NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy Friday #42: ISASI

action-adventure thriller buchman

ISASI - International Society of Air Safety Investigators
To say that Miranda must be a member would be an understatement. So why did it take until novel #14 to mention them and who they are? Well, that's today's NerdGuy.


The reason that I didn't include them in earlier books is simple, I didn't know they existed.
When I decided to set the start of the action in Sweden, I ran into a problem. The way the NTSB works on foreign soil is that they must be invited by the foreign crash investigation agency. The same is true for a US military crash investigation, the NTSB investigators must be invited. These invites are not unusual when US technology is involved, like Boeing airplanes, and so on. That wasn't the story problem I faced.

The problem was the NTSB itself. They have four regional offices: East (DC), Central (near Denver), West (near Seattle), and Alaska (Anchorage). Miranda Chase and her team are based outside of Seattle. So how was I going to get them to Sweden? For an accident in Sweden, an NTSB team would typically launch from the closest office, in this case East. I got around this in Osprey (Miranda #13), by having them conveniently vacationing in Yorkshire only a few dozen kilometers from the crisis. I couldn't play that card again so soon.

What if they were simply the closest available team? Why might they be the closest team without actually being involved in either another crash or on a vacation?

I kept writing Gryphon, ignoring that I couldn't figure out how the team arrived. At the end of the summer, and fast approaching my Gryphon deadline, I was scheduled to attend a couple of writers' conferences. "Do air-crash investigators ever go to conferences?" A quick google showed that not only do they have an annual conference, but also that at least one prior conference had been held in Iceland (close but not too close, making it perfect for my story). Problem solved.

Except, what were the conferences like? Well, the next one it turned out wasn't off in some remote (from me) corner of the world. It was in Nashville, TN, just a few hours flight away. (Sadly, Amtrak trains don't go to Tennessee, which would have made a cool writing trip.) And it was in 3 weeks. So, three weeks later, as a newly minted associate member of ISASI, I arrived in Nashville.

The Conference

I could not have asked for a better event. The first day had an all-day master session on military air-safety investigation. The next 3 days were packed solid with information, 8-hour days of a new investigation or new strategy report every half hour. All meals were together as well. For 4-straight 14-hour days I was immersed in air-safety planning and air-crash investigation methodologies and results. Talk about drinking from the firehose!

The People

They were the amazing part of it all. I love professional conferences. At them, everyone is there for the same reason, and they are all passionate about the topic (a severe understatement). It is a chance to wholly immerse in that topic and not come up for air for days. At the top writing conferences, I sleep only 5-6 hours a night for an entire week so that I don't miss a thing. ISASI was that, focused on the narrow window of air safety. Utterly amazing!

Over 300 investigators, air-safety program administrators for most major airlines and manufacturers had arrived from all over the world. I fell in with Aussies and Kiwis, chatted with Icelanders, French, and Japanese. I also spent a lot of time with manufacturers and especially US military investigators. After only mild caution at finding a novelist in their midst, they were as open as their security clearance allowed.

We discussed fuel freezing points (yes, aviation fuel can freeze at very high altitudes and special equipment now exists to handle that), volcanic ash vs. dust storm damage to high-speed jet engines (had to dredge up my old geomorphology and crystal formation memories from my college Geophysics days), pilot error, automation... It was endlessly fascinating.

One of the reasons I had such a good experience was that I'm a research geek. Just a quick conference tip: make sure you are one before going, or just keep quiet and listen. They are there to meet and learn, and interfering with sessions by voicing a lot of beginner questions really ticks them off (I've heard of authors being take aside and being told to shut up, and even ejected from conferences). I received the greatest compliment of the week when I was chatting with one of the old NTSB hands who finally looked at me and said, "I think you've read more NTSB reports than anyone here." I've read a lot of them. And studied enough crashes that when one was brought up I either had a pertinent question or recalled a salient fact.

That "pre-knowledge" set me up for what I needed most, observation. As a writer, I wanted to capture the feel and tone of these people. Not just to make the few on-scene moments of the ISASI conference in Gryphon accurate, but to make my whole team of Miranda, Mike, Holly, Andi, Jeremy, and Taz sound more realistic. My main takeaway? I wasn't too far off in how I was writing them.

HUGE confidence boost for a storyteller.

(See more about this conference experience at: NerdGuy #37: Prigozhin's Plane.)

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