Dana Stabenow | Loving Coasties

Great advice and encouragement on research, from this month’s featured author Dana Stabenow:

The absolute best part of a writer’s life is the research. I’ve written two thrillers, Blindfold Game and Prepared for Rage. For both novels I went on patrol with the US Coast Guard, first on Alex Haley for 16 days in the Bering Sea in February 2004 and then on Munro for seven weeks off the coasts of Central and South America in March, April and May of 2007.

I grew up in a commercial fishing community in Alaska, which including all the squiggly bits has about 35,000 miles of coastline. Coasties were always around when I was a kid, and I’d always wanted to write them somewhere into my work. The original plan was to create a Coast Guard base in Newenham in the Liam Campbell novels, with recurring characters. Then, alas, Liam lost his publisher, so when my agent and editor ganged up on me to write a thriller I figured, Awwright, Coastie hero!

Of course all I really knew about Coasties was what I saw from the beach, so I got online, found the website for the Kodiak CG base, and there found a cutter named Alex Haley. Sorta seemed like it was meant to be, you know? I contacted the skipper, Captain Craig Barkley Lloyd, and he said “Come on down!” The rest is Stabenow history.

Coasties are the second most welcoming and hospitable people on earth (The Irish are first.) On both cutters the crews took some time getting used to me, but once they figured out I wasn’t a journalist writing a scandalous expose they threw open every hatch on every bulkhead. I was in the circle around the captain as they planned the midnight rescue of an injured fisherman offshore of the Pribilof Islands. They let me put actual hands on things, like very big guns, the cyclic of a helicopter in the air, a garden hose (to wash down the turbines). I got to jump off the side of the ship into the Pacific Ocean where it’s 8,000 meters deep, and I’m a shellback now (although they still haven’t sent me my card).

And I got a king’s ransom in the way of original source material. The crew even helped me with plot points.

If you’re a beginning author, remember this: Everybody loves to talk about what they do, and if they see that you’re really listening to them they will bend over backwards to help you get the details right. You get the details right, you’ve got yourself a credible and convincing setting, and you’ve got your foot in the door of the reader’s imagination.

And then you’re home.

1 thought on “Dana Stabenow | Loving Coasties”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Great post, and those research trips sound like such fun! It can be so nerve-wracking to ask for access, but the suprising thing is how many doors open once you do ask.

    I have to add my favorite experience from writing The Spanish Bow: I traveled to Puerto Rico and at a concert, approached the principal cellist of the symphony there, who then helped me approach the current owner of cellist Pablo Casal's elegant house in San Juan (where Casals practiced the Bach Cello Suites daily in a beautiful salon). The cellist escorted me to the historic San Juan house. I'm not sure where the next idea came from, but I found myself in the salon listening to the principal cellist perform for me and the house's current owner, with photos of Casals staring down at us. It was one of the best private concerts I've attended — and all in the name of research.

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