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.

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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.)

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Laura Lam: Website | Twitter

Shattered Minds: Indiebound | Amazon