A glimpse into my research method
It’s been said that writers should only write about what they know. Good advice. When I head to the corrals or out along a fence line, it’s part of my day. My ranch experiences, if not always profitable have been at least rewarding as a lifestyle. Likewise, with the rodeo scenes. They are stories that come from a world I knew well. But I think every writer has to write scenes or chapters that go beyond their experience. I remember well being corrected by a reader who was quick to point out my lack of research when describing a scene with a particular handgun. Whatever investigation I did fell short. I try not to do that with horses, guns—or geographical locations like Mexico where I’ve spent time over the years, not only along the border, but in the areas where the drug cartels operate.
I’ve planned another research trip into the interior of Mexico, this time to Queretaro. I’m hoping it’s less volatile than its two neighboring states, Guanajuato and Michoacán. There are several goals I want to accomplish. The big one is of course to nail down details for the fifth book in The Border Series. But there is also a planned third book in The Freedom Series. Both are based in slightly different locations where I’ve already spent time, but I want to get a better feel for the vast central area of Mexico, far from the tourist meccas of Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, or Cabo San Lucas. When the Canadian snow melts and the first green shoots of cow grass poke through the muddy April dirt, I hope to have returned with enough ‘boots on the ground’ material to finish both books.
Some of the best story material comes from the people one runs across while traveling. Often, I try to connect with the campesinos, the people who live and work in the fields as well as he other trabajadores, the workers who man the stores, drive the taxis and fix the potholes in the road. Few are willing to talk. Discussing the cartels is dangerous, and can easily turn into a visit from an enforcer, followed by a beating, dismemberment or even death. Too many families have stories of loved ones who disappeared, never to be seen again.
For too many years, Mexico has engaged in a civil war that has no precedent. It is what I go to see and record, and though most of my characters are fictitious, their stories are drawn from the real-life mosaic, the passion and pathos of that garbage-strewn yet still beautiful country. I hate the thought that someday the cartels might control even more of the land than they do now, that I may have to curtail my search for authenticity.
There are other avenues of research I delve into on a regular basis. Borderland Beat provides gritty and informative details of arrests, killings, and cartel violence, as does The Cartel War and The Narco Blog. Other trusted sites I’ve picked through are Texas based Stratfor, and George Friedman’s Geopolitical Futures, both of which provide access to some of the most astute minds in the intelligence world.
Years ago, I received a question from a reader. “Isn’t what you write about Mexican drug cartels dangerous?” It’s a question I gave little thought to at the beginning of my writing career. After all, why would a Mexican drug cartel care about some obscure Canadian author. But as more readers connect, I have become increasingly wary. In the pueblos and barrios of Mexico I watch and listen, and wonder if it’s worth it. Could I do the research I need from a safer base? Maybe, but I’m not ready to do that. In the meantime, the flight is booked. For you, my reader—I must go.