Experts often say to write what you know. But what if you’re an author writing about a character who has a range of experiences that you haven’t had yet? Gregg Hurwitz, author of the Orphan X series and its forthcoming installment Out of the Dark, has a simple solution: research. But Hurwitz’s research probably looks a little different than you might imagine. Here, Hurwitz dishes on the most exciting experiences he’s had in the name of research.
How did I wind up interviewing a man while he was carving up a corpse?
Hang on. Let me back up.
At the start of my career, I quickly learned that firsthand research was essential for writing thrillers. In order to pick up telling details that could make a scene ring of verisimilitude, I had to get in there and experience the sights and smells myself—and take the risks my characters do. Only then could I give the reader a front-row seat to the action.
I remember the precise moment I discovered this. I was on the phone with one of my Navy SEAL buddies, a breacher who was explaining to me how a detonation device worked. He finally got frustrated with my lack of comprehension and said, “I’m coming over.”
Not the threat one wants to hear from an agitated Navy SEAL.
But he did drive over and he threw me in the back of his truck, smuggled me onto a demolition range, and promptly blew up a car. Pointing at the smoky aftermath, he declaimed, “Like that, dipshit.” And I thought, I get it! This is so much clearer!
Since then, I’ve very carefully built my proverbial Rolodex. Pathologists, Army Rangers, adult film actors, professors—I need the widest array of people who can put me into the action. Because of this, I’ve found myself embarking on all sorts of idiotically fun adventures over the years. I’ve swum with sharks in Galapagos. I’ve learned how to pick locks. I’ve gone up in stunt planes and done barrel rolls over the Pacific.
And for my third novel, I had to talk with a particular hospital tech in order to inform a few scenes in my book. Unfortunately, the only time he could afford me was while he was literally carving up a body so he could send the parts to various departments for dissection (heads go to neurology, elbows to orthopods). So there I was with my notepad and pen, wishing I’d worn galoshes, but acquitting myself as best I could.
And as often happens, being on site gave me a new idea that I would never have discovered had I not been willing to show up. When the tech finished with the cadaver, he crossed the room and opened a massive metal door which opened to a gigantic freezer. Inside were a couple dozen corpses suspended from their heads with figure-eight scissor clamps holding them by the skulls, their pale feet swaying a few inches above the floor. He revealed to me that that if cadavers are stored flat, their bodies distort, making them less useful to medical students during anatomy dissections. But by being suspended, the bodies retain their natural shapes (for better or worse).
So of course, I had to set a scene in that gruesome freezer. A man is being pursued through a hospital late at night, needs somewhere to hide… You can probably figure out the rest.
It was a great addition to my emergent novel and yet I never would’ve learned about that freezer had I not been willing to get on location and brave the Sawzall spatter. Opportunities present themselves when you get in the field, and a writer’s job, perhaps more than any other, is to be open to opportunities.
As I’ve written before, the Orphan X books have given me ample opportunity to get myself into more trouble. I’ve shot combat shotguns. I’ve engaged (badly) in mixed martial arts fighting. I’ve sat down with top-tier hackers and military operators to hear their own stories in their own words.
In Out of the Dark, a highly personal mission takes Evan Smoak to the heart of power in D.C. I traveled across the country several times to uncover arcane secrets and to nibble at the edges of classified intel. There is a process involved in gaining rapport with confidential sources that can sometimes prove more precarious than flying in a stunt airplane or blowing up cars. For this book in particular, it was a delicate push-pull between trust and mistrust, a balancing act likely better suited to Orphan X than to your friendly neighborhood novelist. I hope you enjoy the result.
Gregg Hurwitz is the #1 internationally bestselling author of twenty thrillers, including Out of the Dark: An Orphan X Novel (January 29, 2019; St. Martins/Minotaur), and two acclaimed thrillers for teens. His novels have won numerous literary awards and been published in 30 languages. Additionally, he has written screenplays for many of the major studios and networks. Visit him at gregghurwitz.net.