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I'm writing a story where the main character makes and detonates bombs. The character could be considered a terrorist. I want to portray the character as an expert, but I don't know a way to obtain more information in the art of explosives without it ending up with the FBI or something monitoring my searching.

Pairing terrorist, bomb, and how to, or instructions in the search bar seems to be a bad idea.

Any help on where to get info would be appreciated.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – user16226 Nov 10 '17 at 12:27
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    A lot of appropriate answers, so I'm going for an anecdote instead: my father was a minesweeper (he is retired now) and told us how to clear a bomb (mostly unexploded shells of the war). He had a notebook with the specs of all known bombs, and the specific method, step by step, to disarm them. All the bombs that were not in the notebook or too damaged to be disarmed were taken safely off the high seas and detonated. No bomb is opened if there is any risk. It is easier to evacuate the area and detonate a bomb under a bell than risking the lives of specialists who have had years of training. – kikirex Jun 13 at 11:08

13 Answers 13

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You don't need to be able to build homemade explosive to describe a character who does.

You just need to give the reader the impression that the character knows what he/she's up to. Most of the reader won't know how to make or detonate bombs anyway, so you can probably impress them without turning your story into the Anarchist Guide to Explosives.

So, your goal is to add just a little detail to give the impression of competence. Surely your main character will use a garage or a basement as laboratory. Depending on how he puts up his bomb, he could be knowledgeable about chemicals, electronics, etc. But again, you don't have to be specific in your descriptions. Most bombs have "switches"; some may detonate with a timer or with a short-distance remote; this is all common knowledge. I frankly doubt the FBI will show up at your door if you search this stuff up - and if you are worried about being monitored, you should research the topic of internet privacy, anyway.

But again: go watch some crime movie or some TV series to get a "hint" of the topic. Most of the people who write screenplays aren't serial bombers too.

For example, if you want to add "flavour" and the illusion of competence, you could point out that Anarchist Cookbook was written by a 'former' FBI agent who might have had the agenda of getting anarchist wannabees to self-execute, like a common detonator explosive you can readily buy (ain't telling you which) needs to be mixed OUTSIDE and away from people including yourself because the fumes are toxic. Maybe snark it up a little by having Dude say "amateurs ruin everything"

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    There's nothing making me drop a book or series faster than (for me) obviously wrong or clichee statements (cut the red wire ! Press Yes to hack the internet!). IMHO if you can't do in-depth research on the topic or ask an expert then please don't go into detail (maybe even your storyteller doesn't understand what that guy is doing?) because your detail will just be crap. I agree that most people won't care for that one topic but you will have quite some topics like this (e.g. someones favorite band?) and I guess that everybody has at least some topics they care about. – Christoph Nov 6 '17 at 12:35
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    @Christoph Trust me I can see where you coming from. I work in the IT field and it's usually poorly represented. However, doing in-depth research on the topic seems to be the exact issue on the question. When I said "give a little detail" I wasn't suggesting making things up, I was rather saying "try to portrait the issue with few brush strokes". Surely it's a difficult thing to master, but it can be done (imho). Also, it depends on wheter the story has bombs or is about bombs. – Reinstate Monica. Nov 6 '17 at 13:42
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    @Liquid has the key, I think. If carefully done, you can give the impression of great detail and subject knowledge without actually saying anything specific. For example, it may surprise readers of the Kingkiller Chronicles that, despite the protagonist's clear talent and passion for playing the lute, author Patrick Rothfuss is actually not a musician. The story is written to give the impression of someone who clearly knows what they're talking about, but actually says very little about technique that a layman couldn't observe. I was fooled, and I'm a violinist. – anaximander Nov 6 '17 at 14:55
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    @Christoph - I suppose plugging your MacBook into the alien spaceship is out of the question? – davidbak Nov 7 '17 at 0:50
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    You can maybe use that to your advantage, research well known tropes about bombs and have your character complain about these and how they are simply bogus. If done carefully this might produce the effect of knowledge through simply stating what is not correct – Bowdzone Nov 7 '17 at 12:01
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"Did you know if you mixed equal parts of gasoline and frozen orange juice concentrate you can make napalm?" - Tyler Durden, Fight Club

But guess what, it doesn't work. The author made that up. But in the context of the story the method works.

