Behind the “scenes”: reading for research

I’m not a serial killer (good to know, right?), special ops warrior, veteran suffering from PTSD, DEA agent, drug lord, or hacker, and I don’t have a service dog. (Just a lazy one.)

If I only wrote what I know, my books wouldn’t be romantic suspense, they’d be a cure for insomnia.

So, often a little research is in order. Magazine articles, blogs, and are great, but sometimes I need to go deeper. That’s where books come in.

Even if you don’t need to do research, you might enjoy some of the books that I’ve read over the last few years. Here’s a selection of my favorites.

The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker

I think every woman (and man) should read this book. The author is a security specialist who not only makes excellent points about trusting your instincts, but talks about common strategies people use to get us to let down our guard. If you’re into psychology, you’ll also enjoy his section on stalkers and killers, and how to fire someone to avoid workplace violence.

Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq by Steve Fainaru

I’ve read several books about private security contractors in the Middle East, including Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater, but this was my favorite. Not only was it an incredibly compelling read, but the author brings you into the minds and hearts of the men he’s embedded with.

His agenda is to understand them, not to demonize them. I have several heroes who are or were mercenaries, and this book really helped me bring them to life.

Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him by Luis Carlos Montalvan

This memoir about a wounded soldier with PTSD and the service dog who turned his life around is a great read. While there are some who dispute the author’s version of events in the Middle East, there’s no disputing the change Tuesday made in his life.

Hot Shots and Heavy Hits: Tales of an Undercover Drug Agent by Paul E. Doyle

I love the TV show DEA for insight on strategies and techniques for drug busts, but for a more personal inside look, check out this book. The author shares stories from his long career as an undercover agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency and its predecessor, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security by Kevin Mitnick

Kevin Mitnick is a famous hacker turned consultant. This book details how hackers use social engineering to bypass traditional network security measures. Often they don’t need to spend days trying to break into a computer system. They take shortcuts by convincing people to hand them the keys to the network. Often people just give them the information they’re looking for. Another fascinating read that I found both interesting and scary.

The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel by Robert Mazur

Robert Mazur spent five years undercover as a wealthy mover and shaker with mob connections to bring down the bankers that laundered money for drug lords like Pablo Escobar of the Medellin Cartel, and General Manuel Noriega. This fast-paced book reads like fiction. Hard to put down.

None Braver: U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen in the Afghanistan War by Michael Hirsh

A look inside the lives of USAF Pararescuemen, some of the most elite special operators in the military. The author is a reporter who spent five weeks living among the PJs in Afghanistan. The book contains amazing stories, details that bring these guys to life, and a bit of historical perspective on these men whose motto is “These things we do that others may live.” I went through a whole stack of sticky flags with this one.

Those are a few of my favorites. Got any recommendations to share?

About Gwen Hernandez

Author of SCRIVENER FOR DUMMIES & the Men of Steele romantic suspense series. Manufacturing engineer turned writer. Scrivener instructor, runner, reader, explorer, Kung Fu sifu, AF spouse, mom, vegan.

Posted on October 16, 2012, in book recommendations, Gwen Hernandez and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. What a fabulous list of resources, Gwen! I love this post and am heading over to amazon to order some books. I still love Deb Dixon’s “When You’re the Only Cop in Town” : A Writer’s Guide to Small Town Law Enforcement. And also “Commandos: The Inside Story of America’s Secret Soldiers” by Douglas C. Waller.

  2. THANKS, Gwen! This is a wonderful list!! Really appreciate the reviews/info all in one place. And thanks, Sharon–I had FORGOTTEN I own that Deb Dixon book, and am now on my small-town cop story! I need to go dig that up!!!

  3. Great recs! Like you, I write about serial killers and dark things, so I’m constantly doing research. I love all of John Douglas’s books, as well as Katherine Ramsland. I’m also researching new identities for an upcoming book, and How To Disappear by Frank Ahearn is really interesting, albeit a bit terrifying, lol.

  4. Great list, Gwen! Thanks for posting. I’ve read Scahill’s book, but not Big Boy Rules – I think I’ll pick that one up today.

  5. Wow, Gwen. What a great list. I’m espcially drawn to de Becker’s book. I’m unfortunately, known for my gullability. Because I tell the truth, I assume others are. So not right. On a personal level I could use that book. As a good Southern woman, I don’t ever want to make a scene. 🙂
    Book I’m reading is The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout. Really scary. As a writer with an over-developed sense of right and wrong, it’s hard to get into the head of someone with no conscience. Thanks for sharing such good sources.

    • Marsha: I can’t recommend THE GIFT OF FEAR enough. It was a real eye opener. It’s amazing how we think we’re being rude if we turn down someone who is pushy about “helping” us, for example.

      I was glad to see the book recommended in a recent self defense class I took. I’d give at least the first half of the book to all kids graduating from high school if I could.

