Tue
Nov 8 2016 4:30pm

Re-Search & Destroy: My Time Training with the FBI

Allison Brennan, author of the Lucy Kincaid series, trained with the FBI and SWAT to make sure that her novels got all the details right. Read about her experiences and in-depth research, and then make sure to sign in and comment at the bottom for a chance to win the 11th book in the series, The Lost Girls!

I love my job.

I can work in my pajamas. I can take a break in the middle of the day to go for a walk, take the kids on a field trip, or go to a ball game. I just make up the writing time late at night.

I love writing, and my job is 90% writing. It doesn’t get much better than that. Well … sometimes it does—like the annual Regional SWAT Training put on by Sacramento FBI.

For me, research is not only important, it’s an essential part of writing. I want to get the details right. At the minimum, I need to understand what I’m writing about—not just the technical details, but the people. Every detail, personality, and backstory are part of the “big picture” story.

I didn’t do much, if any, hands-on research while writing my first six books. Most of the details came from my love affair with true crime books and television shows, my avid reading background, and talking to a few people in the know. It wasn’t until I was a New York Times bestselling author that I started taking research seriously … and I’m glad I did.

My research journey landed me in the FBI Citizens Academy in 2008, where I was lucky enough to meet a variety of law enforcement types in all areas of the business—from analysts to special agents to special agents in charge to the assistant US attorney for my region. I’m invited to quarterly briefings about contemporary topics in law enforcement, such as a presentation by the lead agent in charge of the Unabomber investigation. This case was particularly interesting because I worked in the California State Capitol at the time when Theodore Kaczynski killed a lobbyist up the street.

The Citizens Academy opened up many other doors for me, including two trips to Quantico, which were invaluable in helping me write two books set at the FBI Academy. I was able to interview a new agent in Sacramento who helped me understand what it was like being an agent-in-training now … not ten or twenty years ago.

But my favorite—FAVORITE—research trips involve role playing with SWAT.

I’m often asked what I do at these training events. Role players are either bad guys, hostages, or injured victims (during the medical drills). We are live bodies who are given a role in a variety of scenarios to help SWAT teams work together to develop the mental muscle necessary to deal with high-stress situations. The same team will go through a drill multiple times, often with slight variations so they never know exactly what they’ll encounter. Having people to play the parts makes the drills more realistic, as they have to deal with us as well as take down the bad guy.

I’ve done many of these all-day training drills—as a role player and as an observer—and they’re all a little different. They use simunition (paint bullets, essentially), which hurt but aren’t deadly. Still, they can cause serious injury to sensitive parts of the body, which is why we role players wear protective head gear.

Drills may involve hostage negotiation, serving warrants, and active shooter scenarios. These can be the most fun—and scary!—because a SWAT team will come in to deal with the wounded, secure the witnesses, and try to find and stop the bad guy. They have to quickly separate the threat, handle triage, and secure the scene. This can happen fast, and intel is the single most important factor in knowing where the bad guy(s) is hiding. I have a great respect and admiration for law enforcement who risk their lives to save others, and now I have a better understanding of how fast these situations can occur—and how fast they can escalate.

I’ve watched live ammo drills, which are as intense and suspenseful as any movie. I’ve played the part of a non-ambulatory victim, a hostage, and one of my most fun roles—the wife of a wanted fugitive.

We ran through this drill in a variety of ways to help train agents. For example, they will first drill on gaining access to the house when they didn’t have a warrant. I, the wife, was first told to make it easy—let them come in and arrest my no-good husband.

Then, I was told to make them work for it—they had to convince me to open the door. I was told to be “real”—think the COPS show—and swear at them, push all their buttons, and be belligerent.

Then, the final drill they had a warrant and had to break down the door, detain me, and search for my fugitive husband. I was told to become part of the “problem” and get in their face—but unarmed. They had to deal with me bitching and screaming at them while also knowing there could be weapons in the house and a violent felon.

I learned that handcuffs are NOT fun, Fifty Shades of Gray notwithstanding. When SWAT really gets into the drills, they will cuff, search, and secure—and make sure I’m down on my knees or prone and not moving. The training teams don’t always know what the supervisors are looking for in the drills. Once, a team was criticized for not searching one of us who had been told to hide a weapon under our shirt as part of the drill.

I have a lot of respect for law enforcement, especially the guys in the trenches. My ride-a-long with a Sacramento County Deputy Sheriff reminded me that they go into every situation not knowing what they’re going to face; few people are happy to see them—they swear at them and flip them off for no reason other than they just don’t like cops. My deputy said he once responded to a call, and a five-year-old kid answered the door, looked up at him, and said, “I hate cops.”

Well, I don’t.

The stress and pressure that they’re under while trying to protect and serve is intense, and they’re required to do more with less resources and less officers in an era where every call could end in violence—where cops are getting ambushed simply because they are wearing a uniform.

For me, as a writer, the best part of these scenarios is not the actual drill—it’s what happens after the drill when the team goes through what they did and why, step by step. I get to listen and absorb how these men (and a few women) process a scene, how they communicate and trust each other, what they’re thinking, and why they do what they do. They share experiences with all the collected teams (all over northern California) that they’ve had in real-life scenarios. They learn from their mistakes (another important part of the drills) and, because of the time they spend training, they are more effective on the street when we really need them.

One of the drills we did last time involved an officer down situation—the first officer through the door was shot and incapacitated, and the team had to handle their man down while there are also hostages and an active shooter. It was probably the most intense drill of the day, but one where I learned the most.

While these drills and research trips are fun for me on the one hand, they are also very serious for those who participate. The retired SWAT leader of Sacramento FBI (who’s a big fan of my books—just saying!) had in his signature line, “Failure to train means training to fail.” He took his role seriously, like most of these men and women do.

