Research Notes · 04/06/2018

How To Be Safe

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Tom McaAllister writes about How To Be Safe from Liveright Publishing.


I started compiling notes on How to Be Safe in the days after the Sandy Hook school shooting. Like all rational people, I was outraged and horrified, and I wanted to do something with that rage and horror by writing my own school shooting book. But anger alone can only carry a book so far. For the first six months, all I had was a long file of disconnected notes and the notion that I would eventually turn them into something coherent. Over the next few years, I conducted more research than I typically do when writing fiction. I am usually comfortable with a superficial Google search or a scan of Wikipedia just to make sure I don’t sound completely stupid, but it seemed more important than ever to get this one right.

I started my research by trying to learn more about guns. I did not grow up around guns, and only a few people I know now are gun owners (and even one of those people doesn’t own bullets; he just inherited the gun from a relative). So I read Dan Baum’s Gun Guys, a deep dive into American gun culture. Baum reinforces certain things that are commonly known (e.g, gun sales skyrocket whenever there is a push for gun control, there are vast loopholes in current gun laws, many gun owners feel the need to supplement their collection and can’t stop at just one), but also delivers lots of useful reporting on exactly how gun people feel and live. I read other articles on the subject too and dug into some reference materials, trying to understand the basic terminology and differences in products. I ended up using almost none of this information in the book. My original conception of this novel was as a massive, sprawling epic, which would have required a lot more detail on how my school shooter acquired his weapons, what he used, and so on. In its final form, the shooting doesn’t even happen on the page. The specifics of the gun aren’t important; it’s the end result that matters.

I still think there was value in doing the reading, though, if only for my own edification.

I also read as much as I could about mass public shootings themselves, because I wanted to study the rhythms of the aftermath, to see the common themes in responses, especially the language we use to process these kinds of event. I wanted to understand if anything had changed since the clock tower shooting at the University of Texas in 1966 (the answer: no, except guns are better at killing people faster now). I read Dave Cullen’s Columbine and Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us, about Anders Breivik’s mass murder in Norway. Both books are incredible documents: the journalistic rigor, the depth of the writing, the eye for detail, the storytelling. They’re required reading for everyone who’s interested in how seemingly random acts of mass violence can occur, and how we handle ourselves afterward.

Finally, I’m not sure if this qualifies as research, but I think it does: I spent obscene amounts of time on social media, especially Twitter, first as a means of procrastination, but then as a tool for accidentally learning some things. How to Be Safe is written in a first-person female voice, partly because my time online forced me to reckon with the ways in which so many women are terrorized by male anger and violence. It’s not that the women I follow on Twitter are always talking about sexual assault and harassment, but when they do, it is clear that almost every woman I knew has had some experience with physical and/or emotional abuse. This developing public conversation is what pushed me away from writing a straightforward retelling of a massacre, and instead writing a book that is about vulnerability, power, and the persistent fear of random violence.

Twitter shaped the language of the novel too. It is written in a lot of short vignettes, sometimes as short as one or two sentences, and there is a tendency toward the aphoristic. People like Elisa Gabbert are so good at deploying them, and I wanted to do my own versions. I have fun writing weird little ephemeral one-liners for Twitter, and I wanted to translate that fun to something less ephemeral and see how it held up in the far less forgiving confines of a novel.

I spent a lot of time doing research for this book that never ended up on the page, but it was valuable nonetheless to have been immersed in all of it, to surround myself with bits and scraps of details that helped me survive the early drafts, before I was able to strip it all away and come up with something that reflected all the anger and frustration I felt in the days when I was just starting to draft my notes.


Tom McAllister is the author of The Young Widower’s Handbook and nonfiction editor of Barrelhouse magazine. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is an associate professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.