Monday, September 12, 2011

Gut-Level Research by Toni Dwiggins

Welcome to another Manic Monday and a guest post from Toni Dwiggins. Toni is neither a geologist nor a nuke worker.

She’s always worked with words: script typist at a motion picture studio, research clerk at university libraries, proofreader for a textbook company, copy-editor for that company, and finally textbook writer for same company. From there, she went freelance.

She’s done magazine work, both fiction and non. She’s author of a US history text and contributed to texts in the sciences, including earth science. She’s done tech-writing for the Silicon Valley computer industry. Her techie experience hatched an idea that became her first novel, about an attempt to sabotage the nation’s telephone system (INTERRUPT, published by TOR Books).

Her latest book BADWATER is now available on Amazon, Amazon UK, Amazon DE, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords.

Without further adieu – here’s Toni…


So there’s this crime fiction writer who gets involved with a real-life hitman, and the hitman recounts his true visceral experiences as story material for the writer. The writer comes to want to live it himself, and nearly does.

It was movie, a Russian flick called GHOST, and it got me thinking about what makes a story feel gut-level real.

So I decided to run an experiment. I chose two scenes I’d written, from two different books: one inspired by a real-life experience, one totally made up. Both scenes were intended to give the reader a few shivers—or least keep the pages turning.

I showed the scenes to a friend who’d not read either book (some friend!;) and asked which one she thought came from something I’d experienced in real life.

Scene #1 (from BADWATER, the first in my Forensic Geology series): the bad guy is in a slot canyon in Death Valley, having just watched the chaos his act of sabotage caused, and now he’s getting the hell away from the scene before he gets caught. He’s already jumpy and suddenly there comes a low-pitched roaring sound, from upcanyon. He’s desert-wise and knows it could be a flash flood coming, caused by summer storms in the watershed above. And there’s no way to escape—the canyon walls are vertical and he can’t outrun a flood. The sound intensifies. And then around the upcanyon bend comes something totally unexpected: a black twisting whirlwind of soil and pebbles. It seems alive, snaking its way down the twisting slot canyon without touching the walls. It screams. The bad guy presses himself against the canyon wall and the whirlwind just grazes him as it passes. A flood would have drowned him. This thing spooks the hell out of him.

Scene #2 (from VOLCANO WATCH, second in the series, to be released within a couple of months): the protagonist (of both books) Cassie Oldfield is returning to her hometown, which has just been evacuated under the threat of an eruption. She’s returning in search of her partner, who she believes is stranded there. She’s returning on skis, coming in cross country via a steep canyon. (I like canyons) There’s a sudden low-pitched roaring sound (I like scary sounds) and, in wonder and terror, she sees a slab of snow detach from the canyon wall and descend upon her. Avalanche. It catches her, tumbles her, envelopes her. Buried with only a small air pocket, she must dig her way out. But the snow is like ice. She thinks she’ll die. And then mother nature throws her a rope: there’s an earthquake, cracking the icy snow roof enough that she can escape. Of course, she escapes into more trouble….

My friend says, without hesitation, #2 came from your real-life experience. Hey, I say, I’ve never experienced a volcanic eruption. She qualifies; but you’re a skier and you’ve skied the back country in heavy snow. Hey, I say, I’ve never been buried in an avalanche. She qualifies; yeah but I saw you take a nasty fall in deep powder and you were, technically, buried. Well yes, about half an inch deep.

Scene #1, I tell her, came from a real-life experience. Me in a slot canyon in Death Valley, alone, mindful of the warnings about sudden flash floods. And then the noise, and the devilish black whirlwind. My friend stares. That’s just too weird to be real. I shrug. It happened.

For scene #2, I got on the net and googled ‘avalanche’ and read about other people’s harrowing true-life experiences.

So my take-away is this: experience something exciting/crazy/spooky in real life and it would be a crime not to use it in a story. Need something exciting/crazy/spooky in a story that I haven’t experienced—do the research.

As long as it doesn’t involve impersonating a hitman.

* * * *

And just to give you all a peek into her new book – here’s the blurb for BADWATER:

Forensic geologists Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaws embark on a perilous hunt--tracking a terrorist who has stolen radioactive material that is hotter than the desert in August. He threatens to release it in America's most fragile national park, Death Valley.

But first he must stop the geologists who are closing in.

As the hunt turns dangerous, Cassie and Walter will need grit along with their field skills to survive this case. For they are up against more than pure human malice. The unstable atom--in the hands of an unstable man--is governed by Murphy's Law. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

And it does.

To find out more about Toni, visit her at her website.

Friday I’ve got George Everyman on tap, so swing in and enjoy!

Until then,



No comments: