5 Reasons Why Writers Should Be Secret Agents

5 Reasons Writers Need to be Secret Agents

I have a habit of getting stuck behind my laptop screen. “Research” becomes a few hours of googling and reading. That’s great, but, after today I’ve decided it’s just not good enough. At least, not where I can help it.

Maybe you guys are all already pros at getting out of the house and experiencing first hand all the things you write about. BUT, I write fantasy, dystopian or science fiction stories – some of the stuff I write about doesn’t even exist. It’s not an excuse but I definitely slipped into the habit of googling rather than experiencing first hand. I know it’s not always possible to travel to the other side of the world, but here’s 5 reasons why I think when you can, you should experience first hand.

Steam Train

Steam Train

My friend from work had a genius idea. She and I, are only 6 months apart, she just turned 29, and decided she was going to write a mini bucket list – 30 things to do by the time she was 30. WHAT an awesome idea. I promptly stole it! (she knows! and doesn’t mind… I don’t think!). I only have 21 of my 30 points, so if you have any suggestions feel free to pop them in the comments. However, no bungee jumps, no parachutes and preferably not something that might break my bank, I still have to buy nappies!

One of my 30 points was to go on a steam train. It made the list partly because I’d never been on one, and I REALLY wanted to. But, also because I have a slight obsession with all things steampunk. If you don’t know, then steampunk is science fiction meets the Victorian era – google it, and I feel like I have a story brewing that’s steampunk oriented.

Diesel Train

Diesel Train

I was lucky enough to go on both a steam train and a diesel train. But whilst I was on them and photographing them, I had a bit of a revelation. So here is why I think you need to get your spy on, get out in the field, and research that shit for real!

ONE – Removing Preconceptions

I had several preconceptions about what going on a steam/diesel train would be like. But actually they were all wrong. I was so glad that I experienced an actual ride because I would have written those preconceptions into my story.

TWO – Live Life

It’s a constant fault of writers that we forget to live life, instead writing the lives of others on pages. We ignore family, friends and loved ones in place of our laptops. But today, I managed to merge both parts of my life. Enjoying time with the family, and my boy, who ADORES trains and serenaded us with a chorus of “choo choo, toot toot” along with surprised smiles when the train actually tooted! Today was the best of both worlds. Family time, with book research.

IMG_0065THREE – Senses

No matter how good google is. It doesn’t have smellovision. Everyone knows that to give a piece of writing depth you have to use all five senses. I knew the trains would smell, but I could only really guess at what they would smell of. It wasn’t what I thought. Another reason I am glad for the experience.

I didn’t smell a thing around the diesel train, another surprise. But the steam train. Oh boy. It stunk. But not of what I thought. As I inhaled the thick black steam, I was catapulted back to my teens. A cadet, laying on a rifle range, firing round after round at tiny targets, each one, I am proud to say, hitting the bullseye.

Each type of gun/ammo smells slightly different. Birdshot, for example, in shotguns, smells very different to black power rifles or hand guns. WD40 is another thing that catapults me back to the rifle range days. Anyway, I now, will never forget the smell of the train, because it is lodged next to memories of my youth. I know EXACTLY what that smell is and exactly how I could describe it, and it’s not how I would have described it had I not gone on the train today.

It wasn’t just smells I experienced, but sounds too. When steam erupted from the train, it was LOUD. But as it chugged past (oh and that’s another thing, I thought they went thuka thuka thuka not chug chug chug!) it was so loud, it hurt my ears. It was shrill and a painful kind of static in my ears. It was so loud I wanted to get away, and I had no idea it would be like that.

FOUR – Knowledge 

This is linked to preconceptions, as having actual experiences removes them. I thought, or perhaps it was lack of thinking, that they would move as quickly as most normal trains now. They didn’t. They were considerably slower. Even if I’d read about the speed of diesel and steam trains I wouldn’t have been able to relate it to the feeling of speed a normal train is.

Having an experience also gives you knowledge you just wouldn’t get from google. I didn’t have a clue just how noisy diesel trains were. Like not a scoobies.

FIVE – Credibility

Thank god I did go, because if I had left out some crucial piece of information like the roar of the engines, I would have looked ridiculous. My story wouldn’t have had any depth and I would have looked like a plonker.

Having first hand experience of what you are writing about allows you to draw on those little details that bring a story to life and make you a credible writer.

So tell me, what have you gone out of your way to experience first hand for research? and what would you put on my 30 by 30 list?

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103 comments

  1. I love trains and we have several steam trains around this area (North Norfolk Railway fromWroxham to Sheringham, and the Bure Valley from Wroxham to Aylsham to name a few). When my husband, daughter and I went for a break to Yorkshire, we took the train from Pickering to Whitby. What a fantastic journey through the Yorkshire scenery! I think I still have a photo of us on the platform.

    1. Wonderful aren’t they? I’m in Hertfordshire, so not that far away in the grand scheme of things. How wonderful that you got such a long journey on one. I definitely think I would like to do another trip on one. It was just so romantic and lovely and smelly in a good way. I LOVED it. Did your daughter love it too?

      1. We all had a great time and if I ever had the money I would love a trip on the Orient express, but I’m not sure if that is a steam train now. On the Sheringham line you can get afternoon tea and scones! Not sure about the Bure Valley one, as I haven’t been on it yet. I might go at half term with a friend who lives in Wroxham.

  2. It seems like you did some
    Great in the field research. This actually reminds me of what I always said why I wanted to be a journalist (I am not a journalist…) I said that I didn’t want to be stuck in an office behind the screen of a computer, that I wanted to be in the field and do research.
    I got to ride on a steam train for my 10th birthday I think, but it isn’t my best memory, I ended up with hot ash in my eye, nothing too bad though, I was just freaking out…

    1. Thank you 🙂 really? yeah I always thought about journalism, its a shame about the bad rep though. haha, dont mean to laugh, but i definitely stuck my head out the train door and got ash in my eye!!

  3. I love trains, and know and can remember exactly how they sound and smell, but haven’t been on one for years. Something I have been trying to rectify for ages, but can’t seem to fit it in. Your post has given me a green light, so to speak, and for that I thank you immensely!

  4. It’s a wonderful experience and a beautifully portrayal Sacha. Some of the trains through the Welsh hills are a lovely experience too .. I d experienced the sheringham one too it’s lovely ..

  5. I have to find a steam train nearby for my train-obsessed son. I’ve only gone on the local ones into NYC. Writing fantasy, I haven’t really gone out of my way to experience anything. I did fencing in high school and college, which I use to think about fight choreography. Everything else is non-existent. #2 on the list always seems the hardest, but mostly because I’m an author and a stay-at-home parent. So I have several moments where I’m around, but not really around.

    1. It’s funny how many kids love trains. Like you I havent really gone out of my way either, but I think I will in future. wow fencing is AWESOME. I have always wanted to do that! what was it like? I know what you mean about number 2. Its so hard to do everything life requires and get quality time with everyone you love let alone time for yourself.

      1. Fencing was a lot of fun. There’s a lot of etiquette to the sport too. Saluting, right of way, and various other things that you don’t realize until you start. My teacher ran a class at a local community center too, so maybe you can find something near you to give it a shot.

  6. Steam and diesel trains are, for me, forever ‘proper’ engines, that breathe and literally move under their own steam/power in a way that electric ones just don’t (whether it’s a 3rd rail or overhead lines). Modern trains are just too sanitised in terms of how they’re powered and operate (the human element still makes them noisy, cramped and unpleasant – but then I’m biased as I commuted for the best part of 25 years…) all optimised and honed into sleek shapes and clean lines.
    So, yes. There’s nothing like the physicality of experience for charging up your writing – be there, or be square! 😉

    1. I totally agree. I am that old that I miss the separate compartments and wandering along the corridor looking for a seat. Those were the days. Not thrilled by modern trains but always happy to actually be on a train whatever it is. Love steam trains and long train journeys. Went from London to Beijing once. Fabulous!

    2. Haha, you know I think I am inclined to agree. There’s just something proper about them, their tangible, smelly, loud dirty ‘realness’. I love that about them. I completely agree about modern trains though. So clinical and boring, and dirty in a bad way. Thanks for the comment

  7. Both my son and his 2 1/2 year old grandson are obsessed with trains. And speaking of steampunk – CBC Canada runs a wonderful steampunk detective series called The Murdoch Mysteries. It’s my favourite show.

