Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Reseaching Foreign Settings

By Chester Campbell

While I worked on revising the third book in my Post Cold War political thriller trilogy, I was reminded of the lengths to which I had gone in researching the locations where the story takes place. I originally wrote the book in 1992, so some of the settings were more fresh in my mind at the time. Two of the central characters in the book, Overture to Disaster, were a retired Air Force Special Operations helicopter pilot and a chief investigator for the Minsk, Belarus city prosecutor.

Col. Warren "Roddy" Rodman settled in the Guadalajara area of Mexico following his court martial for supposed negligence that resulted in the crash of his helicopter on a clandestine mission to Iran. The area around Lake Chapala, 40 kilometers south of Mexico's second largest city, was home to one of the world's largest colonies of expatriate Americans. Digging around on the Internet, I found the editor of a community newspaper that served the group and got lots of information on the area and its residents.

I used AAA maps, guidebooks, and similar sources to augment my knowledge of Guadalajara and its environs. I had attended a convention in Acapulco a few years earlier, taking a bus tour from Mexico City to the coastal resort. We stopped at towns along the way and en route saw many miles of typical rural countryside. In Mexico City I got a good taste of the metropolitan flavor.

Yuri Shumakov, the chief investigator, moves about his hometown of Minsk, with junkets to Brest on the Polish border and Kiev, the capitol of neighboring Ukraine. This was the period just after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose confederation of the former Soviet states. Belarus was the old Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. To get information about the country, I corresponded with the American Embassy in Minsk. I went this route with two of these early manuscripts and found it quite helpful.

I sent a list of questions concerning particular points I needed to clarify. My Embassy contact provided details on such items as soccer teams, locations of government buildings, the status of the old KGB, all items I used in the book. I turned to guidebooks and other sources to get the flavor of Brest and Kiev.

The Special Operations helicopter mission to Iran provided an interesting bit of research. I had a book on Army Special Forces (in which my younger son had been an officer) that told about U.S. Green Berets helping victims of an earthquake in a mountainous area before the mullahs took over the country. I picked that area for my mission as the people would still be friendly to American troops. Since I had been an intelligence officer in the Air Force and Air National Guard, I felt I had a little entree to the active duty force. I read extensively about the MH-53J Pave Low III helicopter and talked to an operations officer at Hurlburt Field, Florida, home of USAF Special Operations Command. He read the section of the book detailing the clandestine flight and offered some suggestions.

I used outside reading to fashion my chapter that takes place in Zurich, but when revising the manuscript twenty years later, I called on my memory of visiting the city during a European trip in 2000. The descriptions still sounded good, though I added a couple of features gleaned from my personal experience.

Visiting foreign locales can certainly improve an author's views, but extensive research can achieve almost the same end. If you love research, as I do, either route can be exciting. And by the way, Overture to Disaster should be out in March.

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