Making factual mistakes in the description of bomb making might in fact be the responsible thing to do. You don't want to spread any knowledge which leads to people getting hurt. So just make something up, and write a disclaimer in the foreword that the instructions have deliberate errors in order to prevent people from replicating them. Another positive side-effect: it gives you more freedom in storytelling, because you can choose ingredients which have exactly the properties the plot requires.

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    Re: the responsible thing to do: I seem to recall someone somewhere stating that the writers of MacGyver intentionally made inaccuracies when the titular main character made explosives, poisons and similar. – Arthur Nov 6 '17 at 12:16
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The O.S.S. and I

My great-uncle wrote a book about his experience with the Office of Strategic Services in WWII, full of stories of espionage and clandestine acts. There is even a chapter titled "How to Blow Up a Bridge." It may not be a textbook answer to your question, but perhaps the tone and (exciting!) stories could give you some inspiration.

It's worth noting that Bill Morgan was a heck of a spy. He even lied his way into the O.S.S. because he was blind in one eye and they otherwise wouldn't have let him in. It's a good read. Hope you enjoy it :)

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    +1 for suggesting memoirs as source material. Books like that contain exactly the kind of material you need for verisimilitude: not "how-to" instructions, but descriptions of what it's like to be working with explosives. – Ilmari Karonen Nov 6 '17 at 21:38
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    Ps. For another nice book, may I suggest John D. Clark's book Ignition!. It's about working with rocket propellants, which "only" explode when something goes wrong, but the chemistry is closely related. And it's a hilarious read. Ditto for Max Gergel's Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide? Both of which I learned about from Derek Lowe's blog, which could also be a good source. – Ilmari Karonen Nov 6 '17 at 21:49
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Engineering corps, Explosive Ordnance Disposal

Your character has done military service as a Combat Engineer and/or Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). As their tour of duty ended (for reasons left unspecified for your convenience) they then transferred to law enforcement, or a private military company (PMC) for the same kind of duty, and/or as an educator on the subject.

Not only does this make them an expert on how things go "boom" but they also have a valid reason to stay updated on the subject. Since today's warfare involves dealing with home-brew explosive devices (IED's) this means that EOD experts must know how the average Joe goes about making their own bombs, as well as knowing how to deal with military ordnance.

For increased flexibility you can have the character originally be something other than a US citizen, but then having migrated to the US. The reason you might want this is that some countries — like for instance Sweden(*) — have a conscription military, which allows for a shorter tour of duty while still retaining the possibility that they served in a hot-spot, like a UN mission to Afghanistan, Africa or the Balkans.

How do you write it in a manner that makes your character seem knowledgeable?

Get in touch with such people that work with this and ask them "Does this sound credible or does it sound ridiculous?". That is research for your book. You can also ask them for general principles that sound credible but do not actually reveal any "trade secrets". You can also ask them for tips... "Hey, if I want to create some kind of tension for this specific scenario... how do you think this person would go about it?".

Some tips in general about writing about people that are experts:

  1. Do not try too hard. If you are specifically trying to make your character sound extremely knowledgeable, cool, tough, whatever... your readers will most likely spot this and get turned off instead. Avoid the "trying too hard" trap. And for goodness sake: never do techno-babble/trade lingo. Throwing fancy-sounding words about will backfire unless you know exactly what the concepts are and how they are normally used in the right context.

  2. Show, don't tell. If you say "They are so good with explosives", then you are telling... that is never good. If you have someone read that character's service record / resumé on the other hand, then you are showing and letting the reader come to the conclusion that they are good with explosives. Which then leads to...

  3. Give a person a reputation to be an early riser... and they can sleep until noon, and no-one will bat an eyelash at that. If you have first given the impression that your character knows their stuff, then you do not actually have to flaunt it any more, nor go into any details about it. From then you just need the absolute smallest of hints (see point 1 again) to keep that fire burning.