  8. Wow, it’s ironic that you wrote a post like this. Two nights ago I sat down and made a list for everything I want to accomplish in 2016–and the list will probably grow! Some of the items on the list I know might not happen next year and are more “bucket list” items, but I included them so I wouldn’t forget them. Maybe this list thing might become a yearly habit.
    But I definitely need to get out there more and actually live my life. On my list I bluntly wrote, “have a social life.” As of right now my social life is mainly WordPress and Twitter. It’s kind of sad, lol.
    Good luck with your list! 🙂

    1. No way?! wow, whats on your list? I actually separated out my bucket list, because they are VERY expensive things, like a couple pf month travelling round asia, or buying a house!

      I reckon a yearly habit doing that is a really good idea, that would properly motivate me too – i might do it based on birthdays as opposed to New Years though i have a habit of breaking new years ones!

      It’d not sad, you just have a lot of goals and ambitions with writing and they will never happen unless you focus, sometimes social lives get sacrificed! on the otherhand, everyone likes a night out! 🙂 <3

      1. Most of them are writing, reading, and blogging goals. But I would also love to learn horseback riding, learn an instrument, learn photography, etc.
        Right now there are about 30 things on the list. I hope to accomplish at least half of them next year!

        1. haha, true. But then I cant claim to be a proper steampunk. I haven’t even been to a steampunk fair – that however IS on my 30by30 list!! 🙂 so maybe I will count after that?

  9. I’d love to go on one of those too. I’m not sure I’ve ever been on one. Only a few times I’ve gone out to research first hand. Writing about the experience while there or after is exhilarating and tiring because usually all I have is a pen and paper and my hands can’t keep up with my thoughts.

    So maybe no skydiving but you could try zip lining ?. Unless you’re afraid of heights.

    1. Gosh, you must go on one, it’s so much fun (did I say that already?! :p) ooh zip lining, I have done a bit of that at a Go Ape place here in the UK – its a sort of adventure park, but I hear theres a mega one that goes across vegas… could always put that on the list!

  10. Greatb post, Sacha. And don’t forget touch! You can’t google that, either! Whether it is the feel of a particular creature’s skin, a cloth texture or the feel of that old railway carriage seat (much harder than today’s), Your bucket list? If you’ve never done it; rock climbing. Great fun, and lots of potential copy.

    1. Thanks Mick, ahh yes, touch sense too! absolutely, touch I find is always essential when writing romantic scenes.

      I acutally used to have a climbing membership, although I actually used to prefer bouldering, but you’re right, maybe I should put it on my list of things so that I get back into it. 🙂

  11. Mindfulness in the first person…what an ingenious exercise. Well expressed and beautifully written. I want to experience a hot air balloon. I keep telling family that it’s what I want for Christmas/birthday/Mother’s day, etc. They’re not buying it. I’ll have to gift myself ! ☺

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. ooh a hot air balloon – thats on my partners list actually!

      You should totally do it yourself, I seem to recall it being on groupon rather a lot 🙂

  12. I agree with this 100%! I google a lot of stuff, I spend a LOT of time researching, and every place I mention in my books I have actually been to. All except the magical realm itself of course, I’m still waiting on that invite. But its what makes a book feel authentic, when the author can write with confidence and authority on a topic. I often combine these trips with family time too… win-win, as far as I’m concerned. (My family migt not agree! Too bad! ?)

    Oh and for your bucket list, a trip to Ireland!

  13. This is a great post, Sacha. No amount of internet research can actually replace direct hands-on experience, and often that experience isn’t hard to come by. For my books that take place on the sea, I went sailing on a tall ship, including blasting off canons! The crew must have thought I was crazy with my note book, camera and gazillion questions, but I think it paid off. Your day sounds like it was informative and lots of fun. A great research project.

    1. Thank you, and I am glad you agree. WOW that is so so so cool that you went sailing – how on earth did you even organise that? haha I can just imagine you on the boat at it rocks around the sea note pad out trying to record every detail! 🙂 I was exactly the same with the train!

  14. Trains? Sounds like you should have invited Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory to accompany you. He would have talked about trains from morning until evening, I guess there’s always a next time.

