by | Oct 19, 2020 | Extraordinary Guest Bloggers | 4 comments

The writer Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen uses the pen name Wolf Bahren when publishing fiction. Kristi has a Bachelor of Arts in economics from Cornell and a Master of International Affairs from Columbia. She considers the lessons she learned from growing up in Poughkeepsie, NY, working odd jobs, traveling, listening to others, and living her life as important as her formal education.

In “Source of Deceit,” her latest espionage thriller, foreign correspondent Anna Jones must discover the truth behind the apparent suicide of a World Bank Director and the shooting of his young associate in Washington, DC. “Source of Deceit” is currently being pre-released on Bahren’s blog in short installments aimed at busy people eager for a quick escape. A print version is coming this fall. For details, see www.wolfbahren.com.

The Joy of Rabbit Holes

by Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen (aka Wolf Bahren)

Conducting research is a process I have always loved. Following a trail of curiosity down a rabbit hole to discover something new thrills me. This affection came in handy when I was a journalist, because getting the facts straight is critical in reporting the news. But strong research is also important for fiction. Sign posts connecting readers to real life render a story more believable and convey themes more effectively. 

My professional experience as a researcher goes back to my first job, when I became an official “research assistant” at a think tank in New York City, at the time called the Institute for East-West Security Studies. I started in 1989 as the Berlin Wall was crumbling, and we worked on issues like democratization in Eastern Europe, banking reform in Poland, and political turmoil in the “powder keg” of the Balkans. 

Of course, in those days, much of my “research” involved making photo copies, placing calls, and filing expense reports. (I can still see piles of crumpled receipts in multiple denominations and hear the automated voice at the United Nations—“Si vous voulez une standardiste francophone…”). But on good days, I did real research, digging into the microfiche at the New York Public Library, discussing reforms with visiting “fellows,” and scouring books and journals. Later, in grad school, I became obsessed with Lexis-Nexis, an eye-popping smorgasbord of news and academic work (searchable with key words!). During an internship at Newsweek, I learned more tactics as a “fact checker” for Dita Camacho, an awe-inspiring foreign correspondent turned editor who drilled tough standards into her researchers.

The web really liberated freelance writers, just as I was becoming one. While I still tend to hoard newspaper clips, I greatly appreciate the huge body of information online. In terms of specific websites, Google Maps is my favorite, hands down. I could pore over it for hours—following rivers, verifying locations and zooming in on “street view.” Easy access to foreign newspapers, wire services, magazines and videos is of enormous benefit in gathering information and deciphering patterns. For my latest novel, Source of Deceit, I was especially glad to have access to the Bangkok Post and the Irrawaddy. I also located many articles and reports, such as on gunmakers in America, rebel groups in Myanmar, and projects of the World Bank. It’s not only experts who are useful—random people sometimes reveal tips in blogs or comment sections. 

Online used-book dealers provide a convenient and cost-effective way to gather specific historical research. While researching Source of Deceit, for example, rather than be tied to the library, I bought Behind Japanese Lines: With the OSS in Burma by Richard Dunlop (2014) and Thailand’s Secret War: OSS, SOE and the Free Thai Underground During World War II by E. Bruch Reynolds (2005).

Social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) provides another well of information. Just as interesting as following the news on these apps is analyzing the role social media plays in society. The ongoing controversy over TikTok is one example. Also, back in 2017, when supposedly American followers appeared on my Twitter account using Cyrillic letters and making grammar mistakes, I realized that some of the followers were bots, which got me thinking about propaganda in a new way.

Source of Deceit pre-released on Bahren’s blog

Internet research has its downsides, of course, and not only due to the bots. A proliferation of private databases silos information and limits access. Paid reviewers and algorithms slant ratings, while trolls and political crusaders muddy the waters, at best. We in the DC area know only too well how conspiracy theories can evolve into violent events. More than ever, researchers must consider the source and remain vigilant in identifying manipulation.

Personal experience also serves as a form of research and a way to develop good judgment. By covering international finance and foreign affairs in New York, DC and Europe, including for AP-Dow Jones, I not only learned about particular topics, but also what it’s like to be a foreign correspondent. I saw how spies and journalists interact (or didn’t), what techniques journalists use to investigate and interview, how they evaluate sources, and how people may attempt to exploit one another. I also witnessed news bureau politics, and friction between journalists and government officials.

Travel counts too. Fascinating international locations are a distinguishing feature of espionage fiction. Real-life immersion allows a writer to drink in details, especially sensory experiences, which can be incorporated later. I finally made it to Bangkok and Chiang Mai in 2018, and this trip was critical in helping me describe Thailand accurately (and taking photos for my blog). 

No matter the reason for your research, exploring both real and virtual rabbit holes is definitely worth the trip. 

Thank you, Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen! Readers, have you had a chance to read some of Source of Deceit
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  1. Rogue Women Writers

    What a great description of the "exhausting" ways this author does her research. Now, I can't wait to read "Source of Deceit" — it certainly sounds like it will be a bestseller. Thanks, Kristi, for being our guest here today!….Karna Small Bodman

  2. Lisa Black

    No, but it sounds fascinating! I minored in Economics and have read copiously on the 2008 financial crash, so this sounds like a book I have to get.

  3. Kristi (Wolf)

    It's truly an honor to be included on your blog. Thank you very much! Please noted that "Source of Deceit" is now available on Kindle too. (Print coming soon.)

  4. Jenny Milchman

    Love your pen name, and so happy to learn about your work! With your background, it's no wonder you do research so well.