It was partly because I missed reporting, and it sounded like fun, but primarily because I hoped doing so would make for a better book. Readers can tell and appreciate when an author has done his homework and brought in fresh, real-life particulars for a scene. And since the characters in my novel are special-operations personnel, accuracy was particularly important out of respect to my readers in the military. The specifics, however crucial, are just a small part of why first-person research matters, but there are always subtler, unexpected lessons I pick up along the way that affect what I write at a deeper level. Sometimes, they help me recalibrate my relationship to the work I do. In my search for realism, I had to reconsider the balance between perfect authenticity and the virtues of fiction itself—as a vehicle that lets us escape everyday life.
When I’m writing, safe at home, caught up in the twists and turns and details of plotting, it can be easy for me to lose sight of the core purpose of thrillers: to thrill. Most of us spend our lives seeking out security and comfort, but once we have it, we look to stories to provide us safe doses of danger. It’s an honor to do that job, to channel excitement for readers, and it’s worth testing my limits by spending a few days filled with equal parts exhilaration and dread.
During the two days before the field exercise, my classmates and I learned how to free ourselves from flexcuffs, rope, and duct-tape bindings, run counter-surveillance, and make fake IDs. Those classroom sessions were a spy novelist’s dream, and the most harrowing task awaited me at the end of the course. On our last day, our lead instructor and Marine and Special Forces veterans would be hunting us across the city through a series of checkpoints to test our skills. I’d have to do it all without money or a phone, and if I was caught, they’d handcuff me to a fence or parking meter and leave me there until I found a way to escape—most likely by acquiring a bobby pin from another classmate or a passerby and picking my way out.
The kidnapping kicked off our final exercise on Wednesday morning. Our instructors left us tied up in the back of a van in an empty parking lot, and as we reached for the bobby pins we had hidden in our clothes, I had my first real lesson in the practicalities of being hopped up on adrenaline. Lockpicking is a very precise skill, but my hands were shaking, so my best option was to shim open the cuffs. With every task I better understood the desperation a hunted man would feel. I was looking over my shoulder constantly during a long day filled with dicey moments: hunched over a padlock in Venice Beach with my picks, or fashioning a shank out of fence picket and a shard of broken glass in Santa Monica, hiding the weapon in a plastic grocery bag as a cop walked past. By the end of the training I had sunburn, blisters, plenty of embarrassment, thirst, hunger, and bruises on my wrists from snapping duct tape and trying (and failing) to break flexcuffs against my chest. But I had succeeded. The trackers never caught me.