(*) Anecdote: the infamous Barret M82 "Light 50" was first acquired by the Swedish military forces for just that: explosive ordnance disposal. Then the rangers got their eyes on it and thought "Ooh.... we want us some of that".

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    First of all, welcome to the site and thank you for your very well organized and in-depth answer! Your answer, while well written, concerns me because I think it may not address the question as much as intended. After carefully reading the full question, I think the meat of it is about more like, "How do a research this without getting myself on a government watchlist?" It might be a good idea to edit your answer to better fit this angle. – Dinopolis Nov 6 '17 at 16:21
  • @Dinopolis I did state "talk to people that work with this", with the first part of the answer suggesting what kind of people work with this. I also specifically stated to ask such people for "general principles" regarding this without going into "trade secrets". I also stated: try to come up with some yourself, then do a credibility check against such people if they think it sounds good or just stupid. So either you came in before my edit or you did not actually read what came after the headline "How do you write it in a manner that makes your character seem knowledgeable?". – MichaelK Nov 6 '17 at 16:29
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Another aspect to explore is the mentality of someone who knows a lot about explosives. A disposal expert I imagine to be someone very calm and methodical, with a rather philosophical perhaps grateful attitude to life, to help them be effective in facing highly dangerous situations not of their own making. The character of Kip in the movie "The English Patient" is interesting to study in this regard.

A maker of devices, on the other hand, would paradoxically need the same kind of carefulness and persistence as the disposer, but could be combined with some kind of cold or hot anger, depending on the motivation and ideology of the individual. This combination of dangerous opposites in a person is almost like the ingredients of a device itself.

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The easiest way to make your character an expert is to make all your other characters fear him, respect him, or be defeated by him, in his field.

You characterize your Chief of the Bomb Squad as having won national honors for teaching Bomb disarmament, multiple medals for courage in the line of duty, a front line dude known to have risked his life to save children --- He encounters a bomb made by your MC Fred and says into his radio, "Jeezus Bill, Fred made this bomb, there is no way to disarm it. Evacuate the building!" Some kickback on the radio from Bill, and your Chief tells him "We've lost ten of our best trying ten ways to do it and I'm out of ideas. Evacuate the goddam building, and do it now!"

You don't have to say a thing about how Fred made this bomb: The reader knows Fred is better than his best opponent (the Chief you built up). Also, the Chief's explanation requires no special knowledge, he has to explain this to a layman (Bill).

If you need to reinforce this later, have some other Bomb Squad cowboy try to disarm one of Fred's bombs, in consultation with your Chief. The Chief says, "That isn't going to work, Bobby tried it and the second the capacitance changes it blows! Don't be an idiot!"

Cowboy says, "I know that chief, but I see the detector Bobby missed, and I can disarm it like ... this ... There!" KABOOM! End of Cowboy.

The reader can believe your MC is the best just because all the characters believe your MC is the best, and your MC keeps outwitting them. It is kind of grudging endorsement of your MC.

I should note you need to write other geniuses this way, too. For example if you are not a bona fide world class chess champion, you cannot come up with an actual chess strategy to defeat the world champion. You would need scenes where the best chess players in the world admire him and are defeated by him, without getting into the details of how exactly that was done. If the world champion is portrayed as uncertain and cautious facing him, the world champion has effectively endorsed the character.

  • +1. It's an interesting aspect of "describing competence" without actually going in the topic at all. – Reinstate Monica. Nov 8 '17 at 16:05
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Get cozy at your local library.

Before the internet, this is where we all did our research. As long as it's a well-stocked library, there should be plenty of books on the basics of explosives. Use the central library where you live, not a branch. If your central library (or only library) isn't very good, go to a larger city if there's one within an easy commute. A college library also works.

Remember, terrorism is only one use of explosives. A very small percentage of uses. They are also used in warfare (read up on how WWII troops destroyed bridges), mining, creating tunnels for cars or trains through mountains, and bringing down outdated buildings.

If you search for those uses online, you should be good. In the library, no one will even notice. If they do, tell them you're doing research for a novel. Because you are. And focus on the uses that involve military history or infrastructure. You can also befriend the librarians and they'll help you find better resources.

