In the late '90s I tried my hand at writing an amateur sleuth, a restaurant owner with a place called Tangelo in San Francisco. My wife has a restaurant, Zuni Cafe, in SF, and I figured I'd been around it enough to write a crime story from that angle. Both the novel and the restaurant were called Tangelo. That novel is still somewhere in a drawer at home, but in it was an abalone poaching subplot and a game warden named John Marquez, and after I'd written a first draft I called the Department of Fish and Game in Sacramento to check on assumptions I'd made about abalone poaching. The dispatcher I talked to was friendly and wanted to help me. She told me about an undercover team, a Special Operations Unit, the SOU, whose purpose was to disrupt the black market traffic in animals.
That led to meeting the officer who ran the undercover team, and later, I met more of the SOU and got to ride along, and some time after that wrote the first scene of a novel with Marquez as protagonist. In that first scene he'd tracked a poacher's boat down the coast from a place called Elephant Rock, then boarded the boat in Sausalito very late in the night, only to be forced at gunpoint to dive off after the boat pulled away from the dock.
He swam back in and I started writing Marquez. By then I wanted to see if I could write the California mountains I'd grown up hiking through, and that this SOU team was working in now, or the way it felt to drive along Highway 1 looking out on the ocean at dawn, and then let it be that Marquez was following someone, and there was a reason for it. I knew I wanted to make crime stories with a quiet but very capable hero, and without any preaching about vanishing species, yet at the same time build the stories around the trade in these animals.
In California there are three species that the black market has a relentless appetite for: abalone, bear for the gall bladder and paws, and sturgeon for roe to make caviar. Most of that trade is off radar. It's not a war in Iraq or terrorist threats, and the dealers and traders are careful people. Some are also making very good money and for that reason are dangerous. This is what the real undercover team goes up against and fictionally, Marquez.
I set the first novel up along California's north coast with an abalone poaching angle and a confrontation between Marquez and an old nemesis from his DEA days. That novel then titled Lost Coast became Shell Games, and after finishing it I got it in my head that I'd write each of the three most trafficked species, setting the second, Night Game, in the mountains with a bear angle, and now, Deadgame, in the California/San Joaquin delta with sturgeon, caviar and the Russian mob.
I made up a lot of stuff along the way, but not the trafficking. All I had to do was listen to the SOU stories, and ride along with them. I hope these three novels stand together as an eco-thriller trilogy, and that they hook you and don't bore you and give glimpses of country off the paved road. The old adage is you write what you know, but maybe you write best what you care about.