Realistic Research by Debbie Bennett

The other day, I learned how to hotwire a car. So it was a video on Youtube – and not a hands-on practical – but it took me through the basics and made me realise that actually you can’t just leap into a stolen vehicle, fumble around under the steering wheel and then drive off. If the steering lock is on, you risk damaging the entire steering column if you stick screwdrivers in holes, and in any case some modern vehicles don’t even have ignition keys.

A few weeks before that, I spent some time researching tattoos. Do they really hurt, or does it depend on your pain threshold and the complexity and/or location of your chosen design? How long do they take to heal? This wasn’t just internet-based research; I canvassed opinions of people who actually have tattoos and got a general overview of the process. There was even something on television a few days ago about the danger of DIY tattooing with kits you can buy online.

On to aeroplanes. I did actually have a flying lesson many years ago. I saved up points from a credit card reward scheme, and a flying lesson seemed far more fun than a new toaster. But I wanted to know how you filed flight plans for a private plane and what happened if somebody rejected those plans. Facebook and google time again – and then I discovered a neighbour used to have a private pilot’s licence and worked in air traffic control …

I’ve researched RPGs and AK-47s, cocaine and heroin (I have some first-hand experience here too which helps – I could tell you more, but then I’d have to kill you …). A nurse friend gave me lots of useful literature on medical procedures. I once spent a day researching the best way to blow up a prominent public building – while semtex works quite well, you need something to make it go bang, and a timing device unless you want to go bang with it. And you have to get it into position before you make it go bang. Whereas you can fire a rocket-propelled grenade from a distance, although you’re going to look a bit conspicuous walking around with it beforehand. Oh, and I’ve looked into the feasibility of human micro-chipping, although I decided that really was a step too far in the current novel, and veering towards science fiction. Sometimes I feel for my poor characters, the amount of torment I put them through!

The internet is a marvellous thing, isn’t it? Many years ago, I’d have spent days in the library looking stuff up. I might have had to order books and cross-check data to see if it was still valid. Today it’s all there at the touch of a mouse, and while you can’t believe everything you read, it gives you enough of a taste to know where and whether to dig any deeper. Much of any knowledge gained never even gets used, but I like to think that a scene I’m writing might seem a little more genuine if I can add a few bits of authenticity: like the smell in the air after you fire a rifle (which won’t be cordite unless it’s historical), or how you can paste little squares of black and white tissue paper over all the bullet holes in a target. I used to shoot guns way back; I was a member of a rifle club and shot at competition level in County Hall in London in the late 1980s. I also did a basic archery course a few years ago and discovered that firing arrows is harder than it looks and Robin Hood has a lot to answer for.

But I do wonder what would happen if anybody monitored my browsing history. Would I look like a wannabe terrorist? Is my internet service provider secretly creating a dossier on me to forward to the authorities? Will the fact that I’m a writer be enough of a defence?

You can find out more about Debbie Bennett and her books at her website. Her latest book, Hamelin’s Child is out now on Kindle and the sequal, Paying the Piper is coming soon!

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