Research is Fun and Games Until You Shoot Someone’s Eye Out

Sarah M. Chen photo

by Sarah M. Chen

I’m a crime fiction writer which often means there will be shootouts, cops chasing after bad guys, and government agents slinking around every corner in one of my short stories. I don’t include this in every story I write, but guns do pop up a good amount of the time.

But do I know a lot about guns? Not really. Which is why I don’t go into too much detail when a gun makes an appearance in my story. It’s either a big gun or a little gun. It makes a loud noise or it has a silencer. Sure, I do the usual research, like what’s the difference between a glock and an Uzi, but how does it feel to hold a gun? To shoot it? To point it at someone?

I decided it was time to change that. No, I didn’t get a gun and point it at my friend. Instead, I applied to the ATF Citizen’s Academy. I knew a few writer friends who did it and they said it was an amazing experience. I thought it would be a great way to not only get out on a shooting range but to obtain a greater understanding of what the ATF agent does on a day to day basis. I had no idea what that felt like. To risk one’s life to do something they believe in. And did I say, I get to shoot guns?

But alas, I didn’t hear back from them and after a year, I gave up. So I did other things. I went on a ride-along with the Manhattan Beach Police Department. 2312

I had no idea what to expect because I didn’t think anything criminal happened in MB other than maybe someone illegally parking in front of someone else’s house (although, sadly, that’s changed these days with robberies, hate crimes, and even home invasions on the rise here). I got to ride along at the most exciting time too, between 9pm and 2am.

16439936888_83204a3937_b Yes, there were lots of down times where we went and chatted with the guys at the local pizza place or drove around aimlessly while I played with the equipment in the car. But it was clear to me that the Manhattan Beach police were well-respected and appreciated in the neighborhood. We even answered a possible domestic violence call. It turned out a teenage girl just locked herself up in her closet, but for a few minutes there, I was worried she had a weapon with her or was going to hurt herself. I’m sure the police thought the same thing. She turned out fine, but it was tense for a while there.

Since I didn’t get to participate in a violent shootout on my Manhattan Beach ride-along, I decided to go to an indoor shooting range when I visited my friend in Phoenix this year. It was quite an experience.


I discovered that it takes a lot of concentration to shoot a gun. I couldn’t imagine having less than a second to make a crucial decision like shooting a gun at someone. It gave me even greater understanding of what cops go through.

And now I’m finally participating in the ATF Citizen’s Academy. Yes, they called me. Only two years later, ha!

ATF photoThis week was my first week and I learned so much already on day one. An undercover agent showed us videos of his interactions with gang members who specialized in home invasions. It was frightening what these gang members are capable of and what their lives are like. It’s a whole world I don’t even understand, and yet, I’m writing about crime and violence in my stories. I felt like a fraud. Have I not been creating authentic “bad guys” in my stories?

The ATF agent then said something that stuck with me. He said these guys, some of them, are just truly evil. They have no moral compass. They’re driven by greed, and they’re sociopaths. Watching these videos, I wholeheartedly agreed. They gave me chills.

A lot of “bad guys” in my stories don’t think of themselves as bad guys. They’re actually just regular people who screw up or let a weakness take control of them. In my mind, they’re not evil. For me, truly evil people aren’t that interesting to write anyway. They’re too one-dimensional. I gravitate towards writing characters who are flawed yet there is an internal conflict going on that I find fascinating. They want to do the right thing, but either they don’t know how or feel like they have no choice.

Then the agent said something else that stuck with me. “Today is the BEST time to be a bad guy. These days, cops are terrified to do their job. And that’s a big problem.”

I have to agree. Yes, there are cops and agents who are racist and who deserve punishment. But there are also a lot of them who are just trying to do their job.

I am looking forward to learning more about being an ATF agent. These next six weeks are going to be eye-opening, I have a feeling. And not just for my writing (although I already have jotted down some great lines that these guys said!) but for a greater appreciation of what these agents do for us. And the police. And all the other officers and military who protect us from the evil lurking out there.