  15. I have a bounty hunter in my Westerns so my dad takes me to a nearby range so I can try shooting with both his air pistol and his air rifle. While they don’t pack that much of a punch, it definitely helps me understand things like recoil, and even how much anxiety would affect accuracy!

  16. Thanks for this great post Sacha, particularly #2. I know I get so wrapped up in my writing life that I’ve hibernated more in the past few years total than all my life. It’s invigorating to get out and I’m reminded of that each time I just get out for groceries. Going somewhere else truly can bring us fresh perspectives. That’s why I’m looking so forward to this coming winter, spending it out of the cold, in the desert and mountains where I know inspiration awaits me! 🙂 xo

      1. Yes, I’m doing something very special; getting out of my cold Toronto, and spending 2 glorious months in the southwest USA, Scottsdale Arizona in the desert! 🙂

  17. Love this whole post. This is so true. We get so stuck in our own little worlds and don’t get out in the “real” world. Write what you know isn’t going to work from that viewpoint. 😉 Speaking of, I need to get out of here find something useful and researchy to do.

      1. *sigh* I haven’t. AAAHHHH! I HAVEN’T! I keep looking at them longingly like a pair of shoes I can’t afford. (I don’t have a thing for shoes–bad example. But you get my point.) Frick! I don’t even know which one to work on! 🙁 Maybe I’ll just start a new one.

        1. You’re procrastinating…. just pick something and write. Maybe you need to reframe the way you’re looking at the choices. By picking one, you’re not consigning the others to the bin, just temporarily putting them on hold, you can pick them up at a later date, its just that one has to go first. toss a coin, get your hubby to choose, but one way or another girl, YOU HAVE TO START WRITING! :p <3

  18. This post is the most. Nothing like an elbow once in a while.
    Love trains, at least I used to. Rode them often, but not anymore.
    My bucket list is getting from one day to the next. 😀 I’ve passed 30 several time and then some. o_O

  19. I’ve never experienced a train, so I’ve always wanted to. One of the things on my mini bucket list is to go on a murder mystery train. They still do those, right?

    Speaking of being secret agent-like, who else has developed a knack for surreptitious people-watching. When I’m out in public, I sometimes find myself observing people–the way they interact, little gestures etc–but you never want to come off as creepy, so you’ve gotta observe without them knowing they’re being observed.

  20. Mt father used to take me to Chepstow Railway station every Saturday morning because, as a boy, I always wanted to be train driver. Platform tickets in those days costs 2 pence. Yes, two pence, but it was the best time ever for me.

    I’m terrible at doing research for stories. In fact, the only research I do is the type I do by going out and talking in what is happening around me. I know it will be my downfall one day and that somebody will pull me up about something in one of my stories. Maybe that is why I stick to writing short stories?

    1. 2 p????? 😮 what a bargain! :p well observing whats around us is a great form of research, our unconscious minds do most of the work for us. well i love your short stories, so i dont think they have suffered from any lack of research 😀

  21. Ah! Steam railways! They’re great, and a fantastic way of sharing time with your children. And you should grab that opportunity, because when they get older they have much better things to do than spend time with the old folks…

    As for getting out and doing some research, I was on holiday on the south coast this summer and hired a little motor boat to take out on to the Solent. Being on the water is something I love anyway, but the story I’m currently working on is partly set in the New Forest area, and there’s a bit of a boat chase planned towards the end. It’s going to need higher powered boats than I had, but I really wanted to make sure I had the setting right, so I could describe it clearly. I went along the coast and turned up the Beaulieu River (you may recall a month or so later I went again by chance and saw the deer), did my research and headed back. Out in the Solent again, the weather turned and the water became very choppy. I know have the experience of how even relatively light seas can leave you soaked, how much salt water stings when it’s thrust into your eyes, and what an outboard sounds like when the propeller keeps coming clear of the water. Great fun (though I don’t think my partner would agree with me) and some stuff to incorporate into stories.

    So I would recommend taking a boat out, but I seem to think you’re not a fan, so I’ll just suggest zip-wire (go for a really big one!) zorbing (I don’t ever want to do it again, but I’m glad I tried it) and gliding.