I take what I learn in these drills—mostly about the people I get to meet, who all have their own stories and experiences and backstories—to help create believable stories for my own fictional characters. To me, that’s the best part of research: the human factor.


If anyone has any questions about research or being a role player, I’ll pop in and out all week to answer what I can!


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Allison Brennan is the author of twenty novels, including the Lucy Kincaid series, and many short stories. A former consultant in the California State Legislature, she lives in Northern California with her husband Dan and their five children.

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50 comments
Fran Chennells
1. franbooks
I enjoyed reading about your time with the FBI and the SWAT teams and would love to read your newest book.
Fran Chennells
pearl berger
2. beach
A most interesting feature and research well spent for your wonderful books.
ellie lewis
3. italia
Thanks for this fascinating glimpse into your intense research and writing which I appreciate greatly.
4. Karen B
Absolutely fascinating! WOW! Your books are terrific and your research makes them so believable.
Susan Robinette
5. susanrob
Such intense research really informs your novels -- I am a big fan.
Karen Barnett
6. kpbarnett
Absolutely fascinating - WOW! Your books are terrific and y our research makes them so believable.
Allison Brennan
8. Allison_Brennan
LOL Anna, nope, I didn't do anything official! But I went to a terrific presentation on the Unabomber and how they tracked him down. It was fascinating.
9. Evie G Lucarelli
Thanks for your article. Very very interesting.. Look forward to reading some of your books.
Patrick Murphy
10. Ditch
Wow, that is an incredible amount of research
Jacki Robertson
11. 1228jcr
Sounds like a great way to do research and I know it has made the books better. Loved all the books in the series that I have read so far.
Esther Whatley
12. ewhatley
I've read and enjoyed many of her books. Would love to win this one.
Laurent Latulippe
13. krag48
Fascinating training experience. I look forward to reading the book.
Kandy Thome
14. Kandylee0857
I have read and loved all of your Lucy books and can't wait to get started on this one. So interesting what you get to do with your research. You do lead an interesting life, even if you do sometimes work in your pjs.
L Peters
15. leepcat
It's great to see someone getting so much into ensuring accuracy in a novel. Love the books. Thanks
Julie Gouveia
18. DisneyAngel
This is truly awesome. Not only does this sound like super fun (!!) but you also account for the danger that these men and women have to confront on a regular basis. Putting their lives on the line to help saves others is a remarkable thing. Nicely done. :)
Rex England
19. Rengland42
I love and read most of your books thru ebooks. However I would love a copy and even signed if possible. Keep up the good work.
Your Facebook friend and avid reader.
Joyce Mitchell
20. JoyceLm
Great article. Thanks for the chance to win.
Allison Brennan
21. Allison_Brennan
@Kandy -- my life is boring! Except for these fun field trips. Someday I'll talk about my trips to the morgue ... ;) I live vicariously through my characters.
22. Nancy M. Shepherd
I have read most of your books, and I cannot wait to get my hands on The Lost Girls.
Barbara Bibel
23. bbibel
The research makes your books more fascinating. I can't wait to read it.
Mary A Johnson
24. MaryA
Looking forward to listening to 'The Lost Girls', but I'm having to wait 'impatiently' for Audible to get it!
Pauline Barlow
25. Pauline
Allison, it certainly sounds like you learned a lot fromyour time with FBI and SWAT. You seemed enjoyed yourself, even with the stress and pressure.
It would be great to read "The Lost Girls".
Sherri ashburner
27. Sherriska
Go girl! Remember those bruises with pride!(and if you ever shoot shotgun with the state police, tuck a wool sock under your shooting side bra strap. you will thank me for that tip...the next day)
Wilifred Alire
29. walire
I'm unfamiliar with the author, Allison Brennan, but the book looks fascinating.
Gordon Bingham
30. gordonbingham
Having gone through many of the trainings she mentions, I agree...SWAT training can be fun...Look forward to her new title...
Joyce Redman
33. jmredman
I would love a chance to read the Lost Girls book.
Andrea Williams
34. andrea2russia
Loved reading this! Thanks for the chance to win!
35. Evanlynn
That looks like fun! We will just have to live vicariously through you and your characters because there is no way in heck I would actually go through with that training.

Thanks!
36. GrandmaHeather
I love Ms. Brennan's books...especially her Lucy Kincaid novels. It is great to know that she enjoys her research and has such respect for all those in law enforcement.
vicki wurgler
37. bison61
thanks-very interesting about your research
Rena Sollish
38. Rena
Love this author and the training sounds so interesting. Would love to win!
Deb Philippon
40. DebP
I'm always interested in the "behind the scenes". Wish me luck!
Jean Dickinson
41. justjean
Allison Brennan's behind-the-scenes account would be very interesting.
Sally Winkleblech
42. sallyw
I think it is great that you got to do the training and can use the information in your books. People need to understand the stress the officers are under on a daily basis.
Sally Winkleblech
43. sallyw
I think it is great that you got to do the training and can use the information in your books. People need to understand the stress the officers are under on a daily basis.
L
44. LStirling
I really enjoy books that have a good sense of realism. I admire (and envy) that you took part in all this training to bring realistic depictions to your books. Did your FBI training include anything on profiling and the role the FBI provides for LEOs?
JEAN MESS
46. MESS
ENJOY THIS SERIES. ALSO ENJOY THE INSIGHT INTO THE FBI TRAINING.
Susan Pertierra
47. orchidlady01
I've read other Allison Brennan books and would love to read this one. The research sounded like fun!
Karen Hester
48. rosalba
Thanks for giving us a view of FBI training
Diane Stedner
49. caseykelp
Would love toadd this one to my collection. Thank you or sharing your training experience with us.
Shannon Scott
50. shannons
I admire your courage and energy. I love research, but researching a spa is more my speed!
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