Research for my first novel, Please Don’t Leave Me Here, involved sifting through 1990s newspapers on microfiche at the State Library, frequenting coffee shops in Degraves Street and drinking beer at featured pubs.
My second novel, Dead in the Water, required a lot more research. I stayed at the place where it’s set — Raymond Island, a tiny island in the Gippsland salt-water lakes system, with a population of about 540. There are plenty of koalas, but no shops or other businesses. If you run out of bread or milk [OK, wine], you have to catch the cable ferry across to Paynesville on the mainland for supplies. After the last ferry crossing between 11pm and midnight, there’s no way on or off. The perfect place to set a crime story!
Dead in the Water deals with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, so I spoke with a police psychologist and officers suffering PTSD. I also made friends with forensic scientists who told me more than I needed to know about dead bodies in water, DNA and gun shot wounds.
The hardest research was learning to shoot a gun. I wanted to write a shooting scene and, being a ‘method writer’, didn’t think I could do it without knowing how it really felt. So, I booked into a course at a pistol club.
You can hear gunshots from the car park. Inside, people are lying on mats, shooting rifles at targets on the range. I go the wrong way and end up in the bistro instead of the training room. You can relax and enjoy a drink in the lounge or licensed bar after shooting the crap out of stuff. There are taxidermied animals around the room and deer heads on the wall.
The training room is full of mostly young men. Anybody — who doesn’t have a police record — can do the handgun-shooting course. So how dangerous can it be? Our instructors enter the room — one has an arm in a sling; the other has a leg missing below the knee.
They teach us about the safety equipment required on the shooting range. Special earmuffs, because guns are louder than a jet engine and can cause permanent hearing damage. Safety glasses, because pieces of shrapnel can fly back and hit you in the eye. And be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards, because handgun ammunition contains some very hazardous materials like lead styphnate, which can cause heavy metal poisoning. That’s if you have any hands left: Never cross your thumbs behind the slide of a semiautomatic pistol (the slide is the thing on top that flies back from the recoil of the shot, forcing the empty round from the chamber out through the ejection port). Not because it might break your thumb, but because it could slice it right off. Excellent. I start to think maybe I don’t need that gun-shooting scene in my book after all.
Out on the range, each shooter is allocated a shooting bay. Always make sure the gun is pointing in a safe direction, and the only safe direction is DOWNRANGE! (they shout a lot on the range). Be especially careful of turning around to talk to the person next to you because … [Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction — ‘I just shot Marvin in the face’? You get the picture]. There is a yellow safety line along the back of the bays, and a red line along the front. NEVER REACH ACROSS THE RED LINE! At this stage, my legs have started to shake and my mouth is very dry.
They said we’d have plenty of time to get the ‘feel’ of the guns before shooting at the targets. But I’m still getting to know my gun, and so not ready when the Range Officer commands ‘EYES AND EARS!’, a reminder to get your safety equipment on. Trying very hard to suppress a panic attack, I put on my earmuffs and safety glasses. ‘MOVE FORWARD. LOAD. FIRE!’
I have a go at shooting semiautomatic pistols of increasing calibre, my mantra the whole time: Never cross your thumbs behind the slide, never cross your thumbs behind the slide, never cross your thumbs behind the slide. Then I try some revolvers, including a Magnum (or was it a Beretta? — same name as a cop show from the 1980s), which has quite a kickback.
The cylinder on one of my revolvers seems to be stuck. I keep trying to pull the trigger, but it won’t work, so I hold up my hand. The Range Commander comes over to check what’s wrong. Lucky I asked for help because one of the rounds is stuck in a chamber and, had I kept trying to shoot, it could have caught fire and exploded in my hands. That’s enough for me. I donate my remaining ammo to the guy in the next bay who is enjoying himself far more than I am. I come away with my eyes, ears and thumbs intact, and enough details to write the gun-shooting scene.
In my work in progress (working title: You Used to Love Me), my protagonist’s hobby is bonsai. I’m looking forward to a relaxing short course, researching the gentle art of bonsai. Careful with the trimming tools?