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.
When 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?”
“Enough so you can describe him?”
“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.”
“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 eyes.”
“How many times you seen him?”
“Only once that I know of,“ I say. Yogurt cop stops writing and raises his eyebrows. “But he was seen later that same day, tailing me back to West Eighth Street.”
I cough. “My ex-boyfriend.”
“Ex-boyfriend. You’re still on good terms?”
“Good enough though for him to be telling you this information.” Good enough for him to be leaving you flowers.
“Bad enough that I had to call the cops on him three nights ago.”
Yogurt cop’s mustache is really twitching now. “What’d he do?”
I pull the hem of my dress down over my knees and run it back and forth through my fingers. “Threaten me, sort of. He’d pushed me around before. I didn’t know what he was going to do.”
“Sounds like you got problems, sort of,” he says impassively, making a new notation on the form he’s working on. “You better give me the ex-boyfriend’s name and number in case we got to get in touch with him.”
“I’d really rather you didn’t.” I wet my lips. “He’s not involved with this.”
“He’s a material witness. He saw the guy you say has been following you. We might need to talk to him.”
Like when I’m dead? I grip the sides of the chair as I tell yogurt cop Ivan’s name, rank, and cell phone number. “This note,” he pokes at the note clenched in my hand with his pen. “It’s not signed. Was the other?”
I shake my head. “No, it wasn’t. But it’s written the same way. On the same kind of paper too.”
“Hold on to this stuff. We may need it later.” He crosses his arms on the desk and looks at me with hungry hound-dog eyes. “This isn’t a whole lot to go on, Miss Price. The most we could get this guy on now, even if we knew who he is—which we don’t—is harassment in the second degree, which is a violation punishable by up to fifteen days in jail.” I wince, and my reaction isn’t lost on him. “Yeah, I know, but what you’ve got to have to get a tougher charge is proof of intent to harm, and you don’t have it. What you do have here is a complaint form,” he flutters it in my face, “and if this guy continues to harass you, you come in here and refer to the case number I’m going to give you and we fill out a follow-up and maybe we come up with more info and enough on him to get him out of your hair. You did the right thing coming here,” he reassures me. “There just isn’t a whole lot to go on.”
“Can’t I get a court order?”
“You don’t know who to cite as the person the court is supposed to protect you from,” he says. “You have to give them more to go on. Once the guy gets IDed, if it turns out he’s been in trouble before, we can get him on repeat offender status. Meanwhile, keep the notes, keep the tapes, and if you hear from him again,” he hands me a piece of paper with a row of digits written across it, “keep in touch. Ask to speak to me and refer to this number.”
“Just who do I ask for?”
He stands up to follow me out and pushes his chair back with a screech that makes my teeth hurt. “Rubenstein.”
Knowing the right forms the police have to fill out, even the color of them, adds authenticity, and I love adding subtle details. To get everything right, I got copies of said forms, a sheaf of them, through police contacts I had made. I did a tour of police precinct buildings and a ride-around in a cruiser on a night beat. To capture the atmosphere of the art school that serves as backdrop for so many scenes, I did a tour of that building too, and I walked the route Delilah walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and through the winding streets of the West Village.
Whether your work-in-progress is about crime or the medical world, the boardroom or wide-open spaces, walking in your characters’ shoes, literally as well as figuratively, adds a “you are there” sensation. and research makes sure that you get the details right on your way.
Exercise List at least five things (or more) you’ll need to know or find out before or while working on your project and how you’ll go about finding the information you need (including book/online research, contacts, etc.)
About the Author…
Susan Israel has published fiction in Other Voices, Hawaii Review, and Vignette and she has written for magazines, websites, and newspapers, including Glamour, Girls Life, Ladies Home Journal and The Washington Post. Her novels featuring Delilah Price are edgy, immediate, and intensely satisfying because Delilah is such a rare combination of tough and vulnerable. Delilah returns in the fall of 2014 in Student Bodies.