Researching An FBI Story

King of Paine is a complex story with many subplots and themes, but at heart it’s about a flawed man, Frank Paine, seeking redemption by joining an organization striving to recapture its own fabled mojo after a string of historic failures. With the ghosts of Waco, Ruby Ridge, and 9/11 whispering in his ear, Frank’s first case forces him to bridge the divide between the FBI’s Old School dinosaurs and a new breed of agents personified by the debonair Jeronimo Reyes and his Cyber Squad cohorts.

The Bureau is in fact reinventing itself to combat 21st century challenges like terrorism and cyber security, creating another set of challenges for an author intent on providing an authentic reading experience. While I took a few liberties, several amazing resources helped me paint Frank Paine’s FBI with true colors. My research covered several areas: Bureau history and organization, federal laws and jurisdiction, agent mindset and anecdotes, investigative procedure, authentication of details, and settings.

The best introduction to the FBI is a visit to the agency’s own website. Volumes of pages detail the Bureau’s history and organization and provide a treasure trove of data for the curious reader.

As a lawyer myself, I’m a stickler for getting the law right in my novels (or at least the appearance of right!). One mistake some aspiring crime writers make is inserting the FBI into their stories without first confirming the crimes in question fall within the Bureau’s jurisdiction. Generally, the FBI only enforces federal laws, so they wouldn’t be called in to investigate a murder or sexual assault. One of the first conflicts in King of Paine is over jurisdiction–Frank attempts to exclude the Atlanta police from a sexual assault case by arguing federal cyberstalking laws apply. His personal connection to that case–a link to his secret past–fuels the main plotline, so his control of the investigation is critical to the story.

An author has leeway in developing characters in any profession, and avoiding stereotypes is something I strive to do. Frank Paine is a former actor, not the typical FBI career path; I describe him as a tennis player in a locker room full of linebackers. That said, I wanted to capture the lingo, unwritten rules, and cliques unique to this locker room. Several memoirs by former special agents and Internet forums populated by them gave me a peek into the Bureau mystique. Through their anecdotes, I picked up procedural tips, jargon and hints at the agent mindset that add spice to King of Paine.

Then I dove inside the belly of the beast. Okay, it was more like an appointment with a couple of linebackers, Special Agents Stephen Emmett and Jerry Reichard of the Atlanta Field Office, but the adventure still made my heart pound. (I don’t get out much.)

The meeting was arranged by Chris Allen of the FBI’s Investigative Publicity & Public Affairs division based in Washington, whose office provides a liaison between field agents and authors and screenwriters interested in adding realism to their projects. These are the guys who make TV shows like Criminal Minds and Numbers ring true. To prepare for my interview, Allen relayed answers to my detailed questions from agents in the field and at the FBI Academy in Quantico, filling in many gaps in my knowledge–details about the Bureau’s new case management system, arrest procedures, funeral arrangements for an agent killed on duty (hint or red herring?), and much more.

Then Agents Emmett and Reichard showed me around the Atlanta Field Office and patiently answered my follow-up questions over the course of an exhausting day. The tone ranged from serious (a dramatic retelling of Emmett’s wounding in the course of a shootout with bank robbers) to arcane (Reichard’s explanation of the mechanics of tracing instant message communications over the Internet) to tongue-in-cheek (when asked why he was going to Iraq, Emmett deadpanned, “waterboarding”). Besides immersing me in Bureau culture, the visit enabled me to create a mental picture of the setting for much of my story (although Emmett requested I obscure details of the office layout for obvious reasons).

I go through many drafts as part of my writing process and had to cut some fantastic material to get King of Paine‘s dramatic pacing right. I hope the remaining nuances make for an action-packed Bureau experience grounded in reality.

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