Bookstore staff and bloggers often ask, “Did you travel to Afghanistan to research your book?” Most seem disappointed when I suggest that imagination can produce a better tale on literacy, parenting, women’s rights and fear of globalization. As a journalist and mystery writer, I’m a huge fan of the U.S. government and its many resources. But I’m also wary about over-reliance on government-packaged research.
Some stories require extensive research. Others depend on life experiences and larger truths. Novelists who enter into research relationships must recognize that government’s highest levels will resist the stories of the renegades within their ranks. The most thrilling stories, like Argo, are about those who defy orders and follow their consciences.
This is not to say that writers should ignore government research, but they must use care in selecting details. The CIA World Factbook, with its assessments of national economies, people and trade, is a rich resource, as are the U.S. State Department fact sheets.
Some research assistance goes beyond the statistics. Consider the Entertainment Industry Liaison of the Central Intelligence Agency: “For years, artists from across the entertainment industry – actors, authors, directors, producers, screenwriters, and others – have been in touch with the CIA to gain a better understanding of our intelligence mission.” The site suggests the liaison is “in a position to give greater authenticity to scripts, stories, and other products in development” and that “To better convey that reality, the CIA is ready for a constructive dialogue with a broad range of creative talents.” The Pentagon simply provides contact info for “Producing Motion Pictures, Television Shows, Music Videos.”