Sunday, September 9, 2018

10 Things I Learned From Research

Nosing Around in the Boston Aquarium

I knew I wanted to set part of Second Shot, the sixth Charlie Fox book, in Boston. Partly this was to set up the contrast of the city against the small-town feel of North Conway up in New Hampshire, where other scenes of the book take place. The internet is great for research, but sometimes there really is no substitute for going there and seeing it for yourself.

For one thing, while visiting Boston I paid a visit to the fabulous Aquarium on the edge of the harbour. Immediately, I could visualise some of the action taking place there. And, having been in person, I was able to better describe the place. Not just the look, but the smell.

As soon as you walk in through the entrance to the modern, open-plan building, you see the penguin enclosure in front of you. Upstairs is the café, so the first smell that hits you is the smell of fried fish. A little unfair on the inhabitants, I thought, but a very useful splash (pun intended) of colour to add to my description of the place.

How to Mix the Perfect Cocktail

For one of the major action scenes in Road Kill, I needed to have Charlie and several others hijack a moving vehicle from motorcycles while they’re in Ireland. For the best way to do this I picked the brains of an ex-military friend who suggested the good old-fashioned Molotov cocktail might be the best method, with a twist.

Petrol in liquid form is actually very difficult to ignite—it’s the vapour that burns. So, I had Charlie leave quite a gap at the top of the bottle for the vapour to build up. She also added sugar to the mix, which both makes it burn hotter and stick to whatever it hits. The final problem was how best to light such a mixture, bearing in mind she and her cohorts are on solo motorcycles, chasing a speeding van at the time.

Here my ex-military mate—who just so happened to specialise in bomb disposal during his time with the RAF—suggested firework sparklers. These are usually made from an iron wire coated at one end with a metal fuel, an oxidiser and a binder. Different types of metals will produce different colours, so Ferrotitanium will give a golden glow, while Titanium will give silver or white. The advantage of a sparkler is that, once lit, they’re very difficult to put out, so they would survive being in the airflow of a bike. They also provide a time delay fuse, if part of the sparkler is outside the cap of the bottle containing the cocktail, and part is inside where the vapour has built up.

I did wonder, in these paranoid times, if I should have described this process here, but I’ve done so in the book, and a quick Google search will bring up any number of pages that go into far greater detail. Anyway, for the purposes of the chase scene in Road Kill, it worked a treat!

German Autobahns

Driving on the roads in Germany is a fairly unique experience because you get to go more or less as fast as you like. This came in particularly useful for a segment in the third Charlie Fox novel, Hard Knocks, which I wanted to be a real race against time. Therefore, being in a vehicle that is travelling at upwards of 150mph was an experience I felt was essential to get a proper flavour! (And there, Your Honour, rests the case for the defence.)

Something interesting happens to the scenery when you get over 100mph. It’s surprising how noticeable the change is. Even slight bends on the motorway—or the autobahn in this case—become proper corners at that kind of speed.

Self-Defence Moves

To be honest, I can’t claim entirely that I learned self-defence in order to write the Charlie Fox books. I learned it because of incidents while I was working as a photojournalist, and it then became an integral part of Charlie’s character. There was one move in particular, which I used in the first in the series, Killer Instinct, which may sound as if it’s wishful thinking on my part.

In one of the scenes when Charlie is working security in a nightclub, she goes to break up a fight when one of the combatants attacks her with a broken bottle, trying to stab it down into her. There was a self-defence move I learned to counter an overhand knife attack which involved blocking with one hand and weaving the other through, then levering your opponent’s arm out and down. This dislocates the shoulder with remarkably little effort.

I confess I have not actually taken this move to completion and dislocated anyone’s shoulder, but I have got very close to it—according to the people I’ve practised on, anyway. And it doesn’t matter how big they are, as the technique relies on physics rather than strength.

Dealing with Jumpy Horses

I’ve always been keen on improvised weapons, and Charlie therefore tends to use whatever is at hand when the need arises. In Fifth Victim she is holding the horse belonging to the girl she’s protecting, Dina, when an attempt is made to kidnap the girl. Because I owned and rode horses for years, I know they can react quite strongly to being prodded in the right (or wrong) place. There is a sensitive collection of nerves in their side, just behind the elbow, about where the girth normally lies. Charlie gives Dina’s rather highly strung horse a quick jab here, and one of the bad guys gets the unpleasant end of the horse’s wrath.