    1. Dont say that! I cant bear the thought of him not wanting to spend time with me! ooh a boat chase, love it, wow, that is some seriously epic research, i bow down to you and salute at your researching brilliance.

      haha boats really arent my thing! zorbing is an interesting one, I will think about that.

      1. Okay, I’m sorry. The truth is he’ll always want to be with you, he’ll always believe you’re the coolest thing ever, and he’ll never ever be embarrassed to acknowledge that he even knows you. Hope that’s put your mind at rest…

        As for saluting me etc., do remember that I love boats, so this wasn’t a chore for me – more an excuse to get out on the water again!

  22. Sacha, what a wonderful post! Yes, today everyone falls into the trap of relying too much on the powers of the internet to do what we used to do, from going to the library to experiencing first hand so much of what’s around us. But you broke out of that mold and took, not one, but two trains! Trains, incidentally, are my passion – any kind of train, as long as it moves along tracks. Okay, so now tell me, are you going to share the rest of the items on your mini-bucket list? Do they all relate to your writing?
    I have never made a bucket list, but now I think I should. Have you ever heard of a life list (vs bucket list)? A while back I read a debut novel by Lori Nelson Spielman, THE LIFE LIST.(I reviewed it, so you can check my archives for September 2013). I loved the idea of a life list. NOW, you have an assignment.

    1. Thank you Michelle, and NO WAY?? I had no idea that you loved trains so much thats amazing.

      Haha, I was thinking of incorporating each one in a blog post. I have things like open air cinema, owning a pair of christian louboutin shoes, looking through an enormous telescope, crop circle hunting, and visiting an abandoned town, takinga professional make up class, making a family portrait, lose some weight! etc etc and the list goes on!

      You so should make a bucket list. What will you put on it? right I shall go check your review 🙂

      1. I will look forward to your bucket list posts. The crop circles? There was a show on TV this week about crop circles, and how after they are “erased” from a field they often show up as though they have been burned into Earth’s memory. Awesome. Haha, now you will be researching these.

        1. No fricking way? seriously? so what the ground stays kind of burnt after they have been destroyed? OMGGGGGG I have just written that on my weekly wonder to do list! 🙂 did you write a list in the end?

  23. This is so true, Sacha – and also why weaving the real world into fantasy or sci-fi stories just gives them that little bit of realism. I’ve always been one for getting out there and experiencing things, and I hope that comes across when I write. I’m off to California in a few weeks to visit one of the places that inspired Ambeth (though I’m going for a family wedding, this will be a side trip) so expect lots of photos when I return. And your 30 before 30 list? You’ve already done so many things! I wouldn’t know what to add, really 🙂

    1. Sorry for my epic delay, barely had any time this week, ohhh thats so cool, where in california are you going? I have been to a few places in CA, love it. haha, I know, I think thats why I found it so hard to write a list, I am very privileged to have done so much 🙂

      1. Oh, I’m the same – I fell behind on blogs when I was publishing No Quarter and I still haven’t caught up! We are going to San Francisco and then driving down to Cambria, about halfway between LA and San Fran. I haven’t been to that part of the world for 30 years, so am keen to see it again 🙂

  24. Enjoyed the post, Sacha. BTW, the Orient Express is no longer steam, but it would be a marvellous experience anyway.
    I once went on a freighter for research, as my heroine went on a freighter to Australia. I only wanted a flavour and so I went from Felixstowe to Hamburg on a German freighter, taking 6 days. I loved every minute. The moment I went up the gangplank I honestly felt I was Juliet (my heroine). I lived through her the whole time, making tons of notes and taking loads of photos of tiny but fascinating details I never would have known about. And some of the crazy things that happened to me on that ship went beautifully into my novel.
    So I am a great fan of getting out of my writing cabin and getting out there.
    Good luck on your book.
    Denise (pen-name Fenella)

    1. Hi Denise, ahh I didn’t know it was no longer a steam train, I would love to go on it nonetheless. I can’t believe you spent a month on a train – I went on the sleeper train from moscow to st petersburg it wasn’t the most comfortable – how did you cope?

      What an awesome trip you took, that was clearly a great idea 😀

  25. I love steam trains! I haven’t yet gone out to research things like this (though I’ve done it the other way around – incorporated things I’ve experienced into my writing) but I think maybe I should. Great post.

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