Writing

Why the Key to Researching Political Thrillers is Beer and Cigars

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Editor's Note:

Peter Kirsanow practices and teaches law and is an official of a federal agency. He contributes regularly to National Review, and his op-eds have appeared in newspapers ranging from The Wall Street Journal to The Washington Times. He joins Signature to discuss why in-person conversations, over beer and cigars, were the best form of research for his latest book, Target Omega.

The key to researching political thrillers is beer and cigars.

Vodka occasionally can be substituted for beer, but only certain brands will do. That’s because authenticity is often more important than technical accuracy. Misstate the muzzle velocity of a McMillan Tac-50 or the location of the nuclear fabrication facility at Yongbyon, and the story might lose some credibility among the few who have specific knowledge of such things. But fail to capture how members of a special operations unit interact, and the story not only sounds artificial to a wide swath of readers, but is certain to be the object of scorn and derision.

Both governmental policy wonks and badass operators have their own ways of thinking, talking, and doing. You can research all the technical aspects of their worlds, nail the terms and jargon, but unless you spend time observing and listening to the people who actually do the things described in the story, the narrative and dialogue will sound counterfeit.

And that’s why you need beer and cigars. A healthy capacity for enduring ridicule and insults doesn’t hurt either.

In researching Target Omega, I spent lots of time examining military and foreign affairs journals, transcripts of congressional hearings, and maps. Real Clear Politics Defense provides a wealth of information on emerging strategic threats and military capabilities of potential adversaries, as does Jane’s Defence Weekly.

Indeed, the story was conceived after I read statements from congressional hearings on critical vulnerabilities in the country’s defense and civilian infrastructures. A world of material can be gleaned from such statements, with links and footnotes to valuable source materials. Astonishing amounts of open-source material is available on the Internet that provides the type of detail that, with a bit of embellishment, suggests access to classified material.

As helpful as these resources are, my most productive research time was spent over beers with people who’ve seen and done the kinds of things described in the novel. The most useful insights came by osmosis: listening to countless stories told by my father, a freedom-lover and prodigious cigar smoker, who had escaped from the Soviet NKVD at the end of World War II.  His observations (and warnings) about Russia are strewn throughout the book (and play an even larger role in the sequel).

The actions and statements of the book’s principal characters, especially those of Omega operator Mike Garin, former Delta operator Congo Knox, and military contractor Dan Dwyer, are based on my discussions with and observations of individuals who occupied similar roles in real life.  It’s my belief that the nature of clandestine operations is such that even the most talented writers cannot adequately convey the dialogue, attitudes, and behavior of the actors, unless, of course, the writer is himself a former clandestine warrior.

Another observation: Google Maps is a wonderful tool for novelists. An author needn’t spend days or weeks traveling to and scouting various locations to ensure accuracy. Nonetheless, nothing beats being physically present at the scene to faithfully capture its appearance and ambiance.  After a brief meeting at the White House, for example, I altered a passage describing the Oval Office and the areas adjacent thereto. The novel’s original description was based on photos and material found online. Those descriptions were not merely superficial, but sometimes flat out wrong.

A final note: The vodka had better be Smirnoff. The alleged premium brands are for poseurs, and poseurs rarely provide useful research material.