Don’t Let It Set!
When I was writing the first of my standalone crime thrillers, The Blood Whisperer, I did a good deal of reading about crime-scene cleaning. On the whole, it seems like a pretty thankless task, but a very necessary one. Specialist firms are available who can deal with cleaning up property that presents a biohazard situation. One of the titbits I discovered during my research was that you should try to remove brain matter from walls, ceilings or floors as quickly as possible, as apparently it sets like concrete and then has to be chipped off. (Bet you’re sorry you asked now, aren’t you?)

Write Your Name in Blood

When I wrote Fourth Day, which is set in a cult in California, I read a lot of reports on incidents like Waco and Jonestown where attempts by the authorities to storm the cult’s stronghold had gone sadly awry. As with any research, you do a huge amount of it and leave about 90% of that information out of the finished story. Working out the most authentic 10% is the tricky part.

In the case of Waco, it was that the first officials who went in were DEA agents. Because these were not military guys with vital information on dog tags, they were told to write their blood groups in indelible marker on their forearm or the side of their neck, just in case. Of all the stuff I read about the way these operations were handled, that was one that really stayed with me. So, of course, it went into the story.

Spring Break Camouflage
I first went to the Spring Break weekend in Daytona Beach when I was working as a photojournalist and it was one of those times when the plot for a story grew totally from the location. I clearly recall standing on a corner of the main drag in the middle of Daytona, on the Saturday afternoon, watching all these kids ride up and down in their tricked-out pickup trucks, with the bass thumping, and thinking, ‘If you were on the run with a teenage kid, this would be a great place to go because you could hide in plain sight.’ From that, the idea for First Drop grew.


The process of obturation is an amazing one and I learned all about it when I first started shooting seriously, then in a lot more detail when I was writing about a sniper for my latest standalone, Dancing On The Grave. Obturation is what happens between the finger pulling the trigger and the projectile leaving the end of the barrel. It describes the trigger releasing the hammer, which strikes the primer cap in the base of the bullet casing. This detonates the primer charge which, in turn, ignites the propellant behind the round itself. That explosion expands the brass casing, not only releasing the round, but also sealing the casing against the walls of the chamber so the maximum energy from the rapidly expanding gases is used to propel the round out of the chamber and into the barrel. The entrance to the barrel is a fraction smaller than the projectile itself, so as it’s forced through it’s moulded into the lands and grooves of the barrel, starting the rotational twist which gives the bullet its speed and stability in flight.

Flat Out on a Snowmobile

Having ridden motorcycles for years, I was really looking forward to trying a snowmobile when I was in Bulgaria a few years ago, and then again in Iceland. I knew I wanted to have one of the important scenes in the joint standalone, An Italian Job, which I co-wrote with espionage thriller author, John Lawton, take place out in the middle of frozen nowhere. I also used the experience again when I was writing the end of the latest Charlie Fox book, Fox Hunter.

So, is it just like riding a big bike? Well, almost, but not quite. Yes, the riding position and controls may be similar to being on a big custom, but the feel is really quite different—like riding with a flat rear tyre. And you definitely don’t lean into corners if you’re turning downhill. You have to remember to lean to the uphill side and really hang off while you’re turning. A number of people on the Icelandic trip ended up turning over their snowmobiles and they’re just as difficult to pick up as a dropped motorcycle!

This week’s Word of the Week is synecdoche, meaning a figure of speech where part of something is used to represent the whole. It derives from the ancient Greek sunekdokhe, meaning receiving together. An example would be, ‘the police arrested him’ instead of ‘some police officers’.

Sadly, I’m not attending Bouchercon in Florida this year, but I hope everyone who is has a great time!


  1. Fascinating piece, Zoe! Thanks. Research is a very enjoyable part of this business!

    1. Writing is such a wonderful excuse to be nosy about all sorts of things, isn't it?

  2. Great column! By the way, synecdoche is easily confused with cynicdouche, which is that irritating person who is always cynical about EVERYTHING.

  3. What a great piece, Zoe. i love it all, but especially the part about the horse. You know how it tickles me to brag about you by saying, "Zoe is great! She knows how to use a horse as a defensive or a deadly weapon - by poking it in its ribs!!!" YOU ROCK!

  4. What a timely article Zoë as it's coming up on Molotov Cocktail season in Athens. Otherwise known as elections. As for practicing the shoulder take down procedure, no thank you, I already paid one orthopedic surgeon. :)

    1. To everything a season, Jeff? And don't worry, I won't ever ask you to be my crash-test dummy for self-defence demonstrations. I thought Fred Rea was being brave, but since that time I've hardly ever seen him at crime writing conventions. Coincidence?