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Getting the Details Right

Getting the Details Right

A Session with Susan Israel

Like every aspiring writer, you’ve probably heard the adage “Write what you know” more than once…more like a thousand times. But few if any successful authors know everything about their subject matter, their characters, their settings, without doing at least some research and usually a great deal of it. If you’re writing historical fiction, expect to spend a lot of time in libraries, academic or otherwise, and using advanced search engines, because there’s no way you can accurately depict daily life in Colonial America/Paris in the 1920s/suburbia in the ’60s without cracking the books and watching film and newsreels. If your fiction is set in the present and you can visit the sites you’re using as backdrop, do so. With a camera that also shoots video and maybe even a microcassette recorder. Photograph and jot down and record every detail you think you’re going to want to use and even some you’re not so sure about. You don’t want to be sitting in front of your computer one night at 2 a.m. forgetting something like which way traffic flows on a particular one-way street. Stock up on photos, maps, particular forms your characters may need for their work, any and everything you think will come in handy to give your work authenticity.

Street locations don’t change, but businesses do, regularly. You don’t need to name names; that Zagat guide may be helpful in identifying the best restaurants in town, but some of the best restaurants get bad marks from the health department and are shuttered between the time you write THE END on your final draft and your book comes out in print. When describing things like restaurants and stores smaller than, say, Macy’s, a general description of location and décor and the menu are more timeless. Or you may want to fictionalize a city or town to give yourself more liberty to describe the places and people without worry about the ever-changing landscape of a real city. Author Ed McBain made up a fictional version of New York City called Isola, served by a fictional 87th precinct of the police department. But to create even a mythical version of a real plateau, you need to do your research.

Over My Live Body by Susan IsraelWhen I started writing my novel Over My Live Body, I knew a lot about what my main character did for a living, having modeled for art classes and become friends with a number of artists. I knew less about police work, aside from having had to identify a robbery suspect from photos a few years earlier. I was one of the victims robbed, definitely research I don’t recommend. In order to get a sense of realism for myself and for my readers, I delved into the minutiae of daily police work, not just the “Book ‘im, Danno” front and center drama, though certainly I focused on that. In a scene in Chapter 17 of Over My Live Body, Delilah goes to her local precinct after having received a note from her “secret admirer” and is informed just how much the police can and can’t do while the detective on the squad fills out a form.

“What are you going to do about this?”

His mustache twitches like he’s anticipating a sneeze. “Fill out a sixty-one,” he says, signaling me to follow him. He leads the way up a flight of stairs, past stacks of filing cabinets, and stops in front of a door with a gold shield affixed to it, a magnification of the one dangling from a chain around his neck. He holds it open for me, slams it shut behind him, and ambles past me into a small office on the left. I follow him inside. He yanks a pink form out of a manila folder propped on top of the gun metal desk and barks questions at me, filling in the answers sloppily with a felt-tip pen. I cross and uncross my legs, fumbling through some of the answers, correcting myself a couple of times. The detective glares at me and reaches for a bottle of correction fluid. “I haven’t had much sleep,” I say. An apology.

“Things tend to get blown out of proportion when you’re over-tired,” he grumbles, block-printing the information I mixed up. A low blow.

I go through it all again, the account of every phone call that I can recall, the notes, the messages.

“This guy who’s allegedly following you,” he clears his throat. “Have you ever gotten a good look at him?”

I nod.

“Enough so you can describe him?”

“He’s big.”

“Well, that’s a start.”

I try to mimic cop talk. “Last seen wearing a dirty blue baseball cap, gray T-shirt…I think it was gray, and blue jeans. Indigo blue, you know, really dark. Blue eyes. Couldn’t see the color of his hair, it was covered by the baseball cap.”


“Excuse me?”

“Did you see the color of his eyebrows? That would give an approximation of hair color at least.”

I shake my head. “He wore the cap low. I could barely see his