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.
The Joy of Rabbit Holes
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.
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.