Susan Vaughan here. A recent post by Maggie Robinson about how easy it is to be sucked into detailed research for a book prompted me to consider how research by writers who create fictional murders, terrorist threats and attacks, and international spy rings might trigger attention from government agencies like the FBI or the NSA.
When I began writing, researching meant walking into a library building and sitting down with large tomes or calling on experts in person or on the phone. Sometimes fascinating but tedious and slow. For my first published book (originally titled Dangerous Attraction and now Always a Suspect), I telephoned the Drug Enforcement Agency in Boston with a list of questions. When I was finally transferred to the Public Information Officer, she required that I send in personal information including my Social Security number. I also had to ask my employer to send her a letter verifying my identity and upstanding character. A month later—yes, thirty days—I was able to ask my questions—make of pistols, make of vehicles, etc. Basic stuff. That still didn’t mean the PIO would answer. She did share the weaponry but wouldn’t reveal what vehicles they drove. Now the information I wanted back then can be found on the Internet. The standard issue pistol is a Glock 19, and the vehicles vary depending on the case, some labeled DEA, some anonymous. But hmm, does my search engine then alert NSA?
In Primal Obsession, my hero and heroine are deep in the Maine woods being stalked by a serial killer, but state detectives are working on the case. In the state of Maine, except for in the larger cities of Portland and Bangor, major crimes like murder are investigated by state police detectives. So I needed information on the Maine State Police Major Crime Unit. I went to the small State Police building in nearby Thomaston (It’s no longer there.) and started asking questions of the dispatcher. He obligingly turned off his radio (yes, really), but after hearing my questions, referred me to a better source. He gave me the phone number of the state’s public information officer in Augusta.
When I phoned, I reached Steve McCausland, the PIO, directly. No intermediary. Amazing. Those of you who live in Maine know Steve’s distinctive voice announcing homicides or abductions and progress on solving them. No extensive background check or reference letter was required, but I can picture him signaling someone to verify my identity before he listened to me further. On the phone, he was funny and charming and eager to help. He did answer my questions and even invited me to call again if I needed more, which I took him up on. But much later.
For another book written later when technology had made research a matter of clicking, I needed to know if it might be legal to carry a pistol on an airliner. And if so, what were the procedures and requirements. Easy research. I popped over to the Transportation Security Administration website and found my answer. Except for certain trained law enforcement personnel and air marshals, the answer is no weapons in carryon luggage. Weapons in checked baggage must follow certain regulations and inspection. My security specialist and guide in On Deadly Ground, had to check his weaponry and take care of all the red tape. I eventually deleted my carefully detailed scene because it didn’t seem dramatic. Nevertheless, does the TSA know I visited their site to look for that? And do they care? I’ve never been contacted, so…
For my current project, as yet untitled, I’ve been researching art forgery and authentication of art, specifically paintings. I’ve learned what provenance might be required to prove a work of art is legitimately for sale and authentic and also how to fabricate such information. I even found a website explaining how to create fake art to sell on eBay. The disclaimer said the contents were “satirical.” Right. Apparently selling fake artwork on eBay a flourishing cottage industry. A forger was recently caught after selling a fake Picasso there. I don’t plan to try my hand, but the criminals in my story are benefiting from the tips I’ve picked up. FBI Art Crime is too busy with those eBay forgers to bother with me. I hope.
I called Steve McCausland again when I was writing Hidden Obsession . I needed information on whether the medical examiner had to arrive at a murder scene to declare the victim deceased or if technicians or a medical doctor could perform that function. The short answer is, it depends. But back to the phone call. When I identified myself, to my surprise, Steve remembered me! We chatted and he again graciously answered my questions. A year or so later, he has retired, and I wish him well. The state announcements and my Maine research won’t be the same though.