Thursday, September 18, 2008

Gambling On Research

Let’s talk about research. As an engineer it’s a big part of my life. As an author of crime fiction it’s even a bigger part. For my first book, Reason For Dying, I have an immense amount of research invested in it. No, it’s not a Tom Clancy techno-thriller, but, because it deals with viral outbreaks and the potential sources of those outbreaks, I had to do a lot of homework. I had to be familiar enough with infectious disease research to bring it to life on the page and yet bring it to layman’s terms. We are taught to trust the reader's intelligence, but you need to walk that fine line of explaining too little and explaining too much. Making yourself clear without sounding condescending.

In my simplistic mind, there are three basic types of research. Internet and/or books, interviews and hands-on experience. In order to give the reader a rich experience, I believe the author needs to know and experience the places and situations in their writing. For example, I know that China has a smell to it. You walk down many streets in any city in China and there is an odor. It’s hard to pinpoint, but it follows you, tracks you down and permeates your clothing and hair. Mostly it’s a sour mix of burnt cooking oil, sewage and diesel fumes. Oftentimes it’s very subtle, but it can quickly get overwhelming. I would never know that, except for having been there. And of course, smell is most closely linked to memory.

But what I really want to talk about is that hand’s on stuff, like Annette Dashofy’s Citizen’s Police Academy and Ride Alongs. In my second novel, I start off the story with an explosion in a fictitious Atlantic City Casino. Okay, I didn’t fly out to Atlantic City, because I didn’t have to. The scene takes place IN the casino and that’s what I had to become familiar with. The noises, the atmosphere, the feel. I HAD to go to a casino for my readers. At least that’s what I told my wife. Okay, I’ve been in a casino or two or a few dozen, so I don’t think I actually had to go, but what the heck, seemed like a good excuse and my wife bought it.

So I went to Harrah’s here in St. Louis and I sat and listened to the rowdy shouts from the craps tables; the stink of the cigarette smoke and subsequent tightening of my nasal passages. I wandered through the maze of slot machines and their monotonous melodies, dodging the blue-haired ladies trying to stuff dollar bills into the machines and then slap the buttons with fervor.

I listened to the simulated sound of coins dropping in the tin pot as the machines print payoff tickets instead of dropping coins. I went to the bar and listened to the overly polite bartender work the patrons. And the husbands telling their wives that they are pretty much even for the night. I’ve used that one before. Yeah, I probably didn’t have to drop the $50 at the craps table, but it was burning a hole in my pocket.

So, I came home and put a lot of that experience on paper. (You can read a bit if you’d like by following this LINK.) Then I realized something. In my novel, when the ATF and FBI come and investigate the explosion, they will want to look at surveillance video. By the way, ATF is in charge of investigating explosions.

I could have relied on my knowledge of casino video surveillance gained through watching the TV series Las Vegas, but that would be akin to relying on watching CSI as a primer on forensics. So, I jumped on the internet and surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, there is little to no information about casino surveillance capabilities available. So, the next step, pick up the phone.

I called one of the local casinos and asked for the Surveillance and Security Department and after a short hold, a young lady picked up. When I explained I was an author and I was writing a scene in a novel and had some basic questions regarding the department’s capabilities, I was put on hold. AH, success. This was easy. A few minutes later I found myself being transferred to Public Relations and an annoying recorded message. They never returned my call. The same scenario played out for the other three casinos in the St. Louis area. Now what?

Road trip. I picked a different casino, who by mutual agreement as I’ll explain later, will remain anonymous. I walked in and started looking up at those ominous black domes on the ceiling. They were everywhere. I did a complete loop, sitting at a few slot machines, and feeding in a few dollars here and there. I lost count of the numbers. This was going nowhere. I decided to sit down in the anchor chair at a vacant (meaning no other players) blackjack table and bought in for $50. I played a few hands and struck up a conversation with the dealer. He seemed spooked when I asked about the cameras and like magic, the pit boss walked over and listened in. So, not thinking too much about it, I explained why I was there, showed him my business card (my author card, not my engineer card) and asked him if facial recognition was really used or not.

He said he didn’t know much about the systems, except they could read the serial number off a dollar bill lying on the floor. Within a few minutes, a big man in a suit, tapped me on the shoulder, asked me to collect my chips and follow him. “Uh Oh.”

I asked why, even though I knew why. He merely repeated, “Follow me.” Now my stomach was beginning to churn like when you see those flashing lights in the rear view mirror, even though I knew I didn’t do anything wrong. I was escorted through a door for “Authorized Personnel Only,” where I met another man in a nice business suit. The following conversation unfolded.

The man. “Mr. Bereswill, may I ask what you’re doing here tonight?”

Me. “How did you know my name?”

“You gave the dealer your player’s card when you bought chips.”

“Yeah, right. Well, I’m an author and I’m writing a scene about an explosion in a fictitious casino in Atlantic City. I believe in being thorough about my research and I wanted to know if facial recognition is used in casino security.”

He checked a piece of paper in his hand. “Mr. Bereswill, you arrived at 6:45 PM. Walked over to slot machine #XXX. We noticed you checking out all the cameras. You play $5 in that machine, then at 6:59 you walked to slot machine # XXX, still looking at the cameras and played another $5. At 7:18 you sat down at the blackjack table and changed $50. Now you’re here.”

