Fiction, Smuggling, and Research

I’m gonna be on a list. I’m gonna be on such a list.

Looks around. I’m a writer! Really, this is for writing.

Sigh. Do you think they heard that bit? Well, ok…

We were having a conversation at work the other day, and it came up that one of us, who formerly worked for a detergent company, had smuggled ‘white powder’ across the border at one point. It was totally innocuous, but… He’d been asked by his boss to bring back from Mexico a few samples of ingredients that were being used to produce their product. My now-colleague looked at his boss and asked ‘are you really asking me to bring white powder back across the border in my luggage?’ After some thought, what they came up with were the little boxes of detergent like you’d get at the laundromat. My colleague emptied those, filled them with detergent components rather than the original detergent, and safely got them home again without any questions asked.

I thought of that this morning when I came across an article about a DEA raid on a drug company. The details are a bit murky, but it seems they had been importing more than standards and reagents into the country. What isn’t clear is if they were, er, selling to other than laboratories, or if they simply hadn’t filled out the proper paperwork in order to import and sell controlled substance. They had, evidently, been conducting business like this for at least five years. Talk about a cast-iron way to smuggle things across borders. Simply mix it in with all the normal oddities you would find in most laboratories.

A while back I’d been watching, as part of my research for Tanager’s Fledglings, a show on Australian customs and how they operate in an airport setting (I found this on Netflix, but can’t recall the title at the moment). It was fascinating to see how they look for illicit goods, how much they find, how stupid people are, and then you start to wonder what they are missing. I was interested as I was writing about space stations, and plotting how customs might work on a restricted station far from another planet. Also, technology changes, so I was trying to extrapolate from what we do now, to what we might do then. Some things, though, don’t change at all. Human nature is going to remain much the same then, as it is now. Watching the people is almost as revealing as using ‘sniffers’ be they dog or futuristic cyborgs.

It’s not difficult to do this research, really. Due to the ‘War on Drugs’ it’s been a cultural fascination for nearly a hundred years now. Yes, that predates the term, but reality is that we’ve been fearing the effects of illicit substances for at least that long. There are tv shows, books, articles… there’s no excuse for writing about this dark aspect of our society, and the criminals who dwell there, without having done a modicum of research on it. And yet, you’ll find fiction that incorporates the concept of drugs and smuggling, without having done that research, and it’s glaringly obvious and bad. I know there are a lot of writers out there churning schlock out just to make a quick buck, but really. It’s incredibly easy to spend a few hours and get as much as you’d need for, say, a romance with crime/mystery subplot. If you want to write an actual procedural, it would take longer, of course.

Me, I have a vanilla, law-abiding mind. If I want to write effective mysteries, or incorporate smuggling into my subplots, I have to research methods. For that matter, I like to research cases and criminology, not only for my amusement, but because no matter how improbable it might seem, there’s probably been some idiot who has actually done it. For the stupider versions, check out Peter Grant’s blog and his Doofuses (Doofi? not sure what that plural should be). I find I listen to a lot of true crime podcasts at work. It’s all fodder for the mill.

So, in short, do your research. Don’t make your reader hurl your book in disgust. Take some time to get it right! But don’t actually try to smuggle drugs. That would be stupider than writing a idiotic book.


16 responses to “Fiction, Smuggling, and Research”

  1. Draven Avatar

    Asked of me in a class where we did preliminary planning of ideas for short films:

    “How do you know so much about snipers?” (asked very snidely and derisively)

    “I did a lot of reading and research and interviewed several.”

    (One of my best candidate short films was a piece about a sniper… the biggest expense would have been renting the movie ranch ‘military base’ section for a day)

    1. Draven Avatar


    2. Well, that’s the way it’s done. I don’t know about you, but I really enjoy research, and don’t get people who don’t do it. Or those who seem to think that there are only two ways to get information: suck it out of thin air, or actually have done it.

      1. Draven Avatar

        Well, this particular fellow student was the type that can’t be bothered to research anything and can’t be bothered to do anything more than the minimum for his major…

        1. Yeah, I don’t get that. I’m far more likely to do too much research than not enough.

  2. Could be “doofae”. I dunno.

    1. *giggles* Now I’m picturing really stupid fairies…

      1. Would be a unique take on the genre. Imagine dull, bumbling fairies, well-meaning but hapless, TRYING to do good, but bedeviled by the Law of Unintended Consequences and mispronounced spells. Oughta be as funny as hell. Ready-made satire.

  3. Margaret Ball Avatar
    Margaret Ball

    Write it!

  4. I ought to make a list sometime of all the things that I have researched well enough to DO them, but then not done them. I can think of two off the top of my head. No, three. Four. STOP THE MADNESS!
    Building looms and making cloth
    Raising goats
    Hydrogen balloon personal aircraft
    Domes for attaching to a VW van for camping
    Manufacture of firearms for personal use

    Gonna not brain any more for a while.

  5. “After some thought, what they came up with were the little boxes of detergent like you’d get at the laundromat. My colleague emptied those, filled them with detergent components rather than the original detergent, and safely got them home again without any questions asked.”

    Not quite smuggling donkeys, but almost…

    I had to give this some thought with my spacefaring nonhumans, who tend to be of rather …independent… temperament. Eventually concluded that smuggling was mostly the low-marginer’s way of evading planetary export tariffs (their only form of tax), given that 1) population density is mostly low so ducking authority isn’t that hard, but 2) the real money is through legit ports, which actually have markets. So smuggling is mostly a thing on poverty planets (which not coincidentally tend to declining population and near-defunct governments).

  6. Orvan Taurus Avatar
    Orvan Taurus

    Once upon a time I lived at place where up the highway a mile or two (but might as well have been another planet…) there was a murder or at least a killing. The complicating factor was methcathinone. Years later, I went to look up what it was… and *stumbled* across “Here’s how it’s made” and had two reactions… 1) WHY are you telling me (and anyone else) this? and 2) My word, it’s THAT simple? Damn! See #1. You *idiots*. And no, I have NO desire to even begin to consider making such. Something that’s so scary that the folks who thought Chernobyl was just dandy go “Oh $#!%, this is way too [fricaseeing] dangerous!” is nothing I want to deal with whatsoever.

    1. Yeah, I have absolutely no desire to have anything to do with that sh*t.

      On the other hand, my first college chem prof hit on a great way to make the whole class pay attention when he used the cocaine molecule to teach some stuff.

    2. Hmmm. I got no urge whatsoever to produce this, even if it were as safe as tickling a baby. Why? I ain’t gonna use it, and don’t know anyone I could sell it to.(shrugs)

      1. your worst enemies?

        1. Not sure I’m that vengeful.