  6. oh Gwen thank you for this list. Just what I needed.My small town murder is in a coma! But, I am flying through my new WIP, thanks to Scrivener, and am eager to resuscitate it next year. I just ordered the Deb Dixon book, it’s just what I need! Your list is now tacked onto my list!

  7. Gwen, these are some great resources. I tend to buy at least one research book per book that I write, depending on who the hero is. For example, my February 2013 release, THE MARSHAL’S WITNESS, has a U.S. Marshal hero protecting a woman in the Witness Security Program (aka Witness Protection – aka WitSec). The book I bought for my research is WITSEC: INSIDE THE FEDERAL WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM, by Pete Earley. It gave me the basic facts about WitSec that I needed in order to give my story an authentic feel, but even better than that, it had first-hand accounts from people inside WitSec. This gave me the emotional impact that giving up your old life entails, including the anger, fear, despair. Awesome resource if anyone wants to write about Witness Protection. Thanks for sharing your research book list. I might have to get a few of those myself!

    • Lena: That one sounds fascinating! And the Lee Lofland book that you mentioned below. I wanted to take his WPA, but it wasn’t in my budget. Then I ended up attending my county’s citizens academy instead. Still, the WPA is nice because it fits into a weekend. 😉 Thanks!

  8. I totally forgot to mention one of my all-time favorite resources, POLICE PROCEDURE & INVESTIGATION, by Lee Lofland. He’s a former police officer and wrote this guide specifically for writers. He also holds an annual Police Academy for Writers that I’ve heard is amazing. I’m definitely going to it next year.

  9. The Mitnik hacker book sounds intriguing and I have a WIP about a PI-who-hacks (that I set aside 2 years ago…yikes!) My recommendations are:

    Lee Lofland- Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers (he also hosts the Writer’s Police Academy- fabulous hands-on weekend!)

    And my present WIP is on art theft/art forgery so these have been extremely helpful:
    Thomas Hoving- False Impressions (The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes.)
    Eric Heborn- The Art Forger’s Handbook.

    Heborn (deceased) was a famous forger, finally caught and jailed (and died under mysterious circumstances in jail…) literally hand-holds you, step by step, how to forge paintings! Ex., Splice the back of a heavy 1600 canvas, thereby having authentic paper for testing. Listing out the ingredients and amounts used to make paint back then, the subtleties of famous painters’ styles/signatures…absolutely the most absorbing ‘How To’ I’ve ever picked up.

    Not that i plan to forge art or anything…

  10. Great post Gwen! Thank you, I haven’t read any of those books despite having shelves of research books. The best I have is Practical Homicide Investigation by Vernon Geberth but be prepared for GRISLY true photos from crime scenes and heart breaking reports.

    I like DP Lyle’s book on forensics, and I have real life police training manuals that were incredibly helpful.

    I REALLY want to attend Lee Lofland’s police academy for writers. If any of you hear of a date, please let me know!

    • I’m imagining a Kiss & Thrill reunion at the police academy for writers – wouldn’t that be a blast?!

      Just yesterday I was chatting with Joan Swan and we agreed we would both like to attend a week-long “law school for writers” program. Anyone know of a program like that? Jury duty was fantastic for research – but all I had was a juror’s perspective, not an attorney’s.

    • Carey: Not sure I’d have the stomach for that one, but I’ve heard great things about DP Lyle’s book. 🙂

    • It was in September, Carey.
      I’ll get you the info for next year. I went in fall of 2010 and am on his yahoo-loop now. Any questions we have for any of the departments who participated are answered promptly, in depth and with enthusiasm. These professionals really want us to get it right.

      He had SWAT, police, sheriff, fire fighters, arson investigators, FBI, ATF, etc. there. We also went thru a fire arms training course: we were put in a simulated situation- meaning a video on a screen. We were the cops and had to decide whether we could talk a gun-holding rager into putting the weapon down or shooting ours (toy with laser attached.)

      It’s amazing how few seconds you have to decide to shoot a man dead and whether it was the right decision or not. (They play it back for you with the ending this time, so you know if the guy would have dropped the weapon.)

      And if you ‘shoot’ (like I did) you really see the guy’s head explode and the blood spatter on the walls behind! I mean it was REAL. Took hours for my adrenalin to defuse.

  11. Some great books there, Gwen. With the way your recommendations are going, I can’t wait to read your next book — fiction this time, I hope!

  12. Sarah, thank you for the heads-up about Thomas Hoving’s book! You might want to track down PRICELESS by Robert Whitman (who formed the FBI’s Art Crime Team), and THE GARDINER HEIST by Ulrich Bosner (theft at the Gardiner Museum), and STEALING REMBRANDTS by Anthony Amore. (New book is about a professional art thief…. or is he? )

    That’s the best thing about books: no matter WHAT you are researching, somewhere, there IS a book about it…:)

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