Saturday, January 16, 2010
Life vs. Reality
by Michelle Gagnon
Michelle, you describe yourself as a former modern dancer, dog walker, bartender, freelance journalist, personal trainer, model, and Russian supper club performer. In THE TUNNELS, THE BONEYARD, and THE GATEKEEPER you write wonderfully suspenseful stories about serial killers and worse. I’m curious: in what senses do you or don’t you “write what you know”?
I usually keep my hidden past as a serial killer out of the bio since it tends to make people uncomfortable.
The truth is, as my bio indicates, I'm completely unqualified to write the books I write. I've never worked in law enforcement (although I dream of one day making a citizen's arrest), I was never a doctor, lawyer, PI, or anything else that would provide a solid knowledge base (all of this will seem even funnier when you read my amateur sleuth post tomorrow- because ironically as it turns out, those are the only books I am actually qualified to write.)
But I really did want to feature an FBI agent as my protagonist (more on that tomorrow).
So to compensate for my ignorance, I always do as much research as possible. Then I hand entire sections of my WIP off to experts for vetting during the editing process. (In spite of that, as one FBI agent told me at a conference, there are oversights, especially in THE TUNNELS. But she claimed to have enjoyed it anyway as a work of fantasy :). )
I firmly believe that as fiction writers, very few of us write what we know- if we did, it would probably be marketed as non-fiction. Few of us (hopefully) have stumbled across a murder victim. And fewer still have been assigned the task of tracking down the perpetrator.
People like Doug Lyle MD, FBI agent George Fong, and others have been tremendously helpful in helping me close that information gap. For THE GATEKEEPER I had a nuclear physicist, bomb expert with the ATF, CIA operative, and K&R negotiator on speed dial (note: most of them do not enjoy being called at 3AM to answer specific questions. They are surprisingly unsympathetic about impending deadlines. Apparently their sleep is more important--go figure).
However, what I do possess is a good grasp of is basic human nature. If you go back over my bio, notice the "bartender" bit. Slinging drinks provided a license to observe people, sometimes when they were behaving terribly. I got to be very good at guessing what different conversations revolved around: which couple was on their first date, which was breaking up, which guy was ready to strangle his buddy over something. In crime fiction, take a minor conflict you've observed (say, a guy going into a rage over a parking ticket) and imagine how exponentially greater it would be if he just found out his wife was cheating on him. Or that he's about to be fired. Amplify the reaction. Because when it comes down to it, we're pretty simple beasts. We just have a knack for complicating things.