately asked for bookmarks. “For my wife,” said the guard. The boss ignored them—and my bookmarks. He was done.

He directed the guard to escort me out of the museum. With adrenaline roaring in my ears, I stood and shook his hand, then followed the guard down the hall, up the stairs, and all the way to the door leading to Constitution Avenue.

I may be the only author to be kicked out of the Museum of Natural History.  

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16 Responses to ADVENTURES IN RESEARCH

  1. Great post, Susan. Sounds to me like “Smith” had a guilty conscience. He’d be my pick to get bumped off in your novel.

    Kathy/Kaitlyn

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  2. Loved your adventure, Susan. You have to incorporate that into a book. I agree with Kaitlyn, either bump him off or make him part of the inside job. I’m betting ‘Smith’ was a bully in his early years. 🙂

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  3. Deeanne Gist says:

    That’s so great. Sounds like the first chapter in a novel. Fun stuff!

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  4. John Clark says:

    My first thought was to wonder how he treats his wife and kids…I’d consider adding a smart kid who ‘gets’ that his or her dad is a pompous idiot as a sub-character.

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  5. Barbara Ross says:

    What a great character that security head would be! Now your name is on a list somewhere….

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  6. Susan D says:

    I gotta think this can be a case of Writing Well is the Best Revenge. Go wild.

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  7. Great post, Susan. So fun to find this from Jerrie’s FB post!
    Yeah, I’m voting with everyone else. You gotta put this guy in a book. And I kind of think he’s part of the inside job thing. LOL Poor guy. I guess he was just doing his job, but he sure got all huffy. And you’re right. He should’ve just checked you out. Not like you snuck up on him. Made me smile!

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  8. Mario R. says:

    A fun essay, indeed, and, yes, I did laugh. Still — can anyone here truly be surprised at the outcome? Even if you did specify that the crime is set in the past, you were asking the head of security at a major museum to verify the feasibility of a burglary scenario, however fictional, in his museum. … Seriously?

    Think about it — “Smith” is ultimately responsible for everything on display, as well as for the labs and libraries, specimens and artefacts, offices and equipment, that are behind the scenes. Responsible also for the safety and well-being of all those visitors scattered throughout the public area during the day, as well as the staff scattered throughout the whole building day and night. This in an age where so much can go so wrong so quickly. It’s not an easy job.

    Meanwhile, those guards spend their days mostly on their feet, always having to be alert, watchful, and prepared, while still interacting with the public in a courteous and even friendly manner. They take pride in their work, and Smith takes pride in them. And you present him with an “inside job” scenario? You may be thinking “it’s in the past, and it’s just fiction”, but that’s not how he’s going to see it.

    And you commenters who are so quick to suggest making him a bully with a guilty conscience and offing him in the book … didn’t it occur to you that “Smith” might be a nice guy just doing his job and doing it well? Because that’s the truth.

    And it’s the truth that the secretary is pretty. Very.

    How do I know? Simple: that’s the building I work in.

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  9. Frederic Pamp says:

    Interesting. Ms. Vaughn and her supporters’ views are not unreasonable, but only Mario R sees the event from the viewpoint of the guard. That’s not surprising, since he works in the building, but his comment is a good reminder that everyone, including mystery writers who have been slightly inconvenienced, should endeavor to consider how the world looks through another person’s eyes.

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  10. Seems that even your comments are generating good stuff for your books. I love how your bookmarks were your I.D. Usually when I ask someone for research help with a book, they are thrilled to answer questions and hope to be included in the book, even if it’s to be portrayed as a vampire! But you hit on a touchy subject. Interesting points of view here. It made me think.

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  11. Mario R. says:

    Individuals might be thrilled to be included, but Smith in this situation ends up representing not just the museum for which he is responsible, but the entire Smithsonian — 19 museums and a zoo, plus research facilities. He has to think about that, too.

    Using the bookmarks was, indeed, clever — but an actual book (preferably with author photograph on the jacket or the back) establishes an author’s bona fides much more quickly and securely. Always best to come prepared.

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