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Saturday, February 3, 2018

Getting the Details Right with Research By Saralyn Richard

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.

Hors d’oeuvres
Champagne Krug, 2000
First Course
Bouillabaisse with Loupe
Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, 1990
Second Course
Pate’ d’Foie Gras, Toast Points
Sauterne Chateau d’Yquem, 1990
Third Course
Fresh Halibut Cheeks
Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru, 2006
Fourth Course
Bibb Lettuce with Hearts of Palm, Vinaigrette
Fifth Course
Wood Roasted Squab, Boysenberry Sauce
Richebourg Leroy, 1991
Sixth Course
Rack of Lamb Persillade
Chateau Lafitte Rothschild, 1982
Seventh Course
Selection of Fine Cheeses
Graham’s Vintage Port, 1977
Eighth Course
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


E. B. Davis said...

Historical writers always amaze me in how they not only find details of the technology and customs of the period, but also in knowing how those people used those items and defining the lifestyle they lived. It's one thing to know about spinning wheels, but then knowing how they worked and understanding a woman's relationship to that technology, what it did to her body--sitting for hours in one position and shaping her fingers, is writing magic. Taking us into a different world. Those modern day writers can't write what they know--they didn't live in those times. Spinsters--defined by their technology.

I wonder how 4-wheel driving defines me? I guess that would be better than defining me through my microwave! In another two hundred years, bet those technologies will be seen as limiting--not freeing.

Thanks for blogging with us, Saralyn.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Congratulations on your debut mystery! I look forward to reading it.

Gloria Alden said...

Saralyn, I'm putting your book on my TBO list. It sounds interesting. I write only places I'm familiar with and about things I know, but I have looked things up for some of my books.

Saralyn said...

Thanks so much, E.B., for hosting me on this prestigious blog, and thanks to all of you who are reading and commenting. I appreciate your encouragement, and I invite you to the party.

Lorette Lavine said...

So interesting, I some times catch incorrect medical stuff on television and I wonder about the technical advice. I never think about all the research that goes into making a novel authentic, even down to the menu. Anxious to read your new mystery!

KM Rockwood said...

I greatly admire writers who have done enough research that they can bring the reader to a time and place so distant from today's world.

Best of luck with your new release! (although I know it's not really "luck;" a lot of time and effort has gone into it.)

Saralyn said...

Thank you, KM, Lorette, Gloria, Margaret, and E.B. I'm glad the authenticity-via-research resonates with all of you. I appreciate your kind encouragement, and I'm sending more of the same back to you. What a great community of readers and writers you represent!