The Road to Dugway: A Writer's Guide to On-Site Research

Jul 1, 2010

On Wednesday, armed with a notebook, pen, and an audio book of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I headed to a military post in the middle of the desert. The goal: on-site research.

In Devolutionaries, the world was devastated by biological warfare 10 years prior, and a portion of the book has several characters being trained in their an abandoned military base. While in the initial research stages, I learned that Dugway Proving Ground, a mere two hours from me, is an Army post dedicated to research and defense against biological and chemical weapons. It was a perfect setting for my book. And as such, I knew it would be incredibly helpful if I had a chance to visit it.

Boy, was I right.

Not only did I get a feel for the atmosphere, weather, and environment, I learned a heck of a lot about the base. I got to see the garrison, where the soldiers and their families live; I had a drive-through tour of the testing areas; I had a chance to explore a mock town used for training in real-life scenarios; and I got a close look at German Village, an old WWII-era building originally used for target practice. I also learned a few things about conducting on-site research, which was a new experience for me. Lucky for you, I'm going to share.

1. Prepare ahead of time. Do online and book research before you go so you know what you're going to be looking at! If you just show up, clueless, you'll not only LOOK clueless, you'll get a lot less out of the trip. Because I had checked out their website, Google maps, news articles, etc., I knew enough ahead of time that I was able to focus on the details once I was there.

2. Start writing before you go. Before the trip, I went ahead and jumped into writing some of the scenes on base, even though I knew I'd be rewriting portions. This helped me immensely in knowing what kinds of things I needed for the book work. Even if you just outline or even brainstorm ahead of time, it'll help. Just be willing to change things-- I thought I wanted to use a particular place as a key setting, but it turned out another one worked better. It'll require more rewriting, but it'll be that much cooler.

3. Make your plans early and be accommodating. Depending on your research, you may have to get approval beforehand to get onsite. This was the case for Dugway. It took several emails and several weeks to work things out-- I couldn't just show up and ask to look around. As you're making plans, remember that they are doing you a huge favor by allowing you to come in and look around! Do whatever you can to make it easier: be flexible with dates and times if possible, or volunteer to go with a group. And don't badger them with incessant emails and phone calls, either. Be persistent if you have to, but be nice.

4. Get a competent person to show you around. Sure, there are probably places you could call and they'd let you come poke around on your own. You won't learn nearly as much. When you have someone who really knows what they're talking about take you around, you'll see all the little nooks and crannies you would have ignored. I had an awesome contact who went above and beyond to show me and the other two on the tour fascinating things I didn't even know existed. She knew details and stories, and had the connections to get me to places I didn't think I'd be able to see. If you want the inside scoop, you need it from an insider!

5. Don't ignore the little things. I barely looked up from my furious note-taking at Dugway, which probably drove my poor patient contact nuts. A lot of notes came from what she shared with me, and some came from things I experienced. I payed attention to things like driving distances, what buildings looked like, how the dirt felt under my feet, and the sound of the wind. They were tiny things, but important ones to making the scenes in the book come alive. Pay attention to everything, and WRITE IT DOWN.

6. Learn more than just what you need. Am I going to work into my book the Army chain of command at the base, or the portable meteorological testing devices? Not likely. But it sure was cool stuff to learn. My readers won't need to know about the unmanned aerial system (basically, remote-controlled airplane) I saw being tested, but I found it fascinating. You can learn a lot more than just things for your book! The most important thing I learned was that there are scores of dedicated military and civilian personnel giving their all to protect our soldiers-- and the rest of us-- from the real and deadly threat of chemical and biological agents. It gave me a whole new respect for those people, and for all those who willing put themselves in the way of that to protect our country and the people in it.

7. Be appreciative. You've been given a special privilege to experience something pretty darn cool (it better be, if you're writing about it). So say thank you! Shake hands, smile, let them know how much you appreciate their time and effort on your behalf. On that note, I'd just like to say another huge thanks to Paula, my awesome guide and contact. She made it a beneficial, informative, and fun trip.

And finally, I'd just like the say that the best soundtrack you could get on a four hour drive to do research for a post-apocalyptic novel is The Road.


MTeacress said...

This brings to mind the book Green Glass Sea. Have you read it? I'm not very good at summing up what it's about, but maybe you'd like to check into it on Amazon or something.
You've got me excited about research and given me a better idea of how it should be approached. :)

Anonymous said...

Great list. Preparation is key, and you want to get the most out of the experience.

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