Consider The Source: Living Research
By Scott Nicholson

If you want to catch a fish, you have to think like a fish.

If you are writer, thinking like a fish is not good enough. You have to be a fish. Since it’s impractical to suddenly sprout gills, and quite difficult to type with fins, the next best thing is to swim with the fish.

I met Alan Brantley in 2004 when I did a newspaper story on him. A retired FBI behavioral scientist, he had moved to the area and now operates a consulting business. Like any self-respecting author who had a fondness for Hannibal Lector and the dark psychoses of serial killers, I managed to combine business with personal interest, probing him on cases such as The Railroad Killer and the D.C. snipers.

Brantley worked under John Douglas, the noted agent who served as the model for Thomas Harris’s fictional FBI profilers. Primarily a researcher, he interviewed a number of captured killers and endured personal threats and manipulative taunts. He also had field experience and underwent the typical tough training required at Quantico.

At the time I met Brantley, the novel that became “They Hunger” was not even a grain of sand in the folds of my frontal lobe. A year later, I was casting about for the next novel and wanted to do something in the remote Southern Appalachians where I live and play. Fortunately, my initial idea of a bluegrass band composed of banshees fell by the wayside, since it could only have worked as a comedic story—yokels with fangs.

I then came up with a rafting expedition, but I also decided to draw on the FBI manhunt for Eric Rudolph, the Olympic bomber who hid away in the mountain wilderness and eluded capture for nearly three years. Oh, yeah, and my editor was also salivating for a vampire book. Since I believe vampires have been done to undeath and back again, I wanted to prop my story on other things and let the supernatural creatures serve as little more than spice.

A key character in the story is Ace Goodall, undereducated religious militant and abortion clinic bomber. Because of a copycat bombing across the country, my FBI shifts resources, sending a pair of undervalued agents to the wilderness to follow up on a long-shot tip. That’s where I brought in Brantley, first telling him the rough idea and asking his thoughts. He drafted a typical partnership for such a mission: a piss-and-vinegar “Super SWAT” guy paired with a more bookish but still well-trained new recruit, as well as the type of process they’d go through to predict Goodall’s behavior. He also gave me a run-down of the equipment they’d likely carry, including firearms and communications gear. Though I was hesitant to take up more of his time, he volunteered to read the parts of the book where the agents appeared.

I expected him to notice that I’d modeled the bookish agent on his own background, including the education level and the fact that he’d began his career as a prison psychologist. Nope. An author of a number of research articles, he had good insight into grammar usage, though his most helpful hints focused on technical accuracy. We met at a coffee shop to go over his notes, and I quickly realized he preferred the agents to look polished, heroic, and pretty much dignified, which was definitely not my interest. In fact, one of the richer elements of the story is the crack-up of the veteran agent, who becomes as delusional as the killer he is chasing.

Most fascinating was when Brantley upbraided me for certain phrases. “Your agent cusses too much,” he said, though I noticed he worked a few expletives into our conversation. He edited my cop-out “clusterfuck” to the preferred nomenclature of “boondoggle.” He also said, “Agents referred to headquarters as ‘HQ’ or simply ‘headquarters,’” though later on, as he relaxed, he called it “the Puzzle Palace in D.C.” Of course, I put that phrase in the book before the coffee was cold!

I needed my characters isolated, unable to punch a radio and call in the cavalry. The FBI has some of the finest equipment in the world, so it took a little creativity and a clear portrayal of the agents’ situation. Again, Brantley’s advice not only brought realism to the work, it added an extra plot twist that helps build to the payoff.

In retrospect, he may even have served up the original slumbering seed of the story.

Brantley said in our original newspaper interview that myths of vampires, demons, and werewolves grew from gruesome murders, with people ascribing the deaths to supernatural forces because that was easier to understand. “They couldn’t accept that another human being could do that,” he said.

I’m fortunate as a journalist to meet a wide array of people, and I’ve found they love to talk about their professions. Most are willing to help when they hear I am a writer, though I usually get a fairly sanitized version and still must rely heavily on my imagination. But those people provide details, language, and philosophy that you’d never find in a textbook.

I’ve never wanted to be an FBI agent, as admirable as those agents are. Thanks to Alan Brantley, I got the benefit of 30 years’ experience for the price of a few phone calls instead of relying on the agents I’d encountered in books and movies. He’s the first person listed on the acknowledgements page of “They Hunger,” and while it’s my name on the cover in big letters, Brantley and hundreds of other people have shaped and informed my worldview. They play no small part in bringing my stories to life.

And I don’t have to get my tailfins wet. Except now I have this idea about a fisherman who wanders into the remote Southern Appalachians…

(Copyright 2007. Contact Scott for reprint permission)


Scott Nicholson is the author of THEY HUNGER, THE FARM,THANK YOU FOR THE FLOWERS, and four other novels. He’s a professional freelance editor, an organic gardener, a semi-professional liar, and a goat breeder. His website serves up a blog and more writing advice.

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