by Guest Author Michael Angel
My writing mentor Dean Wesley Smith once said: “Being a writer is the best profession in the world. What other job pays you to sit in a room and make stuff up?”
I can’t disagree with him. Since I started writing medical thrillers, I’ve been trying to steer clear of pure fantasy. There are medical professionals in the thriller audience, and they’re sure to call an author out if you mistake a stethoscope for a microscope.
The last few evenings, I’ve been poking into the odder corners of the Internet to do research for a thriller involving a hypothetical zombie outbreak! Could something like this happen in real life? Well, no…but it’s fun to figure out the parameters of an organism that could mimic this phenomenon and then see how it might spread.
So I’ve been looking into genetic sleep disorders like familial advanced sleep-phase syndrome. The part of the brain that’s affected – the suprachiasmatic nucleus section of the hypothalamus. And even the load and effective take-off speed of a Cessna 310, which plays a part in an action-heavy chapter.
Researching books can even take you out of your home and send you on some strange adventures.
Case in point: several years ago, I co-authored a book dealing with the specter of bioterrorism. Each chapter focused on one of the all-too-many spine-tinglingly awful microbes that cause lethal diseases. To my surprise, there’s more than a few in my own backyard of the Western United States. Bubonic plague is endemic in four places on earth, one of them in the Colorado / New Mexico region. A more recently discovered pathogen is the Sin Nombre Hantavirus, which emerged in the northwest corner of New Mexico in the 1990’s.
Sin Nombre caused severe acute respiratory illness, with a case fatality rate of about one in three.Since there were eyewitness physicians and survivors. I ended up travelling via off-road vehicle to parts of Navajo land near the town of Shiprock. The air out there was dry and crystal clear, with endless vistas of desert, scrubland, and rock formations that rear up into the sky. I had to force myself to focus on getting critical details down in my interviews–times and dates, but also the feelings of alarm and fear that spread through communities along with the virus.As you might guess, those feelings sounded a little like the present-day worries about COVID-19.The research my co-author and I did uncovered a couple more surprises. It turned out that this strain of hantavirus spread through inhaling dust contaminated with deer mouse droppings. Deer mice are ever present, but their population explodes whenever the region gets more rain. Extra water helps the local grasses grow, and the grass seed feeds the deer mice.
The extra rain only comes to this region when there’s a special weather pattern that shows up roughly every decade: the El Nino.
So since the publication of our work, the local health authorities send out warnings and gear up for cases of Sin Nombre every time El Nino makes an appearance. It’s probably the first-ever time someone’s been able to tie a specific and rare weather pattern to the outbreak of a disease.
Researching for thrillers and other books has taken me to other places, too. Rodeos, coroner’s offices, and gun ranges, just to name a few. If you’re a writer, consider doing more than just learning through a screen. Get out there and try something new.
I learned more about how to structure a police procedural by doing police ride-alongs than I could from a Hollywood film. I’ve heard more realistic dialog listening in to conversations at a dive bar than on television.
Being a writer means that you’ve chosen to be a keen observer of the human condition, so jump at every opportunity to get your hands dirty.
Of course, I don’t advocate that anyone who writes thrillers goes out to rob Fort Knox, steal nuclear weapons, or mimic Dr. Evil. But you might end up like me, when I found myself needing emergency dental surgery. After the procedure was over, someone asked how I felt. I ended up scrawling on a notepad: Feel awful. But now I know exactly how to describe this in a book!
Michael Angel’s fictional worlds range from the former Soviet province of Ozrabek to the magic-drenched realm of Andeluvia.
His eBooks, audio books, and paperbacks populate shelves in 12 different languages. However, despite keeping a keen eye out for globe-trotting epidemiologists, unicorns, or galactic marshals, none have yet put in an appearance on Hollywood Boulevard.