Flying High on Research

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I had an epiphany while buzzing along at 100+ mph a few dozen feet off the ground, my legs practically hanging out the door of the Vietnam-era Huey.
I love this job.
It hit me again when I had a front-row seat to a military special operations demonstration in Tampa, Fla. that involved Black Hawk and Little Bird helicopters swooping right over my head, a contingent of international special operators fast-roping into the scene, and a staged firefight a dozen feet from where I stood.
A week later, I had to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming when I chatted with the three private security contractors who fought for 13 hours to save more than 30 lives in Benghazi — as told in the book and the movie 13 Hours.
Like they say, it’s a tough job — but someone has to do it.
And let’s face it, writing for a living can be tough at times. The isolation, the deadlines, the missed word counts, the sleepless nights coming up with plots. But when you throw in the good things, like getting to create the man of your dreams every day … well, that somehow makes it all worthwhile.
All of my novels are military-themed — whether it’s during the American Civil War or the current War on Terror — so the main question I am asked is, “How do you write so vividly about war?”
It’s a good question since it’s obvious I’ve never actually experienced combat on the battlefield. But the answer is pretty simple: research.
Good research can help elevate a book to a level that makes the reader’s experience more memorable and enjoyable, because the writer can create more powerful imagery, more sensory details and more depth.
Some writers find research a daunting and laborious task — I find it fascinating and fun. 
Whether writing historical fiction or modern-day military romance, I like to dig deep and try to get as close as I can to experiencing what my characters are going to experience.
Of course, before the deep digging starts, I have to cover the basics by reading about the topic I’m writing about. Research can range from something as mundane and tedious as looking up dates and locations of particular events to interviewing people who are experts in the subject area. Pictures, movies or videos can all help provide mental images of places, scenes or actions.
After the basics are covered, the fun stuff begins. One recent research foray took me to the UDT Navy SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Fla. There, I had the opportunity to sit in a Black Hawk helicopter, dress up in combat gear and hold replicas of weapons those warriors use (invaluable for understanding size, weight and overall feel.)
The Black Hawk in the museum is the actual helicopter used in the rescue of hostage Jessica Buchanan from Somali pirates and was also flown on combat missions in Mogadishu, Somalia, scene of the book and movie Black Hawk Down. That made it even more fascinating when I sat inside.
After visiting the museum, I attended the Special Operations Forces International Conference in Tampa, Fla., where I had the opportunity to talk to vendors showcasing the latest weaponry, vehicles, listening devices, drones, camo, satellites, scopes and gear. I even got to see the newest technology being outfitted onto our war dogs — phenomenal stuff that I can use for extra detail in a book.
The best was was seeing devices that are black ops prototypes — not for public consumption — but writing about them in a novel will certainly make readers wonder: Is this fact or fiction?
The conference also featured a demonstration in which 15 countries took part in rescuing a “hostage.” (Actually, the hostage was the mayor of Tampa who looked like he was enjoying the attention way too much). From that experience I witnessed firsthand how the soldiers reacted to the intel they were given, how quickly things changed during the operation, and how important timing is for each soldier to perform his individual task. It was the most educational 30 minutes I’ve ever spent.
Truth is, I’m (probably) never going to actually experience warfare, so to write a battle scene will have to come completely from imagination. But for the rest, I want to get as close as I can to the action. I want to smell it. Hear it. Feel it — even if it places me outside my comfort zone.
And what I smelled, heard and felt on my recent expeditions were nothing close to what I’d read about on the written page or seen on the screen. It was more vivid, more intense and certainly more inspirational than what I thought it would be. And it had the added benefit of increasing my creativity. New plotlines ran through my head almost faster than I could write them 
The same thing happened when I traveled from Pennsylvania to Kentucky to attend the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot solely for the opportunity to shoot at pop-up targets on a Jungle Walk with an Oozie. (How often do you get to bang away at targets with an Oozie?) I was disappointed to discover the Jungle Walk was closed before I could get there, but that intriguing whop-whop-whop of an Army helicopter flying overhead led me to an even better experience. A group of Vietnam Dustoff (medical evacuation) pilots were giving rides in Huey “369,” a chopper that had seen actual service in Vietnam. For a donation to the American Huey Museum in Peru, Ill., I got to experience the thrill of the ride, received my own personal dog tags and have the added benefit of knowing that I helped the museum keep the spirit of this American icon alive for future generations.By the way, I would urge anyone who writes Vietnam-era fiction to take a look at the website It’s a great place to do research, find sources and make contacts. 
Finding the money in the budget to travel for research is always a struggle, but I find that immersing myself in my topic does four things for me:
Gets me outside of my comfort zone — which we all need to do now and then.
Energizes me and spurs my creativity.
Helps provide new ideas and storylines.
Is great for networking with experts in the field I’m’ writing about.
One of the dictionary definitions of research is “study,” but another is “explore.” If you set aside one day or afternoon a week to go on a field trip, you will find yourself creatively refreshed. Whether you go to a cemetery, a bookstore, a museum or an empty field where a cavalry battle took place a century ago, the time you spend will not be wasted.
So don’t feel guilty about being away from your computer. It’s research!
Jessica James is an indie author with a passion for military fiction. In her latest release from Patriot Press, Deadline, reporter Caitlin Sparks investigates deaths within the U.S. State Department. For more high-stakes action, visit Jessica at