Monday, April 20, 2020

Getting it Right: Guest Post by Allison Brennan


My first book was published in January of 2006 … over 14 years ago. Sometimes I feel like I’m still a new author, fumbling along, uncertain if the writing gig is going to stick. (Okay, more than sometimes!)

Recently, I wrote a blog about research — mostly the fun things, like going to the morgue and viewing an autopsy. Participating in SWAT training drills with the FBI. Going on a private tour of Quantico which was extremely helpful when writing the early Lucy Kincaid books. Going on ride-alongs. I still have more than 50 research books on forensics, law enforcement procedures, criminal psychology, and more … but now I have a huge list of professionals I can call for information to help make my stories as realistic as possible. Cops, doctors, nurses, firefighters, FBI agents, and more.

It’s amazing that I have so many resources, and these people definitely help make my stories better. I can send any public information officer an email and say, “I’m a New York Times bestselling author and I have a question for a book.”

It wasn’t always like that.

When I first started writing, I worked in the California State Legislature. I had no books published, no website to point to, and this was before Facebook. I had friends with different areas of expertise to help me, and a few friends who were cops. I had books to look up details I needed. But for the most part, I made everything up. I took my limited knowledge and used my imagination to write The Prey, which was my fifth completed manuscript. I sold it in March of 2004 and started on the second book of a three book contract called The Hunt.

I wrote the book, thinking I knew everything. (Don’t laugh!) One of the main plot points was that the killer would target college girls at gas stations — he would wait until they went into the station (to buy food, to pay, to use the facilities) then he would put “something” in their gas tank so that 3-5 miles down the road, their car would break down in a secluded area, making it easier for him to grab his victim.

I figured I would look up what to put in the gas tank later … but by the time the book was done I’d forgotten I didn’t have that detail. Now I had a deadline … I needed the answer!

I asked my husband, who’s pretty good with cars, but he wasn’t certain there was anything you could put in a full tank. He said sugar could destroy an engine (something about tanks and war, I don’t remember) but the fuel tank would have to be near empty. So I started calling mechanics listed in the yellow pages.

Imagine this. “Hi, my name is Allison Brennan. I’m a writer working on a book and my bad guy puts something in his victim’s gas tanks in order to force the car to break down a few miles after they fill up with gas. What could he use?”

The first two mechanics hung up on me. What did they think, I planned to kill my husband? One said, “I don’t know, maybe sugar.” Which my husband already explained wouldn’t work on a full tank.

I was embarrassed and desperate. The book was done — I couldn’t change this plot point because the entire story was dependent on it. My first book hadn’t even come out yet, and I didn’t want to tell my editor I needed more time … a lot more time! … to come up with a completely different premise that I would then have to thread through the entire book …

That weekend, we went to our niece’s baptism. My brother-in-law Kevin had been hugely helpful with research for The Hunt — he’s a wildlife biologist and the bad guy was a wildlife biologist. Kevin’s the one who helped me come up with a physical clue that helped the police figure out who the killer was, based on soil in specific areas of the country. (He also loves the fact that I modeled a serial killer after him … LOL.) Anyway, because Kevin already knew the story, I shared with him my frustration about the gas tanks. He said, “Oh, John over there? He’s a mechanic. I’ll introduce you.”

I explained my story to John, and my need to put something in a full tank of gas to force the car to break down a few miles later. John said, “Molasses.”

Didn’t even have to think about it.

I asked why (because my characters would have to explain this!)

He said something like this: “You really just want to clog the fuel filter, so you need something heavier than gasoline. Sugar would work because it doesn’t dissolve in gas, but only over a long period of time. But molasses is heavier and would be pulled into the fuel filter which would clog it because it’s heavier than sugar and also doesn’t dissolve in gasoline. The car would run rough, definitely make some unusual sounds. It might not break down right away, but most people would pull over because it wouldn’t drive right. And yeah, it would take a couple miles before they would notice anything.”

I wanted to kiss him. (I didn’t.)

Now that I’m a New York Times bestselling author most strangers are happy to talk to me. I can point to 38 books and a nice website to prove that I’m not trying to kill my spouse, that the reason I want to know how to disable a car is truly for fiction.

Allison Brennan believes life is too short to be bored, so she had five children and writes three books a year. A former consultant in the California State Legislature, Allison is now a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than three dozen thrillers and numerous short stories. Reviewers have called her “a master of suspense” and RT Book Reviews said her books are “mesmerizing” and “complex.” She’s been nominated for multiple awards, including the Thriller, RWA’s Best Romantic Suspense (five times), and twice won the Daphne du Maurier award. She currently writes two series—the Lucy Kincaid/Sean Rogan thrillers and the Maxine Revere cold case mysteries.


D. P. Lyle, MD said...

Excellent insights, Allison. It's amazing the things we writers must track down--it we want to get it right.

Cynthia Sample said...

Allison, you always have the best stories. As well as the best books! Great interview.

Mason Canyon said...

Enjoyed the post. I can see it would be difficult to ask strangers questions like that. Glad you were able to find an answer to your problem and didn't have to change the story.