Sunday, February 11, 2018

Digging Up Dirt: Exposing Your Character's Past When They Thought It Was Good and Buried - with Chris Patchell

I was chatting with my friend Chris Patchell, and she was
absolutely giddy over her research for her new book Vow of Silence. This is why we are friends. Of course, I wanted you all to learn what she was telling me.

For those who don't know her writing, Chris Patchell is the bestselling author of In the Dark and the Indie Reader Discovery Award winning novel Deadly Lies. A former tech worker turned full-time author, Chris pens gritty suspense novels set in the Pacific Northwest. She did an article with us about security alarm research for us, "Well, that's alarming!" Read it HERE.

Fiona - 
Chris, you have a new book coming out, Vow of Silence, which meant you got to do one of my favorite parts of writing - researching the topic and learning cool new things. What did you learn that excited your writing in your newest novel?

Chris - 

OMG! I was busy doing research for my new book, Vow of Silence, and I was learning more about people who do political research. This is officially called opposition research, the kind of digging up dirt on politicians that campaigns typically do.

I happened upon an article that was written by a guy who does this kind of thing. He has his own firm in Portland, not far from me. So I pinged him to see if I could buy him coffee... AND to say these guys have stories is such a gross understatement.

Fiona - 
LOVE! Okay, so we have context,  first tell us about your new book.

Chris - 
I like to say that I write suspense--more along the creepy side. Vow of Silence is book #2 of the Jill Shannon Murder Series. It takes place 5 years after Deadly Lies.

Here's the blurb:

Five years after the brutal slaying of her husband, software executive Jill Shannon is ready to take the next step in her life. But with her wedding to prosecuting attorney Conner Manning just eight weeks away, her future father-in-law’s political ambitions for her fiancĂ© threaten all her hopes.

Jill’s past holds dark secrets. Secrets she can’t afford to have exposed under the relentless lights of a political campaign. When Phoenix Detective David Shaw turns up at Jill’s door asking questions about a reporter's murder, he has no idea what a lethal Pandora’s Box he’s just opened. Was the womanizing reporter killed by a jealous husband, or was it related to his drug use? Or did it have something to do with the secret expose the reporter was working on?

Jill Shannon looks like a dead-end lead but Shaw can’t shake the feeling the beautiful widow has secrets she’s not sharing. Jill is caught between the sins of her past and the shattered hopes for her future. Shaw finds himself drawn deeper into a twisted labyrinth of lies and danger. One thing is clear: some vows are made out loud in front of witnesses. But some vows are made in silence, and witnesses can’t be left alive.

Essentially it's a story about a woman who has the kind of secrets that would destroy a life.

Her fiancee has sworn that he has no interest in going into the family business--politics, and while he believes that's true, as events in the book unfold... Well, let's just say that there are some secrets too big to be kept.

That's where our political researcher comes in. 

Fiona - 
So I'm just going to let you run with this. You met a guy and he told you...

Chris - 
The guy I met has a background in political science, but it's not unusual to have people who have spent a career in the FBI, CIA, or law enforcement.

In the article I read, he says that he finds information in the trash bins of the Internet. It was such a fascinating comment that I needed to find out more about what he meant. Our conversation started with public records searches...

Public records contain a treasure trove of information. For current politicians, their voting record [as a representative] is a great place to start. What does their platform say they believe in? How did they actually vote? Do the two sides of the coin align... Then there are expense reports...

He was working on one campaign with limited funds. He had one day to find information, so he went to the public records office and looked up the opposing candidate's expense reports, and when he signs in he sees that the person who signed in before him was also looking at the same thing--same candidate, same reports, AND he worked for the FBI.

The candidate was re-elected for office, but three months later, they were prosecuted for misuse of public funds... So yeah, lots of good information there.

You, as a candidate may be squeaky clean, but what about the people you have around you? What secrets do they have? This is where the topic crossed over nicely with my fictional story line...
Jill has secrets and she's smart enough to know that in the harsh light of a political campaign, nothing is safe.

We spent a fair bit of time talking about how to dig for information. During the course of a story, Jill stumbles upon some information that she thinks might be useful to her. She needs to find out who posted this info online (on a website to be exact).

The political researcher rightly pointed out that we humans are creatures of habit. We tend to use the same email addresses (or similar email addresses) for multiple online destinations. Like using the same email address for your Twitter account that you do on Facebook, etc. So, often you can use their email address to find out what accounts they have where...

Do they have a Twitter account that no one knows about? When you log on to most social media apps, they will ask you for your username or email. If you have a list of known email addresses, you can see if an account exists. Forgot your password, the application asks? Why yes. Here's my email address...

Once you know the username, you can search for the account--find out what that person is saying. Fascinating. There was a story about a politician who had a secret Twitter account where he was stalking certain types of film stars.

You can use your imagination...

Fiona - 
You're saying the Twitter account is an unofficial under the radar account but you look it up through the email?

So my account "Betty Boopty Do" isn't as secret as I had hoped?

Chris -
Exactly, because it uses the same email address as another account people associate with you.

Fiona -
I love all of this. Where else did he tell you (your character) to go look?

Chris - I was trying to figure out how my tech savvy gal tracked a secret website down to its owner, and it turns out that there are a couple of ways. Often people who have multiple websites share resources, like Google Analytics. They may change a bunch of other stuff to cover their tracks, but things like analytics are often missed.

