Laura Lam: I Am On So Many Government Watchlists

The post title alone is one of the greatest things ever. Great in part because it’s true. I think of what I Google for research every single day, and I’m sure I’m currently being surveilled by drone. Laura Lam kicks ass here in this guest post talking about the research that went into her newest — Shattered Minds — and why she should probably expect SWAT to come kicking in her door any minute now.

* * *

In retrospect, I have no idea why I wrote a near future corporate espionage hacking thriller when I myself knew absolutely nothing about hacking. I used to be pretty good with computers back in the early 2000s. I created my own very tween pink and sparkly websites with HTML code typed into Notepad and uploaded via FTP. There’s a few broken remnants scattered on the internet via Wayback which I will never show a living soul. But I let those skills lapse, which is a shame.

When I sold False Hearts in a two-book deal I proposed Shattered Minds, a companion novel set in the same world, a dream drug addicted serial killer thriller with a large emphasis on hacking. I knew lots of books and films are famously bad at depicting hacking realistically, but I also knew I wanted to weave in interesting visuals using VR to hark back to older cyberpunk (and make those scenes more interesting to read about than a few people in a room typing frantically). I’ve researched loads of things outside my realm of experience. This is my fifth published book. I got this, I thought.

Ahahaha. Ahaha. Ha.

Shattered Minds is, to date, the hardest book I’ve written. My protagonist, Carina, is a serial killer addicted to dream drugs who wants to murder everyone around her. I don’t do drugs and I save spiders and take them outside. Not wasps though. Fuck wasps. I hate those things so much that I put them in my VR interface as the AI bugs that swarm and attack anomalies in the code. My love interest (and secondary viewpoint character) Dax is a Shoshone/Newe trans man doctor—again, nothing like me. This book has the most twisted villain, Roz, I’ve written yet. Think Rachel from Orphan Black and you’re not far off. I’d like to hope I’m nothing like her, as she’s pretty damn horrible.

Craft-wise, it was also a new challenge. It’s the first book I’ve written in third person, and it has three viewpoint characters plus two different flashback narratives threaded through. While writing, it felt like a puzzle with a hell of a lot of pieces that wouldn’t fit no matter how much I mashed them together. At about the halfway point, I wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into and if I should just give the money back to the publishers.

What got me though it? 1. Chocolate. 2. Throwing myself even further into research. Write what you know means drawing on your own experience, but it also means going out and learning a bunch of stuff so you can lie convincingly about it. As a result, I’m probably on a bunch of government watchlists.

Here are some things I googled while writing this book (typed into full sentences rather than Boolean operators etc):

• Female serial killers (with a lot of focus on Aileen Wuornos, even though she’s different to Carina). A couple books I read as a result:

Kelleher, Michael D. & C.L. (1998). Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer. Praeger.

Vronsky, Peter (2004). Serial Killers: The Methods and Madness of Monsters. Harvard University Press.

• Espionage (government and corporate). This led me to a few nonfiction books:

Greenwald, Glen (2014). No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt.

Isaacson, Walter (2014). The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Simon & Schuster. (Espionage: SM)

Javers, Isaac (2010). Broker, Trader, Solider, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage. Collins Business.

• Virtual reality hacking

• How long does the heart keep beating after being cut out of a body? (usually just a few seconds)

• How many litres of blood in the human body (1.2 to 1.5)

• How hard is it to slit someone’s throat? (It always seemed really easy on TV/film, wondered if it was—it is better to stab through either side of the throat to hit the carotid artery than slit, but alas, my character didn’t realise this and made a mess)

• How to break into an encrypted company server

• Motivations for blackmail

• Wikileaks and other government leaks

• Corporate leaks

• The difference between sociopaths and psychopaths

• How to choke someone with a sleeper hold (watch your carotid artery, folks)

• Effects of drug addiction on the brain (not good)

• Effects of drug addiction on memory (bad)

• Video of open brain surgery (gross)

These are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. How many watchlists am I on? Probably all of them.

However, some of the best research was done without the magic of Google. I grew up in California but moved to Scotland eight years ago. In 2015, when I was in that halfway-oh-God-it’s-all-broken stage of drafting, I flew back and took a research trip to Los Angeles, wandering around the areas where I’d set scenes in the book and scoping out others. And in terms of hacking, I have a cousin who owns an IT security company with offices in Hawaii and San Francisco. I skyped him a few times and picked his brains and he gave me examples of how well known corporate espionage examples were pulled off and general approaches my characters might take. A lot of it was theoretical as the tech in Pacifica has moved on a lot from how we’d do things now.

The main thing I took away from our conversations was his phrase “there’s no patch on human stupidity.” You can have the best technical system out there, do everything right, but you can’t control a lazy human who writes their password down and hides it in their desk, or can be blackmailed with patriotism, sex, or fear. That’s the approach I took for a lot of the book. Have all the cool sci fi trappings, but focus on the people and their weaknesses and fears rather than the tech. The result is a book with a lot of blood, a fair amount of hacking that hopefully comes off relatively plausible, and a broken group of people just trying to do the right thing. More or less.

Every writer has researched something fairly dodgy. What Google search has likely gotten you on a watchlist?

(Dear NSA and other government officials: we’re writers. Promise.)

