When I first created my Nick Bracco character some fifteen years ago, I had very little knowledge of how the FBI operated outside of what I’d seen on TV and in the movies. It was Nick’s Mafia cousin Tommy that I had a much better grasp of, since I was surrounded by Sicilian family members all the time during my youth. But I needed to research the FBI so I could bring a reality to my character. I read several books that were truly informational, including a great one by Ron Kessler titled, The FBI. However, there were still questions that lingered in my mind that I needed answered. Remember, this was pre-Google.
I picked up the phone and dialed the local Phoenix FBI field office and asked if I could interview an FBI agent for a book I was writing. Now, here’s the important part—I didn’t tell them it was fiction. I think that might have something to do with the fact that a moment later I was transferred to a gentleman who introduced himself as Agent Simpson (let’s go with that, since my memory is foggy.) He was pleasant, even asking me if he could have my phone number in case we got disconnected. I knew, of course, he was staring at my number on his caller ID, so right away he was making sure I wasn’t lying.
After the guy answered a litany of questions for me, I was fascinated that someone would take time out of their busy schedule to do such a thing. Until I discovered that was actually doing his job. Each field office has a Public Affairs Specialist who’s there to work with the media, including writers who are working on articles or books about the FBI.
If you’re writing a thriller, it’s not a bad idea to make that call. I remember asking things like: Does an FBI Agent have to use government-issued weapons or can they buy their own? Does every shooting incident require a debriefing? Do FBI agents get to choose their partners? I can tell you that some of these answers were not what I expected.
I’ve heard of writers doing ride alongs with police and I’m not sure the FBI does that, but I promise if you call your local field office there is someone there who can answer some of your questions. Hey, your tax dollars are helping pay for this service, so why not take advantage of it.
Just don’t tell him your last name is Ponzo and your father used to help the Mafia run the numbers in his candy store back in the '70s. I’m sure the statute of limitations has run out by now, but somehow I skipped that part during my interview.