Sometimes, people find out things they don't want to know--about loved ones. I guess it's better knowing beforehand than in the middle of a campaign. But man... It does make you think about politics as a career. I've led a pretty tame life, but there are a few things I wouldn't want EVERYBODY to know...

The guy who was teaching me told me a story about doing a public records search on one candidate. He filled out a form to get access to the relevant records set, and the clerk looks at the form and says. "You didn't check the box for audio files." Wait. What? Audio files. So like any dutiful researcher, he checks the box. And finds out that the candidate's wife had made three 911 calls.
Domestic abuse.

Not the kind of thing you want your constituents to know.

Fiona - 

I'm not at my best when I'm on a 911 call...

Chris - 
No one is. Some people call 911 for odd reasons. Nuisance kinds of reasons, which is interesting too--also not the kind of judgement you want to see from your elected officials.

Fiona -
Yeah - but sometimes they're really wack. I had a neighbor who came in the middle of the night and dug up my garden and planted all of my flowers at her house. I had gopher holes in the morning, and she had my garden.

I wouldn't want to discuss that publicly from the stump though.

Chris - 
What? That's crazy!

The other thing he mentioned that was interesting was that when charges are dismissed in a case, the court records are wiped, but the police records stay around for a LONG time.

The police typically have a 7-year retention policy for police reports. BUT in some places where the police are understaffed, those records can kick around for 20 years or so without ever being destroyed. These records can include police notebooks. So imagine if your character has a past that he's made "go away" from a legal standpoint. Proof that the incident actually happened can still be found in that layer of police records.

Another great way to find information out on a candidate is to dig into their past. High school and college year books. Find group photos. Figure out who the people in the photos are. Find out what stories they have to share...

Talk to friends. Peers.

Fiona - 
Does that include buying drinks in copious quanitites or do they like to chat?

Chris - 
Could be both, depending on the type. Some people readily share their secrets. Others need more "motivation" to share.

In fact, this particular guy first got into politics while he was working as a bartender in D.C. He was planning to go to law school when he met a government official who hired him to do some work on his political campaign. One trip to Capitol Hill, and he was hooked.

I left thinking that WOW, this job would be FASCINATING.

Fiona - 
Did he talk any more about the motivation to share?

Chris - 
I think you need to be the kind of person who is good with people. I know that's a "duh" kind of thing to say, but you know how you meet people who have the kind of personality that puts you at ease right away.

Did you ever see the movie Runaway Jury with Gene Hackman?

Fiona - 
No - it's now on my list.

Chris -
There's a character in that movie who does exactly this type of thing. He's digging into the past of the characters, and he's having tea with one of the character's mothers. He's asking questions, listening to her stories, when she unwittingly reveals a bit of information that she assumes he already knows, and just like that, the case is blown wide open.

Great story.

But it's like that. People like to talk about themselves and the people they know. It makes them feel important. Seen. So, in some instances it's easy as saying you're doing a background check on someone interviewing for a job.

Unethical, yeah, but it helps bring someone's guard down. You may tell a few of your own stories to provide a "legitimate" reason why you are asking, so you get the most valuable stuff.

These folks have the kind of war stories that are fascinating to hear. A lot of them, and I do mean A LOT of them, involve sexual misconduct. It's kind a cliche to say it, but it's true. Over the course of our one hour meeting, I was stunned. And I said "These aren't normal stories. Normal people don't do this stuff, do they?"

Although I am a fiction writer, I am also Canadian and so can sometimes be a little naive. But he agreed. The kinds of things that are uncovered are sometimes/often outside the boundaries of what most people do.

I asked why, already knowing the answer.

The answer he gave was "power."

Power is such a huge motivator.

The power of thinking you won't get caught. The rules don't apply to you. Easy to see in today's modern political climate how that plays.

The other interesting thing he said was that once you're in the business, you usually stick along party lines.
A researcher that works for a Republican candidate always works for Republican candidates. They stick along party lines. Makes sense.

I could have talked about political research all day. It's such a fascinating topic. When you think of the kinds of motivations that these people have, you often envision something smarmy. Digging up dirt. But a lot of it is reading policy documents and figuring out voting records. A lot of things that we would all want to know about our candidate. Free from the seamier underside. Really interesting.

Fiona - 
I'm with you! This stuff is fascinating. I think had this been a viable direction when I was a younger I might have enjoyed a career in stuff like this.

Chris -
I know. Once upon a time, it might have been a cool career choice and now I rather prefer making things up.

Fiona - 
I can't wait to read your book! I'm loading it onto my Kindle now. 

Readers, if you think this is as cool as we do, here's the LINK to get your own copy of Vow of Silence.

You can stay in touch with Chris:


  1. Fascinating stuff. I spent years working in HR and recruiting functions. One company I worked for didn't want to pay to do extensive background checks on potential candidates without us recruiters doing a little free digging first. Court records in most counties in almost all states are wide open now and all online. You can find a lot without ever leaving your desk or talking to a soul.

    Another thing a lot of people don't realize is that real estate records are public and searchable online. Unless someone is buying and selling properties through trusts, it's all listed in black and white...who owns it, as of when, how much they paid (and, often, the bank that financed it), how much the taxes are and whether they've paid them. It goes on and on.

  2. Thank you for the fun interview, Fiona!

  3. That was good stuff. I write on the shifty side of the fence, so I'm obsessed with secrets and good and bad and who gets to decide. Thanks for sharing this.