ATF - How a Research Trip Turned into a Job Offer 🪪


Hi, all—

I hope everyone's having a wonderful first week in May. It's been solid rain here, so we're still waiting for our warm, sunny spring to arrive. But that's probably a good thing for me. I'm currently trapped deep in the creative cave, on the home stretch for Kate & Ruger's coming Hidden Valor installment, Beneath the Bones.

Yep, as you can see, it's another long book. But since this is par for the course for me, I'm committed to ignoring my jeering word counter as I write my way to The End. That should happen sometime early next week.

Since I needed to take a break from working on the first draft of the manuscript to write this newsletter, I thought I'd talk about one of those amusing opportunities that life tends to toss our way. This one's tied to research. As you all know, writers do a lot of it. Some more than others. 

Of course, the amount of research a writer needs to accomplish is tied directly to the genre they choose to work within. Science fiction, historical novels, military thrillers—they come with their own uniquely heavy loads. But a romantic comedy can require a lot of research, too. Especially if it's based, say, in a hospital. No matter the genre, authors need to have a certain level of knowledge to write—or fake!—their prose with conviction.

Even though I was briefly Army enlisted & a former Navy surface warfare officer, I often must do a deep dive into research when I craft Regan or Mira's stories. This is because there are hundreds of occupational specialties across the branches & the information I gleaned from my own firsthand experiences is a mere woeful tip of the military iceberg.

And when I step out of the military? Even over to another federal agency? I have to dig deeper there. Fortunately, as you know, I love research. Nonfiction books, internet articles, audio & visual documentaries—I plow through it all with near-equal zeal. But nothing can replace a one-on-one interview with someone who's solidly in the know. So naturally, years ago when I was writing the outline for a romantic suspense that involved characters with Army demolitions and bomb disposal experience, I dug right in.

The demolitions part was locked in from the get-go. Mostly because, as you also know, I'm married to a former Army Combat Engineer/Sapper. As my husband likes to say: a happy wife = a happy life. Even if—for him—that means answering those pesky what ifs posed by his writer-wife ad 3 am. But rigging demolitions is a different animal than rendering them safe. That's why the military also has EOD...which was not a specialty I could draw on at my kitchen table. So I turned to the phone.

Since we lived in Massachusetts at the time, I made a cold call to the Boston ATF. (For non-US citizen Reader Crew, that stands for Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms. ATF is similar to our FBI, except ATF focuses on those three—and they do it well.)

It turns out that when I made my cold call that day, there was a senior ATF bomb disposal expert waiting for a flight...and he was bored. The agent told me later that when he found out the caller was former Navy & a ship's damage control officer, he was intrigued. So he spent more time & offered more detail during the call than he'd planned. (Said agent was also former Army Special Forces. Yep, vets tend to find each other out in the wild.) 

Needless to say, the call went very well for my plot. As I wrapped up the outline & began writing, I was also able to email questions as they arose—which was fantastic. But as I neared the denouement, my list of questions had swelled to the point where I needed the give & take that another one-on-one call would provide. The agent agreed. That call went well, too. But during it, I had to pause to deal with one of my kids, then a toddler. When I returned to the call, the agent seemed surprised & asked my age. I told him & before we hung up, he also asked if I wanted a tour of the Boston ATF offices & facilities. 


We set up the tour for the following Saturday, since my husband would be home to watch our kids, and I drove into Boston for the most amazingly detailed tour I've experienced to date. I got to climb through the post-bomb, rapid response vehicles, the comm center, the cage where all the very cool, high-tech surveillance gear was stored, etc. But even as I absorbed everything that I was being told & shown, I was pretty clueless as to the agent's underlying purpose…until we were sitting inside his office & he handed me his weapon to check out his special sights. As I looked at the agent—looking at me with his weapon in my hand—it hit me. I was the one being interviewed...for a job with the ATF.

I calmly set the weapon down & told the agent I wasn't interested—and that's when the pitch kicked into full gear. It turned out the senior agent sat on the hiring board & ATF was actively seeking female agents. He told me that with my shipboard background and the "interview" I'd just survived with him—without even knowing that's what was happening—I was a shoe-in. The slot was mine. Take it.

Obviously, since you're reading my current author newsletter, I turned him down. I confess, it was a difficult decision. It was also a couple of years prior to 9/11. So in the end, the reasons why I left the Navy—those sweet cherubic faces at home— reigned supreme. I did lose a bit of sleep that weekend though. And I freely admit I called my then editor at HQN on Monday & asked her to tell me point blank if I could write & had a future in fiction. I'd just sold my first book to the publishing house by then. Reassurance helps with those inevitable regrets that also come when life tosses a nifty opportunity your way...and you turn it down so you can pursue another path.🙂


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