by | Jun 12, 2016 | The Writer's Life | 9 comments

I love my job.

Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS), Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Navigating through the desert

By Sonja Stone

0150: I stumble through the darkened desert, each arm thrown over the shoulder of a teammate. Every few steps I lose consciousness. My teammates drag me down the path until I come to and start walking again. I feel so weak. We’ve been hiking since dawn with no food and very little water—only what we could find along the way. Deep into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, down jagged cliffs along extreme terrain. I’m not a weakling but I have no reserves: I’m 5’2” and 110 pounds. My tank is empty and I just want to sleep. The temperature has dropped from the low 90s of the afternoon to the mid 50s, and it will continue dropping as we descend further into the canyon. At this point I don’t care about anything. If I drift off and never wake up, so be it.

Christine Goff, fellow Rogue Woman Writer, posed this question: Are you a boots-on-the-ground or armchair researcher? For most of my blog sisters, contemplating this led to thoughts of international travel. The series I’m writing now takes place deep in the Sonoran Desert—where I happen to live. So my research is a bit different.

0245: Our group stops for a rest. We’re way behind schedule and our instructor is pensive. Carla, a teammate, begs him to give me a drink of water or a few nuts. He couldn’t even if he wanted to; he has no rations. We will not eat or drink until we reach our destination: a primitive camp along Durfee Creek. I lay down in the dirt and close my eyes. Carla shakes me. I tell her I’m not thirsty or hungry anymore. “Just let me rest a minute—I’ll catch up.” 

This is my idea of a vacation. 

French Pastry School
One of our class creations

So when you ask what kind of researcher I am, I’m definitely boots on the ground. In fact, my favorite vacations involve learning new skill sets. The trip to France to study under the very talented Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) Stephane Glacier. The primitive living skills course taught in the Sea of Cortez on La Isla Tiburon among the Seri Indians. Learning to survive in the desert with a knife, a water bottle, and a poncho.

Why is it necessary for me to go to such extremes?

SECRET #1: I Have a Terrible Imagination

Because of this, I’m required to do hands-on research. I studied martial arts, learned to throw knives, took lessons at the local gun club. I hike in the desert; sometimes, to get in character, I push myself as I imagine the students at Desert Mountain Academy must.

bow drill, hand drill, primitive skills
Primitive Zippo (bow drill)

The high-school students in my novel, recruits at a CIA black-ops training facility, complete “survival courses” as part of the curriculum. A great deal of their experience comes directly from what I learned at Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS). Like the scene where my protagonist Nadia Riley is on the first survival course: it’s day two, she hasn’t slept, they’ve been hiking nonstop for hours in the hot desert. All she can do is put one foot in front of the other. She focuses on that—one more step, one more step. That’s exactly how I felt on my 7-day Field Course. 

On the plus side, I can make fire without matches and build a shelter that will keep me alive through freezing temperatures—I know this because I’ve done it. I can set a deadfall, skin a mouse, clot a wound with yarrow, fight Giardia with desert barberry, and filter water. I can make rope (cordage), craft a bowl out of wood and a smoldering branch (burn bowl), and orient myself on a starry night. I’ve learned that I can push myself past what I’m certain is my breaking point—one step at a time.

SECRET #2: I’m Living Vicariously through My Characters

These experiences shaped how I see myself and how I view the world. When my characters start whining that I’m asking too much of them, I whisper, “Shh, you can do it.” And they do.
My fantasy job: CIA Officer [but like the Sydney Bristow variety (ALIAS), not the actual risk-my-life-for-my-country-for-little-money-and-no-recognition variety (Thanks, Francine, for your service!)]. 

For a number of reasons, I didn’t go into this line of work. I’m willing to concede that at my age, becoming a spy isn’t very likely. 

But I still want to play spies. 
Since none of my friends will follow me into the desert for a three-day Escape and Evade Adventure, I’m forced to write about it. My protagonist isn’t based on me: she’s Me 2.0—the person I want to be.

SECRET #3: Perfectionism is the Bane of My Existence

I’m an all-or-nothing thinker. About everything. When I take vacations I either want to be backpacking through the desert or living at the Ritz Carlton. If my home can’t be perfectly organized all the time there’s no point in doing the dishes. And when I attended high school (with undiagnosed ADHD), I believed if I couldn’t get a 4.0 there was no point in cracking a book.

I used to be a pastry chef. One evening, the country club where I worked hosted a large party with a prix fixe menu. I was assembling the plated deserts, meticulously adding each intricate sugar garnish as a finishing touch. The line cooks who’d prepared the savory dishes apparently thought I needed assistance to get the desserts out the door in time. If you’ve ever worked in a kitchen, you know that twenty-somethings just out of culinary school who work on the hot line aren’t known for their delicate fingers. The garnishes broke, I (very somewhat courteously) informed them that thank-you-very-much-but-I-do-not-need-help-the-guests-will-get-dessert-when-I-say-so, and they stepped away from my bench. For whatever reason, I earned the reputation of “not being a team player,” and being “a bit of a princess.” 

FYI, I like princesses.
Authors are often asked, “How do you know when the book is done?” As a perfectionist, I can’t answer this question. My debut novel, DESERT DARK, was released in April. I knew it was done because my agent said, “Okay. It’s done.” I was like, “Um…but not really, right?”

Here’s the thing about being a writer: I vacillate between thinking I’m an absolute genius and thinking I’m the least original person on the planet. The truth is, I’m probably somewhere in between. In my case, it takes a village to write a book.

But the research is (hands down!) my favorite part of the job.

Have you ever been assigned a side project at work or school that captivated you? Writing the company newsletter? Designing posters for the school play? Crafting cookies for the church bake sale? Did you discover a talent you didn’t know you had?

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. KJ Howe

    Fabulous post! I love research so I applaud your passion and gusto. Can't wait to hear more stories.

  2. S. Lee Manning

    Hats off for taking the course. The closest I got to hands on research was learning how to shoot a gun. What a great adventure.

  3. Sonja Stone

    Thank you, Kimberley! I know you can relate–riding camels through Jordan and zip lining in Costa Rica! Some research needs to be experienced.

  4. Sonja Stone

    Sandy, you've just returned from a beautiful European vacation! That's definitely hands-on! To research my setting, I only have to step outside. 😉

  5. Jamie Freveletti

    I agree, researching is the best! And fighting through the desert and make fire without a match. Excellent and sounds like fun-although seven days seems like a long time. Bet you loved a hot shower after that was over. Great post!

  6. Sonja Stone

    So true, Jamie! First priority: food. Second: sleep. THEN I took a shower! We arrived back at base camp on the final day around 3 am. They gave us oranges and we got to sleep on the ground next to a fire someone else had made. It was heaven.

  7. Chris Goff

    I'm not sure I would survive a survival course. The hands-on approach to research definitely comes through in your writing!

  8. Sonja Stone

    Thanks, Chris! It was far more physically and mentally demanding than I anticipated. But absolutely worth it!

  9. Sonja Stone

    Hi Justin! As a writer (and a mom), I can't condone outsourcing term papers, lol! Luckily, in my case, writing was the only homework I didn't despise. If I could've gotten someone to do my calculus…