Research, Intrigue and the Internet

I write spy thrillers. I invent devious characters and spin tales about terrible events and I have free reign because my books are, after all, fiction. But I also inject real places and actual events into the body of the story to add a sense of realism. And because readers expect accuracy with regard to anything that is real-life, I do my best to meet their expectations. I have traveled extensively and have visited most of the locations that I use in my novels, but those trips don’t always coincide exactly with the time frame of the story. The challenge, then, is to fill in the gaps between what was and what is. Research becomes the order of the day.

LM Reynolds writes spy thrillers, inventing devious characters and spinning tales about terrible events. Click To Tweet

My latest novel has a backstory that takes place in the early to mid-nineties—in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1990. A total of six (or seven, depending on who is counting) other countries surfaced out of the chaos, along ethnic and religious lines that exposed long-simmering hostilities.

I visited Sarajevo when the city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984—when it was still in Yugoslavia. Shortly thereafter, I coached a few dozen young Yugoslav men and women who had been hired by Pan Am. Eight short years later, the entire region was at war and Sarajevo had become the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The city was also subjected to the longest siege in modern history, from 1992 to 1996. No food, no water, no medicine, no electricity, no fuel, no escape. Nearly 14,000 of its residents perished—over one-third of whom were civilians.

When I was in Sarajevo, it was a lovely and welcoming place; I enjoyed it immensely. I liked the people, especially—warm and embracing and kind. A decade later, nearly every building bore evidence of the mortars and rockets and sniper fire that had rained down on the city for four years. The scarring of the inhabitants, both physical and psychological, was even more disturbing. Families were decimated and men, women, and children maimed. They lived with terror for years and many still have a well-founded fear of open spaces. I was, and am still, saddened and horrified by the events that took place there. I think I knew, even back then, that I would write about it someday.

One of my characters is a Bosnian man who, after a particularly tragic experience, decides to flee Sarajevo and make his way to his family’s home in a town about fifty miles away. But how did people escape from the surrounded city? Not easily. The city lies in a slender river valley that runs generally east-west and is hemmed in by sharply steep hills to the north and south. Hostile Serbian forces occupied nearly all of the territory around Sarajevo, save for a narrow corridor at the southwest—just beyond the airport—which led to land occupied by Bosnian forces. To escape, one had to cross not only the runway but also the open grounds around the airport—at night, through an area laced with coils of barbed wire—and risk being caught in a sniper’s scope.

I was not enthusiastic about my character’s odds of making a successful escape via the airport crossing—too many real people had died while making the attempt. Click To Tweet

I was not enthusiastic about my character’s odds of making a successful escape via the airport crossing—too many real people had died while making the attempt. I considered having him wait it out until a peace agreement was reached. My storyline, however, demanded that he leave the city in 1993, and the Dayton Accords were not signed until late 1995. Time for Plan B. I had a vague recollection of hearing about a tunnel, so I dug in (pun fully intended) to learn more about it. In early 1993, the Bosnians had dug—by hand—a half-mile tunnel to bring supplies into the city. The northern entrance was in the garage of an apartment building, in a neighborhood on the southwest side of the city. From there, the tunnel ran generally south, dropping beneath the runway, and extending to the cellar of a private home to the south of the airport, with Bosnian-held land just beyond. It was a remarkable feat, a perfect display of human resilience and ingenuity.

The owner of the house has since restored part of the original tunnel and today the family runs their own private museum. It has become one of the most popular tourist spots in the city. I needed to learn everything that I could, so, in addition to all of the technical research, I visited travel blogs and other travel-oriented sites and looked at hundreds of photos. As I explored, however, I kept running across references to the private dwelling that hid the north end of the tunnel. I was thoroughly confused. I checked and double-checked. All of the published maps clearly showed the names of the neighborhoods where the entrances were located (Dobrinja to the north, Butmir to the south), that the airport was to the southwest of the city, and that the house and its museum were south of the airport—not north. What on earth was going on? How could so many people have misstated the location? Was I just going crazy?

And then, light bulb! The museum’s collection of artifacts includes a map, designed to provide a visual explanation of how the city was surrounded, and to show the entry points and route of the tunnel. It is a pretty map, a photogenic map—a map that thousands of people have captured on their smartphones and posted and shared on the web. It is also a map with which the artist took a small liberty—by inverting it. The museum map shows the mountains and the Bosnian-held territory to the northeast, along with the airport. With the mountains at the top and the valley at the bottom, it is probably a more aesthetically pleasing composition. Or perhaps the artist was just gazing out at the snow-covered peaks while creating the picture. Regardless, thousands of people automatically associated the map’s top with North and its bottom with South. Thus, if you were using it as a real map, it would only work well if you looked at it while standing on your head.

Whew! I was relieved to know that I had not yet lost all of my marbles. Instead, I had encountered a classic example of how misinformation spreads on the web. It was not malevolent, nor intentional, but it certainly had legs! As a longtime consumer of web content, I have learned which sites to generally (note the disclaimer) trust when I am seeking factual information. But even if one employs the journalist’s technique of verification from multiple sources, one can still be led astray or led to question established fact. While the internet is a glorious place to find information, at your fingertips, in an instant, it can also be a perilous place to wade, with sharks of every description homing in as you splash in the surf.

Make sure that you have your wits about you, that you know which way is north, and that your map is pointed in the right direction! Click To Tweet

The moral of the story is that, if you are conducting research on the internet, be careful about accepting statements at face value. Check your facts, explore multiple reputable sources, use your common sense, and throw in a healthy dose of skepticism. And for all of you digital-map explorers out there, beware! Before setting off on a journey to an unfamiliar place, providing directions to lost travelers, or planning a military invasion, make sure that you have your wits about you, that you know which way is north, and that your map is pointed in the right direction!

~~ LM Reynolds