“Can you tell me about the system?”“No sir, I’m not allowed to discuss it. But it’s designed to capture the facial features of EVERYBODY that enters the casino. There are no dead spots.”“Oh. Facial Recognition like on Las Vegas?”

“I don’t watch Las Vegas. But yes, and now we have a picture to go in this file.” He held up a file folder with my name printed on it. “Mr. Smith here will escort you out.”
On the way to the exit, Mr. Smith suggested I drop a book off when I’m done. He said that the Security Chief never talks about his baby to anyone.

Just a bit about facial recognition. It uses biometrics. Spacing of facial features. Obviously, it has to scour a database to come up with results and it’s only as good as the databases it’s linked to.
So, do you have any good stories about your research?


Anonymous said...

Well, one of my unsold manuscripts starts with a body floating in the Monongahela River during a flood, so I decided that I had to see the source of the Mon. I persuaded a friend to drive down to Fairmont West Virginia with me and hike through the woods to see the confluence of the East Fork and West Fork. Is that the kind of research you're talking about?

Annette said...

Of course the ride along and CPA was terrific research for my current WIP. My favorite hands-on research was for my veterinary mysteries. I spent two years as a regular on the backside (barn area) of Mountaineer Racetrack with a groom's license, totally immersed in experiencing that world. In fact, one of my biggest disappointments with the manuscripts not selling was not having an excuse to continue that line of research.

The worst part of that research was the day one of the horses in "our" stable broke down in a race and had to be euthanized. The equine ambulance AKA "the meat wagon" was one thing I'd rather have left to my imagination.

Great post, Will.

Anonymous said...

What a story!

I have one lack-of-research story. I wrote a whole novel (my first, and rightfully relegated to a box in the attic) about a teenager recovering from a ski accident, then talked to a nurse and discovered it was based on an orthopedic falacy. I had assumed immobilization was the appropriate technique for dealing with broken bones. Turns out, that went the way of the dinosaur 20-30 years ago, when it was discovered that the muscles around broken bones need to be used in order for them to recalcify. Now, they get patients up an moving as quickly as possible.

Wish I'd done that research BEFORE I wrote the book. Or maybe not. Given the "bad dialogue alerts" I encountered when re-reading it, maybe it was best I had an air-tight excuse to let the manuscript rest in peace.

After I started making writer friends, I learned that I'm not the only one with a first manuscript that will never see the light of day.

Annette said...

LOL! No, Tory, you are in good company.

Joyce Tremel said...

Great blog, Will!

I'm a great believer in hands-on research, too, although working for a PD for ten years might have been a bit much! It was really convenient, though, when I had a question, especially when a federal agent or someone from a task force stopped in. No one ever minded answering questions and some asked if they could "be in my book." They were disappointed when I said I wrote fiction, but perked up when I mentioned the acknowledgments.

Joyce Tremel said...

Tory, I have a couple of those never-to-see-the-light-of-day manuscripts.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Gina, that's what I'm talking about. One of the first things I did was join an indoor shooting range and fired a Sig Saur P229 .40 caliber becasue that was the gun I used in the book. I waqnted to be able to describe the feel, the texture, the smell, the heft, the sound.

Annette, I'd love to do that vet research. Sometimes it not fun, but I love working with animals.

Tory, I've had access to a doctor and nurses to bounce ideas off of. I've also had my manuscript error checked for the medical research. I didn't want things to fall apart before I wrote them.

Joyce, I wish I had your access to police procedure. I need to get an in with the FBI.

Dana King said...

Outstanding post. I hve made trips to Chicago to wander neighborhoods and restaurants, looking for a key description.

WIll's post reminded me of a writing research fantasy my Spousal Equivalent keeps talking me out of. I want to go to a casino and pretend to count cards a blackjack, just to see what happens. If I do it and the book never gets written, you'll know what happens.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Dana, if you want to be escorted away from a table game, just fish out your cell phone and start fiddling with it. However, you can act like your counting cards as much as you want and nothing will happen as long as you're not winning beyond the statisical averages. If you start winning for an extended streak, they will have a look-see at your visual clues.

A few years ago I spent a weekend in Reno. I have a blackjack method that includes a common method of card counting (counting 10 value cards to see how many 10s and picture cards remain in the deck) and a betting scheme that limits your loses.

I was up about $400 after an hour of play. I asked the dealer to hold my spot while I took a break to go to the bathroom. I came back about 10 minutes later. While I was gone, the pitboss ordered a re-shuffle. I lost 10 hands in a row and my $400 was gone.

As I got up with my tail between my legs, the dealer told me NEVER leave the table when the deck is rich in tens. He knew exactly what I was doing. And they knew exactly how to counter it.

Dana King said...

Thank you. I learned three things here today, all potentially useful.

Anonymous said...

My last book was about chocolate. The research was fattenin---er, fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sisters and Misters,
I can't go to Bouchercon this year. Does anybody want to buy my registration? I don't know how this is done, but Nancy knows these things and says it is done. If anybody is interested I'll find out.

Kathy George

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Dana, I'm glad the blog was of some help. I'm always available by e-mail, by the way.

Nancy, If I were writing a cozy about cooking, I'd be stuffing my face. I'm glad I write thrillers. Shooting guns isn't as fattening.

Kathy, I'm already registered for Bouchercon.