Check out Sarah M. Chen’s crime fiction short stories at


30 thoughts on “Research is Fun and Games Until You Shoot Someone’s Eye Out

  1. Sarah,
    First thing I want to say is, I may think twice now about criticizing your work in our writers group.
    It sounds like the ATF training has already helped you see a new light on writing crime fiction. I bet it gives you more ideas for future stories as well.
    Thanks for sharing and keep us posted on the progress, that is if you’re allowed to tell us exactly what your learning. 🙂
    – Stephen

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah-That’s quite an undertaking. I’m sure some of what you learn will make you feel more authentic in your future writing but maybe there’ll also be a lot you’ve learned that is too real ( and drastic) for a fiction author to use.


    1. Thanks, Nancy, and you’re right. This will be a sobering experience and how much of it will influence my writing, I’m not sure. But I’m having a great time, and I know all that I learn will stay with me for a long time.


  3. I own a pistol and one of the main reasons I got it was to be able to write about it more genuinely. I’ve never gone on a ride along or anything like that. The closest I’ve come to that is regularly asking our school’s PRO (Prevention Resource Officer–a real cop stationed at our school) questions about procedure.

    I agree with Nancy. I don’t try to create a real world. Most of my bad guys aren’t just sociopaths. Sociopaths, unless they have some other fascinating characteristic, make terrible characters and shows and books about them really aren’t about them. They’re about the people that are affected by them and that are trying to catch them. So I try to create bad guys that are relatable and therefore interesting to the reader.


    1. That’s great you have a PRO handy to pick their brain. I’m sure that helps a lot! Yes, I gravitate towards books that feature bad guys who I can relate to in some aspect or even empathize with. Sometimes it’s the bad guy that I find more enjoyable to read than the hero or I like novels that blur that line. I don’t read serial killer novels very often for that reason.


  4. Sarah,

    Having worked in Juvenile detention for twenty years, what you talk about really hasn’t changed all that much. There are still the ones who are sociopaths, but many are just trying to survive, at least the juveniles are. Many times we try to lump everyone into an easy label, only to find we threw the baby out with the wash.

    I admire the research you are doing to get it right. There are many wonderful police officers and military. Unfortunately all we hear about are the ones who step over the line. I believe by writing about people, with their flaws and heroism, we can help balance the scale. Keep up the work, it will show in the end. Doris


  5. Thanks, Doris. I can’t even imagine how tough it must have been to work in juvenile detention. To see some of these kids who just can’t get a break and are struggling would break my heart. I’m sure there were rewarding times as well. Yes, I’m hoping this research will open my eyes to new experiences, not just for writing, but to get a better understanding of what’s happening all around us today.


  6. You’re going to love it, Sarah. ATF has a great citizen’s academy. And an active alumni association for continuing education.


  7. Nothing beats hands-on research Sarah and it looks like you’ve done a lot and are about to learn more. Can’t wait to hear all of the details that you learn from the ATF.


  8. I’m envious too, sounds like a great experience and education. I recently got my concealed carry permit and have a concealed carry purse. I’m a little shy yet about carrying it but we always have guns along when we camp, mostly for wildlife like bears that might threaten. I have dealt some with police and people they pick up, in my career with psych nursing. I find it fascinating and feel bad for the cops who take a lot of emotional abuse also. But I also have dealt with unstable cops who chose the career for negative reasons. Way to go for your research. Keep us posted on what else you learn!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for such an insightful and thoughtful comment, Neva! I bet being a psych nurse has given you fodder for a lot of stories. My mom worked in a mental institution when she was in her twenties and boy, she had some crazy stories!


  9. I have a couple of hand guns and a rifle. We lived out in the country, now in FL., I guess I’ll go to a shooting range. I’d love b to do the ATF and a ride along. I also appreciate all who keep us safe. Interesting blog. Cher’ley


  10. Great post, Sarah, very insightful. I’ve long suspected we citizens cannot really fathom what officers, agents, deputies, military personnel etc. go through not only in training but also in the line of duty. Yes, there are the “bad cops” just like there are the “bad guys,” but overall, the good outweighs the bad — we just always see the bad pretty much only making the news. How exciting for you to have that personal touch experience to elevate your writing — your characters, setting, and plot will be much richer and stronger.


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