Researching a Suspense Novel
I’ve never worked for the FBI. Never participated in a multi-agency investigation of a series of child abductions that happened over almost two decades. Never interviewed suspects, been threatened by suspects, or been tackled by a suspect. And I’ve never investigated the unsolved disappearance of my own best friend.
But my FBI profiler – Evelyn Baine, the heroine of my Profiler series books – had to do all of these things for the second book in the series, VANISHED. Since I like to write novels with a strong sense of realism, that means I needed to know how to do all these things, too.
Luckily (as you might be able to tell from my picture), I love research. If there’s a book written by a former Special Agent from the FBI, there’s a good chance that I own it. And not just books by former FBI profilers, either, although I have a lot of those. I also have books from former Hostage Rescue Team agents, former negotiators, former FBI pilots, and terrorism squad leaders. In the process of writing this series, I read up on antisocial personality disorders, I researched forensic anthropology, and I studied a lot of real-life cases where a criminal went dormant for a long time.
You can find a ton of fascinating information between the covers of books. After a while, you start noticing patterns: things like the common trajectory Special Agents seem to take in their careers (naïve excitement to frustration with bureaucracy to capable, experienced investigator). You also start noticing inconsistencies (for me, one of them was that almost all nonfiction books on the subject say that the FBI’s famous Behavioral Analysis Unit is located at Quantico. But an inconsistency led me to discover that’s actually not where you’d find the BAU – it’s at nearby Aquia).
Ultimately, though, I think the best research comes after you get all the basics – and go as far as the books will take you. Ultimately, I think the best research comes when you start talking to the people who really do the job.
When I wrote HUNTED, the first book in the series, I visited Quantico and talked to former and current FBI Special Agents. Before finishing VANISHED, I visited an FBI field office, spoke with a ton more agents, and got a primer on what Search and Rescue and cadaver dogs can do. I also learned more specific details about CARD teams – the FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment teams, who go directly to the site of child disappearances.
With all the research behind me, I didn’t have to worry about being distracted from the story by procedural concerns. I already knew it, so I could focus on the writing. I could focus on my heroine, Evelyn, and her personal connection to the case.
Eighteen years before VANISHED starts, Evelyn’s best friend, Cassie Byers, disappeared from her bed one night. In her place, a macabre nursery rhyme was left behind, the calling card of the Nursery Rhyme Killer (a moniker given by the press, since the FBI can’t say if Cassie – or the other two girls abducted by the Nursery Rhyme Killer – are alive or dead). In HUNTED, Evelyn learns she was supposed to disappear alongside Cassie. The fact that she survived has haunted her ever since.
When VANISHED opens, Evelyn learns that the Nursery Rhyme Killer has returned, after eighteen years of silence. Finally, Evelyn gets the chance to find out what happened to Cassie – unless the Nursery Rhyme Killer makes Evelyn the next to disappear.
VANISHED releases tomorrow! (December 30th.) To learn more about The Profiler series, and the research behind the books, you can visit my website at www.ElizabethHeiter.com.