Years ago, one of the most prolific crime fiction authors of the last decades, Stuart Kaminsky (1934-2009), spoke at a Young Writers’ Conference I attended. He debunked the idea that an author should write about what he knows. Half the fun of writing, he said, is learning about a subject one knows nothing about. For example, when writing about horseracing, he’d spent a lot of time researching the industry to build credibility and knowledge before writing. That way, he was always learning something new, visiting new milieus, meeting new people, and generating fresh ideas.
During most of Kaminsky’s time as a writer, research meant going places, interviewing people, or at the very least, poring over library materials. With the advent of the Internet, writers have worlds of information at their fingertips. Need a floor plan of a famous building? The menu of a restaurant? Or just a snazzy outfit for a character to wear? Finding the right specific details to add to a story can make or break the reader’s connection with the writing.
Take, for example, this passage from my novel, Murder in the One Percent, which takes place on a gentleman’s horse farm in Pennsylvania and in the tony areas of New York:
Caro stood beside the long dining table, fingertips grazing one of the menus.
Gold-embossed on sheer scalloped paper, they had been placed on all of the service
plates. When she had first shown it to John E., he told her it was a culinary pro-
gram fit for royalty.
Champagne Krug, 2000
Bouillabaisse with Loupe
Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, 1990
Pate’ d’Foie Gras, Toast Points
Sauterne Chateau d’Yquem, 1990
Fresh Halibut Cheeks
Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru, 2006
Bibb Lettuce with Hearts of Palm, Vinaigrette
Wood Roasted Squab, Boysenberry Sauce
Richebourg Leroy, 1991
Rack of Lamb Persillade
Chateau Lafitte Rothschild, 1982
Selection of Fine Cheeses
Graham’s Vintage Port, 1977
Triple Chocolate Torte with Chocolate Ganache
Truffles a la Vicki
Hennessy Paradio Cognac and Other Cordials
What makes this fancy dinner party menu seem true-to-life are the many details that pepper the paragraphs with authenticity. The gold-embossed sheer paper of the menu, the service plates, the exotic dinner courses, the wine pairings—all of these converge to paint a picture of the characters, the setting, and the type of party attended by the ultra-wealthy.
Not being a regular attendee at parties like this one, the author had to research exotic food items, the wines that complement them, and the table service. Interviews with food and wine experts and a party consultant helped to serve up such a well-described menu. The desired effect is to take the reader to the party. And that is what good writers do.
Failing to get the details just right can spoil all the rest of the planning that goes into a story. Even if all the readers aren’t experts in the field of the book, some are, and there is no quicker way to lose a reader than to present him with an inaccuracy, an anachronism, or even an image that doesn’t ring true.
It’s not enough to write a book with an intriguing plot and compelling characters. The conscientious author needs research to get the details right.
“Someone comes to the party with murder in his heart and poison in his pocket.” Murder in the One Percent (©2018 Black Opal Books) pulls back the curtain on the rich and powerful. Available February 17 at Amazon.
Award-winning mystery and children’s book author, Saralyn Richard, is a writer who teaches on the side. Her children’s picture book, Naughty Nana, has reached thousands of children in five countries. Murder in the One Percent is her debut mystery novel. A member of International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America, Saralyn is revising her second mystery. Her website is www.saralynrichard.com.