* * *

Laura Lam: Website | Twitter

Shattered Minds: Indiebound | Amazon

27 responses to “Laura Lam: I Am On So Many Government Watchlists”

  1. So much gun research. So much. And bombs. Plus I’m pretty sure I’ve nearly had the cops called on me as hubby and I wandered the grocery store aisles discussing the ins and outs of serial killers and how long it would take someone to die from certain wounds. I actually reassured one poor old lady that my husband WAS a cop (he is), and that it was all good. She looked unconvinced.

    Great post, Laura — thanks for the chuckle! 🙂

  2. I have googled:
    -can poisonous berries be made into a jam (trying to kill someone with poisoned jelly, because fun)
    -Poisonous plants-(looking for plants to mix in a salad) ended up buying a book. Lol
    -Can you burn someone alive via crematorium?
    -Burning people alive
    -government “only” weapons
    That’s off the top of my head and the current most heinous. I promise I’m writing nut cases.

      • Holly berries in chutney (I guess it’s not quite a jam) will cause vomiting, diarrhea and drowsiness. Not lethal but enough to shut someone up for a while during the holiday season. Not crazy, just a mystery writer, I swear.

      • Honestly, I don’t know. It depends on the toxicity of the berry and the way the chemical compounds changes through the jam making process. I’m still looking into it since this is a back burner WIP.

  3. I’m a translator, so I have to do research for quite a lot of weird stuff. Yesterday it was for a play about a cocaine dealing ring, so I needed a lot of specific terminology. It did occur to me that I’d look pretty suspicious to an external viewer.

    And I have a colleague whose feeds have been full of BDSM related products after she translated a catalogue for a sex toy/lingerie company.

    Come the revolution, translators will be disappeared in their millions.

  4. EMP reach and impact on contained population followed by how to infiltrate a SCIF … Then my internet unexpectedly went down for a few hours. Go figure.

  5. Yeah, I’m working on one right now that involves google searches on the Russian Mob, Chechnya Mob, Blood diamonds, prostitution rings and how they are set up, human trafficking, and money laundering. So many watchlists. I swear that I’m just a writer. Really. I promise. We’re all just weird. Harmless, but weird. 🙂

    • Actually, we aren’t harmless. We know stuff. That makes us dangerous to people who want to manipulate us. 😉

        • Does he want you to practice on other people instead? I once divided the different ways to die into modes and methods because, yes, I am an information architect in my day job. I organize things for a living.

  6. * The best place to stab a person for maximum damage but minimal blood
    * medieval torture implements and their effects on a body
    * all sorts of demonology – names, spheres of influence, descriptions, etc

    Aaand…I write romance XD

  7. Two things, Laura: first, thanks for the insights both granted and inspired by the paragraph with “There’s no patch on human stupidity.” That paragraph alone just solved a problem I have in one of my WIPs! Add bribery and gReed to your list.
    Next – now I want to read your books!
    And yeah – I’m on the lists too. Serial killers, psychoses, murder, mayhem and blood… Having a friend in the medical profession helps a lot, too.

    • Glad to have helped! And if you pick up the books I hope you enjoy 🙂

      Having friends who are in law enforcement or the medical field is very handy.

  8. So far this week I’ve looked up:
    * The difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia
    * GHB vs. rohypnol
    * Brand names of benzodiazepenes
    * U.S. navy medical corps ranks
    * Symptoms of a incipient seizure
    * The side effects of too many nsaid pain relievers
    * Encryption protocols for email

    The top three were for work. Yeah, I don’t have an FBI file or anything.

  9. Ditto on the corporate espionage and hacking, but can also add terrorism, yakuza, human trafficking, eugenics, drone strike protocols and PMCs to the list. Not all for the same story, though, lol

  10. How to make homemade gunpowder. For a princess story, naturally.
    I probably got on my parents’ watchlist around 14-15yrs: If you hit a loaded handgun really hard with something heavy and metal, is it likely to explode? Ok, thanks (disappears back into bedroom).

  11. As a writer, if you don’t piss off someone at least once in your life, you’re not doing your job. Google searches that have probably alerted the government? Hm…almost too many to count. But most involve BDSM, male masturbation, and penis-lengthening exercises. I welcome the probing eyes of government officials. Like religious leaders, they always think they know what’s best for everyone, and I just love smacking them upside the head with reality.

  12. Let’s see: As a result of my Flash Fiction Challenges for this site alone, I’ve searched biological weapons, lots of sex-related deviances, and probably many more red flag-inducing subjects to come.
    But, seeing as how I’m an introverted middle child, I welcome any and all attention from the fascist overlords.

  13. If I may, the answer to this one isn’t correct:
    “How many litres of blood in the human body (1.2 to 1.5)”

    It should be about 5 litres of blood in the human body (for an adult). When you give blood, you give about 450-500 mL, which is one tenth of the total volume. If the total was 1.2-1.5 litres, you wouldn’t be able to give one third of the total volume!

  14. Gods above and below! Serial killer protagonist, trans man love interest, awesome trappings with a hot bloody pulsating human heart at the center! Sci-fi isn’t usually my genre but I am SOOOO picking this up the moment I have the money.

    Also, this post made me grateful that I primarily write historical/secondary world fantasy so most of my research is simple harmless archaeology, history and biology. But I have most definitely fallen down the rabbit hole of ‘quickest, quietest way to kill a person dead’, also I find poisons to be incredibly fascinating, so there is probably a concerned government worker out there with my name scribbled down.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: