I’m thrilled to bring you this interview with E.M. Kokie, author of the survival novel, Radical. Kokie knew she needed to learn more about firearms in order to write her book, and the story of how she went about it is a terrific lesson for writers who find themselves in a similar situation. Enjoy!
How familiar were you with firearms before you wrote Radical?
I had never touched a gun before. I don’t think I had even seen one up close or been in close proximity to someone shooting any kind of firearm.
So, my exposure to firearms was largely books, television, news media, and movies.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that firearms were a key to understanding your lead character, Bex. Why is that?
Bex has grown up in a family in which gun ownership is a tradition. They are hunters, and also enjoy hiking, deep woods camping, foraging, trapping, and learning survival skills. In the year or so that precedes the start of the novel, her father has lost his job and the family has lost their home, and they are now staying with Bex’s uncle in a more rural area.
Because of a variety of factors, Bex believes that a crisis is imminent, causing her to become more serious about survivalist training. But without an organized group with which to train, Bex has been training on her own in the area around her uncle’s home, devising her training regime and exercises from information she can find online.
In the early stages of the research, I was focused on fleshing out Bex’s fears, motivations, belief system, and the kind of training exercises she would be doing and what steps she would be taking to prepare for possible crises.
As I started writing, however, I was having trouble finding Bex’s voice or the heart of her character. I tried all sorts of writing techniques to try to find her voice – changing the tense and point of view, tweaking her backstory, and doing writing exercises. Nothing was working. And that is when I realized that I had a huge blind spot about Bex’s character.
I knew Bex’s family would own guns and that Bex would have grown up shooting, but I wasn’t thinking about her current feelings about shooting or guns. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that firearms are part of her worldview, her preparation, and even part of her identity. I wouldn’t be able to write her, at least not credibly, unless I could understand her love of shooting, her desire to be proficient and what that would mean in her eyes, and unless I could convey the sensory details of what it would look, feel, sound, and even smell like to shoot a gun. If I didn’t better understand firearms and Bex’s feelings about and experience of them, then there was no hope of getting her character right.
Outside of Bex, what role do firearms play in Radical’s story?
Many of the characters in the book own firearms and believe strongly in an absolute right to do so pursuant to the Second Amendment. Bex and several members of her family join a group that is involved in firearms and tactical training, as well as survival skills. There are a variety of political and personal views among its members, which allowed me to explore to some extent that not all “gun owners” or “gun people” are the same, and that not all people who seek out survivalist training or who consider themselves preppers or survivalists are the same or motivated by the same concerns.
I also wanted to explore that the group not only gives Bex a place to train and assistance for her family in a SHTF scenario, but it also gives her friends, especially girls who also like to shoot. It’s a place where she finally feels like she could belong. I really got into the scenes where Bex is shooting (maybe too into them for some readers less interested in the details of marksmanship), but I loved showing who Bex is when she is shooting and how those moments factor in to who she is when she isn’t shooting — the confidence, the pride, her joy at shooting well and proving herself.
Plus, there are plot implications surrounding gun ownership and possession. So, firearms are integral to the plot, but they are also integral to many of the characterizations. Part of what drew me to this story was an opportunity to explore the political and social beliefs and subcultures that seem to coalesce around the Second Amendment in America. You can’t do that without getting to the personal level.
What steps did you take to understand firearms better?
I knew next to nothing, and much of what I thought I knew quickly turned out to be wrong. I wasn’t really sure where to start the research and felt overwhelmed. (The Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction would probably have cut my floundering around Wikipedia, sales sites and YouTube by far. But, alas, I was in deep floundering mode several years before it was published).
I started my research with reading threads on writing forums about firearms, threads at firearms forums, websites about guns, Wikipedia pages on different guns and legal issues surrounding guns, and even the comments sections on popular retail sites — anything that would help me learn enough about models, mechanics, and terminology to be able to learn more. Then I moved to YouTube, where I watched endless hours of videos – reviews of different makes and models, demonstrations, how to clean and maintain different firearms, amateur shooting and survivalist training videos, and even competitions and simulations. Hours upon hours. Sometimes I would pause a video and re-watch it bit by bit, and then Google the terminology to try to learn enough to make scenes realistic.
But I needed more than videos. I needed to feel it. I needed to understand the sensory details, but when I went looking for training classes I couldn’t seem to find one that I could do that would allow me to shoot with live ammunition without purchasing a gun, which I really did not want to do. I also really wanted to shoot outside, in a setting similar to what I imagined for my character.
I was lucky enough to connect with some experienced gun owners who helped me experience shooting and cleaning a variety of firearms in an outdoor setting, in a safe and controlled way – enough to gain a taste of Bex’s sense of accomplishment and her thrill at being proficient, the sensory details of how it felt and smelled to shoot and clean those guns. The kick. The texture. Enough to write the first several drafts to work out the characters and plot.
There came a time, however, when I needed to verify what I had been able to learn and figure out what I had wrong in the working draft of the book. I needed an expert. Through the Absolute Write Forums I connected with Rob Reed (he can be contacted at reedrob1 [at] hotmail [dot] com) who is an NRA and SigSauer Academy certified firearms instructor, and writer in the greater Detroit metro area.
He initially answered some questions, engaged in a back and forth to help me work out some plotting and technical issues, and read several scenes, offering feedback. Despite all of my research, there were legal and technical aspects of firearms and ammunition that weren’t quite right. Details that would impair my character’s and my story’s credibility for readers experienced with firearms. Rob was really helpful in that revision stage to help me target both the technical errors and the missteps that would impair credibility, and to offer suggestions for revisions.
Later in the editorial process, my publisher hired Rob to do a more thorough content review of the manuscript as we neared publication. It was humbling to see the details that were still off or wrong even at that stage, after all my careful efforts to get them right. But that is why you hire an expert and I was grateful for Rob’s careful review.
Did any of that education change your perception of firearms or the people who use them?
Working on Radical, the research, getting in the heads of the characters, the vetting process, it all helped me gain a much more informed perspective on the thought and care that responsible gun owners put into caring for, safeguarding, handling, and maintaining their firearms. I also gained insights into so many of the family and social cultures of gun ownership. And I got a taste of the thrill of shooting, which definitely helped me better understand those who shoot for sport and pleasure, who take pride in their proficiency. I’m a competitive person, and there were several times in the research that I got caught up watching competition and demonstration videos.
Working on Radical helped personalize the issues for me and helped me break down the emotional divide I had in my head that had me thinking of gun owners as “them” in the inevitable us-versus-them that so many political and cultural issues become. I definitely gained a better understanding of why so many gun owners fear regulation. It didn’t necessarily change my views, but it certainly helped me better understand those who hold contrary views.
Some of the research even reinforced some of my personal concerns about guns. It reinforced my fears of those who aren’t conscientious gun owners, who don’t take proficiency and security seriously. Shooting a gun made me even more certain that in the wrong hands they are dangerous – even when those wrong hands are merely inexperienced, intoxicated, or otherwise impaired. I am still concerned about how easy it is to acquire firearms, and the danger they can pose in the hands of someone in distress or crisis. Now I am even more concerned about people who obtain guns without proper training or a proper understanding of the responsibility of gun ownership, or with specific, immediate, non-defense motives in mind. I am still very concerned about how easy it is to obtain firearms in some areas, both legally and illegally.
What is the most surprising thing you learned or experienced from your time diving into firearms?
How many people I would never have suspected as being “gun people” own or grew up with firearms. Time and again, when I would talk about my research or the book, people would “out” themselves to me as gun owners, or as people who had grown up in families for whom gun ownership is a long held tradition. That was surprising and fascinating. And those revelations led to some really interesting conversations, and helped me see gun owners as a more varied and variable group of people.
Would you recommend other writers unfamiliar with firearms take the same steps you did?
I definitely recommend that writers writing about guns, or any subject with which they’re not personally familiar, do the research necessary to be able to write with accuracy and credibility and then, when any doubt remains, to hire an expert content reviewer.
I can’t say I regret the hours and hours of YouTube videos or forum lurking, because it all informed the story, but it wasn’t the most efficient research plan. I’m hoping that with interviews like this, more blogs and guides about firearms research, writers will be able to find reliable information faster.
And then interviews and blogs may also help them find experts like you and Rob (reedrob1 [at] hotmail [dot] com) for consultation and content reviews. I can’t stress enough how valuable a content review is in catching the errors and missteps that can sink your credibility with a reader. Even if you research a subject extremely carefully and conscientiously, there are likely nuances and situations that only someone with the same experiences as your characters would pick up as off or technically incorrect.
What sort of safety precautions should writers new to firearms take when looking to do hands-on research?
I was lucky to connect with experienced and safety-oriented gun owners who helped me to experience shooting in a safe environment. They helped me feel and be safe so that I could gain the experiential and sensory details I needed without having to become proficient myself.
I would tell writers with no experience with guns to be careful about who they seek out as a consultant, but even more importantly to be careful if someone invites them to shoot. Both for their own safety, as well as the quality of the information and instruction they will receive, they should look for someone with substantial experience and, if possible, take a class or session with a certified instructor.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I hope readers who have experience with firearms will relate to Bex and find the scenes with firearms interesting and engaging, but, above all, accurate. And I hope that readers who don’t have any experience with guns will obtain insights into those who do.
But mostly I hope readers find Radical to be a satisfying and entertaining read — whether because of or despite the gun scenes — whatever their personal experiences.
Where to Get Radical
Curious to see the final result of all that research? Pick up E.M. Kokie’s Radical at all fine book retailers. Here’s the Amazon link to get you started.
And here’s the official description:
Preppers. Survivalists. Bex prefers to think of herself as a realist who plans to survive, but regardless of labels, they’re all sure of the same thing: a crisis is coming. And when it does, Bex will be ready. She’s planned exactly what to pack, she knows how to handle a gun, and she’ll drag her family to safety by force if necessary. When her older brother discovers Clearview, a group that takes survival just as seriously as she does, Bex is intrigued.
While outsiders might think they’re a delusional doomsday group, she knows there’s nothing crazy about being prepared. But Bex isn’t prepared for Lucy, who is soft and beautiful and hates guns. As her brother’s involvement with some of the members of Clearview grows increasingly alarming and all the pieces of Bex’s life become more difficult to juggle, Bex has to figure out where her loyalties really lie. In a gripping new novel, E. M. Kokie questions our assumptions about family, trust, and what it really takes to survive.
One thought on “Hands-On Research: How a Gun Shy Writer Pulled the Trigger for a Novel”
Ms. Kokie: I certainly look forward to reading “Radical”. But I admit to some curiosity about your research into firearms–was it all paper (or Internet) research, or did you ever actually handle and shoot a firearm? From what you’ve written in the blog entry, a reader can’t tell. . . .