The Lengths of Research

Being a scientist, I am professionally trained to research.  If it’s an academic question, I can troll the stacks with the best of them and (more often) find exactly what I want through various means online (a trait which makes me invaluable to my boss who has no such skill).  But researching for a novel is a bit different.  I often run across questions that journal articles or textbooks can’t answer.  Often they’re central to the plausibility of the story (such as with HOC).  As I mentioned last week, I’m working on plotting out a new WIP dealing with a heroine in the Witness Protection Program.  We’re talking about a program that’s received a great deal of criticism and has been very much cloaked in secrecy since it’s inception in the 70s.   Understandably so.  They don’t want more than the very basic rules about how it works out there for the general public, as they wouldn’t want to endanger anyone’s life by nefarious persons getting ahold of such information.  But with my usual enthusiasm, I leapt into research mode, quickly exhausting the useful information on Google.  I ordered WITSEC by Peter Earley (which I am still waiting on).  I have dug up a few books at my local library–other novels rather than non-fiction accounts.  There is a dearth of useful information.  I was able to find a very helpful gentleman on who entered the program about 20 years ago who was able to answer some of my questions, but he’s limited to what and how much he can say, so many of my other questions remain unanswered.  I begin to see why the stories out there about characters in witness protection are more often about people who voluntarily left or were thrown out of the program or who decided that they could protect themselves better than the U.S. Marshals–no one knows enough about it to write authentically!

And that’s my question, I guess.  How hung up do you get on the accuracy of the details?  In this particular case, given the lack of public knowledge on the subject, I could probably get away with making up almost anything I wanted and no one would be the wiser.  Well except U.S. Marshals and anybody in WITSEC, and I doubt anybody in either of those groups cares to read about fictional (and likely romanticized) accounts of what is likely their daily worst nightmare.

But how do you deal with lack of knowledge on a topic you want to write about–particularly a topic you aren’t likely to be able to fully research.  Do you rely on your imagination?  Ditch the project?  Knowing that you can get away with the not knowing, are you okay with that?  I think it goes against the grain of my professional training to be inaccurate, so this bugs me.  My husband is like that about movies–particularly anything to do with technology that’s wrong or anything dealing with 911 Emergency Dispatch or an assortment of other topics he seems to know a great deal about.  I think I’m willing to constitute some poetic faith in most other people’s work, but I have a higher standard for my own.  Because I’ll know, and it will bug me.

Not that I expect anyone will actually know the answer, but I’m throwing the question out there anyway: If someone enrolls in the Witness Protection Program who is single, has no family, no attachments, etc.–someone completely alone–when she (in my story it’s a she) gets placed in her new location, new identity, etc., is there an out and out rule that she cannot become involved with anyone?  Is it strongly discouraged but not prohibited?  Would the Marshals have to do a background check or something?  See the circumstance is, that my heroine is single and gets relocated to a small, rural town.  She’s terrified to make friends or connections with anyone in general, but as Donne says “No man is an island”, so eventually she wears down a bit.  People require relationships.  Obviously she can’t tell anyone about herself, but there’s this guy who very persistently asks her out and eventually she’s going to go (because this is a romance novel and he’s the hero and that’s how it has to work)–but I’m trying to figure out if she’d be breaking any rules to do so.  Or is WITSEC more like a character in Stephen White’s The Program referred to it–“like catch and release fishing–they just move you to a new pond”?

One thought on “The Lengths of Research

  1. Yes and no. On the specific question about if there’s a rule about having a boyfriend in your new life, that just seems like such a bizarre thought. (Disclaimer: I am not a protected witness and don’t even play one on TV.)

    On the general question about research…If it’s something where the answers are out there, but are hard to get at, and there would be people who would know that I hadn’t done the research, I would shy away from the project or try to tweak my way around it. But you know this, as I am a big one for creating my own towns instead of using real places and I’m currently in my own alternate universe.

    In a case like what you’re dealing with, where the answers aren’t available to the public, giving me the excuse that there’s practically no non-fic to read on the subject, and given that I’d rather wash dishes (and you know that’s saying something) than read textbooky stuff– well, that’s the sort of thing I’d embrace. Just tell your story. Get a few beta readers to tell you if your ideas about it are just too out there to be believed.

    Someone had an excellent post on this last year… who was that?

    Holy cow, I can’t believe I found this. It was Stephanie Tyler’s post on accuracy or what can bog the writing down. She starts off with a great quote by Suzanne Brockmann who says that she’s always going to get some details wrong, but her job as a writer is to entertain.

    I have a feeling this is a scattered and grammatically poor comment.

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