In the US, the Patriot Act allows the government to request your library records. Yes, this is as oppressive as it sounds (us Americans are used to it; I hope you non-Americans are properly horrified). So my county's library system dumps all trace of records for any books that have been returned. They do this on purpose for this reason. If you don't check the books out, there's no record. But if you need to take some home, find out what your library does. I found out when I found someone's family snapshot in a book I checked out and took it to the library to encourage them to contact the last person who checked the book out (they couldn't do it).

Interview war buffs.

Go to a Civil War reenactment and ask questions. If someone seems knowledgable and open to it, ask if you can take them to lunch and pick their brain for your novel. You can also try WWII and other vets, or history buffs from all modern(ish) eras.

Do you live somewhere with a railroad museum? Especially in a mountainous area, there will be info on how explosives were used. No great details but sometimes even the broad strokes are enough to help you form a picture and know what questions you need to ask next.

Museums of many kinds might be helpful. Along with local history societies. Poke around, there's likely to be something local to you (or perhaps worth a short trip).

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I modified my answer, because as correctly identified, I didn't read the question properly. There is 2 Ways to do this research while staying of the Radar. Use a VPN, and tunnel to a None associative country, so for example, VPN to Thailand, or Indonesia, and then do your search, but set your browser to incognito mode, the second is to use the Onion network called Tor. The browser is ssh to the public anonymous network, and then the browsing history is not kept on any of the servers. the link to this is here: https://www.torproject.org/ People previously caught for other activities on this network such as Drug sales and even weapon sales were caught through the social engineering side, IE, face to Face during a transaction, and not through the network identifying them. Hope this helps, and good luck with the book.

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For this kind of book what you want is to have a general understanding of how a bomb works, without necessarily needing the details of how to actually mix the explosives at home. The thing is, while most people don't make bombs at home (probably), many readers will know some things about it either because they read about these things or have some experience in the military or have relative who did, so if you put something that's obviously wrong it will be noticeable.

As for how to research it without attracting the NSA, you can look for military manuals regarding placing charges and IED disposal, there are a few that are floating around (I knew a pretty good site back in the day, but it was in Russian), ultimately you are not looking for how to make one in your garage, you just need to understand basic parts/principals of its operation

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I think the easiest way is just to have your character frequently blow up things without going much into details about the preparatory work. This is the plot device for the main character from "The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared" by Jonas Jonasson and it works pretty well.

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I think you should ask someone like Michael Karnerfors describes. Then, have him read what you come up with and offer corrections. He’ll be bothered by more stuff than any normal user. Don’t worry about learning enough to get it exactly right — just get something down and your expert will have something to correct.

As for doing Internet research, start with a privacy VPN like Vyper or Tunnelbear. Anyone monitoring whatever site you visit will not be able to trace it back to you. For serious paranoia, use TOR.

Use incogneto mode in the browser for the occasional one-off. But for research you want history and bookmarks and all your notes. So use a USB-key Linux installation, and boot with that (or run in a VM) for your work-related activities.

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He might be an expert at detonating, but I doubt your MC will be going around talking about bombs all the time. Do research when it's needed and try to relax.

I like this blog, although I don't use it for now, but it seems interesting to me. If you have time, take a look:

http://thrillwriting.blogspot.com.mt/search?q=bomb

P.S. The above link is a writer's blog so it won't get you into trouble if you click.

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Perhaps you could:

1)) Have your character have a parent or family member who has knowledge of bombs and explosives if they are younger.

2)) If older, they could secretly possibly be evil and be blowing up places or things and they are avoiding getting on the government's blacklist.

3)) If you want to have your character's family and the character be good and the character be pure, they could be smart and or a genius and be able to look on the right side of the internet and find out information.

Good luck!

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    Welcome to Writers! Thank you for offering an answer to this difficult question. I would just like to mention that the meat of the original question was more along the lines of, "How do a research explosives without getting on a government watchlist?" It would be best if you incorporate that into your answer. – Dinopolis Nov 7 '17 at 13:57

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