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The Devil in the Details


By Barbara Nickless

First Published

“If you want to get shot,” the SWAT leader said, “go ahead and reach for that gun.”

I froze, my hand inches from the pistol lying on the counter. Minutes earlier, I’d been full of bravado. Talking smack with my fellow drug dealers and preparing to relax on the sofa and count the day’s take. Now, looking into a pair of the coldest eyes I’d ever seen, I was suddenly unsure. Should I throw up my hands in surrender? Or go down in a blaze of glory?

My fingers twitched as my hand hovered over the gun.

“Go on,” the cop said. “I dare you.”

What I’m talking about here is not my life of crime, but the research I did in order to play the part. I had my run-in with that team of heavily armed and armored-up men while I was working on my first mystery/thriller.

Arranging the meet was pretty simple. I wanted to know more about the dangerous aspects of police work. They needed a guinea pig.

Research has moved beyond the dusty stacks of the library shelves of my youth (although I miss those shelves!). These days, we can run Google searches, join chat groups, watch YouTube videos, and gain access to information on a huge number of organizations—all from the comfort of our desks.

But first-hand experience can garner us telling details that makes our stories ring true.

When I set out to write my first thriller, a novel about a former Marine turned railroad cop, I had to convincingly depict guns, murder investigations, trains, railroad cops, the CIA, the Iraq War and Mortuary Affairs, the Marines, military working dogs, K9s, hobos, railroad gangs, and white supremacists.

Clearly, I couldn’t gain first-hand knowledge in all those areas. But I did what I could, and dove headfirst into every hands-on experience I could find.

Call me crazy.

While I’ve stopped short of trying to hop on a moving train, I have gone on a ride-along with a coroner (not for the queasy), watched K9s take down criminals while I scrambled to get out of the way, crouched in a corner when the husband of a domestic violence victim came home with a gun, and been inadvertently locked in the back of a cruiser during a murder investigation.

One of the most emotionally difficult experiences has been taking out possible bad guys during interactive video simulations. Each time, I’ve revisited the scenario in my mind. When I fired my gun and “took” a human life, did I do the right thing? Was the suspect guilty? And was there any way I could have de-escalated the situation without firing a shot?

Gaining first-hand experience takes time. And all of us are busy. We have kids and jobs and books to write. But a lot of research activities can be done on weeknights or weekends. Sheriff and police citizens’ academies, for example, are typically one weeknight for six weeks, plus an optional ride-along.

And it only takes a small taste to give you a larger perspective.

Back to that drug den and the gun lying on the counter. When the door burst open and twelve SWAT officers poured in—swathed head to toe in black body armor, assault rifles at the ready and aimed at me—I lost my courage. All I could see of them were their eyes, and the look in those eyes meant business. My hands went up in surrender, the gun stayed on the counter, and I missed my chance to get shot.

With a paintball gun.


Barbara Nickless is the #1 Amazon Charts and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of the award-winning Special Agent Sydney Parnell crime novels and now a new series, the Dr. Evan Wilding books. Learn more about Barbara at

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