Writer with a Backpack

A confession:  Writing novels set in far-flung locales is little more than an excuse I use to justify massive amounts of travel. Even if travel did nothing to improve the words on the page, I would still get out of town as much as possible for “research purposes.”

I am convinced, however, that my journeys do make me a better writer. The sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of the settings of my books are as important to me as the characters themselves, and there is no real substitute to being there to soak it all in.

So I’ve done a lot of soaking in the past few years. For research I have visited twenty countries, and have spent months at a time away from home working on novels. It’s expensive and time-consuming, but location research has become an integral part of my writing process.

I’ve found countless details on research trips that have worked their way into my books. I was in a pub in Dublin while researching On Target, sitting by myself with a pint of Guinness. Around me in the dimly lit room were a few weather-beaten dock workers, each man sitting alone, silently drinking away the evening without any sort of levity or camaraderie in evidence.

I took it all in:  good fodder for placing the reader in the gritty location, but nothing I couldn’t have generated on my own with a little imagination.

But then I saw it:  A hand-written sign on the mirror behind the bar that read “No singing.” As far as I was concerned I’d found the mother lode of descriptive touches for setting the scene. I put the sign in the book, and this helped readers get a visceral feel of the cold vibe of the pub with a flair I couldn’t have created on my own.

While doing location research for my new book, Dead Eye, I walked the hills and alleyways of Tallinn, Estonia, early in the morning during a snowstorm. I’d set a frenetic action scene in the book in the same location and conditions, and I wanted to capture the details. The cold, the snow, the impossibly slippery cobblestones—I got to experience it all while walking the route of the running gun battle that takes place in the novel.

The shoe leather invested in the scene led to a level of detail and specificity I couldn’t have pulled off without going to Tallinn and experiencing the full spectrum of the setting myself.

I love the surprises I encounter on the road. Last year I hired car and driver in Beijing to take me to a location, but the most interesting part of the trip wasn’t the destination itself, it was the journey. As the supposedly independent tour guide droned on and on about how beautiful and fertile the farmland was around us, I noticed a hidden microphone in the dash (it wasn’t that well hidden, obviously). I knew the tour guides affiliated with the business class hotels report to China’s Intelligence Ministry, but seeing the mike, and then including it in the book I was working on, added a nice touch of verisimilitude.

Over the course of my research I’ve visited a mangrove swamp full of wild alligators in western Mexico, I’ve stood outside the former HQ of the KGB in Moscow, and I’ve walked the halls of the Pentagon, all in pursuit of making my novels feel more real.

There are missteps, sometimes big ones. I spent nearly a week in Hamburg, Germany on the Dead Eye research trip and ultimately edited virtually the entire location out of the book. There was nothing wrong with Hamburg, but the early draft of the story felt like it was dragging by the Hamburg chapters, so I decided to move on to the climax. Similarly, an original outline of Command Authority had action taking place on the streets of Saint Petersburg. I spent a week there, took pages of notes and hundreds of pictures, but Saint Petersburg never made it into the book.

And, of course, travel is not all fun and games:  I’ve had thieves try to steal my stuff in Paris and D.C., I’ve suffered food poisoning in Mexico and crippling E. coli in Guatemala, and I’ve embarrassed myself in five or six languages.

But the myriad experiences, both enjoyed and suffered through, have all made me better at my chosen profession, so I’m as glad for the hardships as I am for the great times.

The writing sages always tell you to “write what you know,” and I agree, although I worry some people take that too literally. For me the goal is to expand what I know so I can expand my writing. Travel is an important tool in my toolbox that helps me create stories with more breadth and depth, and I hope I am able to travel in some form or another as long as I am able to write.

11 thoughts on “Writer with a Backpack

  • Mark Greaney Post author

    Thank you, Douglas!

    I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I’ll be working on next year, so haven’t planned anything yet. I’ve been to the UK several times, but have yet to really get out of London. I’ve heard great things about Scotland, so I’d love to finagle a research trip there sometime soon, as well as the English countryside. Have fun.

    • Mark Greaney Post author

      Oh yeah. Been there, but long ago. Was pretty trashy. I had a guy try and stop me, I assume to sell me something. Twenty yards down the pavement a guy stepped out of the dark and showed me his badge- he said, “Did that guy try to sell you something?” I responded WAY too defensively, telling him I that I didn’t hear what he said. The cop just laughed at my panic and waved me on.

  • Keith Thomson

    ON TARGET was the first Gray Man book I read, and I still remember the Dublin pub scene as if I were there.

    • Mark Greaney Post author

      Great. Lot’s of that book took place in the Sudan, and I wanted to go, but could have only gone as part of a package tour and it would have cost me every cent of my advance. I basically did a ton of research and used my other experiences in the third world to channel the Sudan setting.

  • Alan Finn

    A great read, Mark, although it makes me feel foolish for setting my books in Philadelphia, little more than an hour away. I should write something that takes place in all the cities I’d love to visit — Tokyo, Venice, London, Salzburg — just so I’ll have a proper excuse to visit. (Not that one ever needs an excuse to travel!)

    • Mark Greaney Post author

      Thanks, Alan. I’ve only been to Philly once but I loved it. I have been going up to D.C. for weeks and months at a time- there are great places in the U.S. to research, although Salzburg sounds pretty nice too.

  • Donna Galanti

    Mark, this was a fun read! Loved hearing how you gathered unexpected tidbits of information for your writing along the way – in addition to what you had planned to gather in research. With all your health mishaps too it seems like you are ready for anything – even the Amazon. Any trips planned there? One of my favorite John Grisham books is The Testament, set in the Amazon wilds. A great setting for intrigue.

    • Mark Greaney Post author

      Thank you, Donna. I set part of my last book in the Amazon- northern Brazil. But I did my research for it in Mexico- not exactly the same thing, but I was in Mexico researching other parts of the book, so I took a day trip to the jungle and went down a river through the jungle. It was a lot of fun, but I kept noticing the tour wasn’t really OSHA compliant. 13 foot alligators all around the boat (really just a big canoe with an outboard, and no real plan to get out of there if there were problems. I noticed there were no floatation devices on board, but I figured drowning wouldn’t be your main concern if you fell in.

  • Douglas Corleone

    Terrific article, Mark. This is one of the reasons I chose to write international thrillers. It’s a great way to see the world and it always enhances your writing… Any trips planned in 2014? I’m hoping to hit the UK and South Korea next year…

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