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.