Researching a Thriller: The Details You Keep, and the Details You Omit

Boeing 737-300 -400 -500 Manitenance Manual Alaska Airlines © flickr

Editor's Note:

A keen outdoorsman, David Ricciardi incorporated many personal experiences into Warning Light. He’s backpacked through the mountains of the western United States and Alaska, received extensive training from law-enforcement and US special operations personnel, and once woke up for a 2 AM watch aboard a sailboat only to discover that it was headed the wrong way through the Atlantic sea lanes in heavy weather, with one of the crew suffering from hypothermia. In addition to being an avid sailor, David is also a certified scuba rescue diver and a former ski instructor. Warning Light is his first novel.

At its core, Warning Light is a story of survival. The hero is Zac Miller, a young CIA analyst who volunteers for a field mission and quickly finds himself fighting for his life. Alone and in unfamiliar territory, he has to figure out his escape on the fly. Zac’s unfamiliarity with his surroundings makes the struggle exciting, but it took a tremendous amount of research to create that backdrop.

I’m a stickler for detail (editor’s note: he’s totally OCD) and I strove to keep the action and settings realistic. I wanted to transmit a full sensory package to the reader: sight, sound, smell, etc. The best way for me to do it was to immerse myself in the plot every time I sat down to write, to literally surround myself with the story. I filled my writing space with details from the book. Many items were for reference and many were for inspiration, but they made me feel like a character in the story as I wrote. Here are a few of my favorites:

Curved Dagger

They go by different names depending on which country you’re in. They’re formidable weapons but most people today wear them in their waistbands as decorations. The knives can also be status symbols, based on their materials and workmanship. Mine is Damascus steel and I acquired it while in the Middle East.

Reference Manual for a Boeing Jet

The opening scene in Warning Light features a troubled airliner. I know enough pilots to know that I needed to get those details right or I’d be hearing about it. One friend had an extra manual lying around and handed it over. As I was telling him about the scene I had planned, he looked at me and said, “I wouldn’t want to be on that plane,” and I thought, perfect…

Navigation Charts

Cutthroat office politics at CIA leave Zac without any support as he flees the people who are trying to kill him. More than once, his pursuers close in and force him to improvise an escape at sea. His desire to remain among the living quickly catapults him from weekend sailor to offshore racer and the charts tacked on my walls helped me keep the timing and locations straight.

Association Matrix

A tool for figuring out who knows who. Intelligence agencies use them to discern relationships. I used it to keep track of characters and how they interacted throughout the story.

Flight Plans

I mentioned the opening scene earlier, but there are other aviation scenes in the book and changing altitudes, speeds, and elevations all had to be accounted for to keep them realistic. But Warning Light doesn’t come across a technical manual. I cut or omit details that would slow down the pace of the story. The plane may go from A to Z, but readers don’t need to be told that it passed B, C, D, etc. on the way unless it somehow enhances the story.

Gulf War II Deck of Cards Featuring Saddam Hussein and His Henchmen

It’s a reminder of what it’s like to be pursued by trained killers whose sole mission is to hunt you down. It helped me evoke the fear and paranoia that nearly smothers Zac when he’s alone and on the run.

Organization Charts

I have several of these on the walls from various agencies and organizations. Some are factual and some are fictional, but they helped maintain consistency and accuracy.


I have a few quotations tacked on the wall. One of my favorites is from Marine GEN John Kelly: “If you think this war against our way of life is over because some of the self-appointed opinion-makers and chattering classes grow ‘war-weary,’ because they want to be out of Iraq or Afghanistan, you are mistaken. This enemy is dedicated to our destruction. He will fight us for generations, and the conflict will move through various phases as it has since 9/11.” It’s a reminder that we all need to dig in, because we’re engaged in a struggle against an adversary that doesn’t follow western logic and whose timeframe isn’t measured in terms of years or even decades, but eternity. This mindset is what kept our hero from quitting, knowing that he was a part of something larger than himself, knowing that he had vital intelligence, which he needed to deliver to keep his country safe.

I have other small remembrances on the desk or on the walls: a jade monkey, a can of Diet Coke with Arabic script on it, and a photo of my family, but none of those made it into Warning Light, although the monkey does get a cameo in the sequel…