Today, the official publication date of As Husbands Go, I’m going to Joan Smith’s flower shop on Main Street in Port Washington for a Newsday photo shoot. Well, “photo shoot” sounds kind of four-pages-in-Vogue, and for all I know this could be a teeny black and white accompanying the paper’s review of my novel. But the point is that Joan matters. On the Acknowledgments page, I thanked her for teaching me what I needed to know about floral design. Not for life, mind you: for my protagonist, Susan B. Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten, who co-owns an upscale flower business.
I had a fabulous time learning from Joan Smith, a woman so vibrant she seems to be living two lives simultaneously. But this was Flowers for Authors 101 – just enough knowledge to create part of the background for the character who will be the foreground. I didn’t (and couldn’t, of course) learn everything Joan knew. I didn’t need to. All I have to do was to feel comfortable enough with a container, floral foam, and the green stuff to convince myself I knew what I was talking about. Only after I did the research could I convince the reader.
Okay, let’s talk about research. One pal of mine – a really good writer – came up with some intriguing information in one of his books. “Hey, I never knew about XYZ,” I said. “You really must have done a lot of research.”
He looked amused in his noir-ish way (which is to say the demi-smile of a man not utterly undone by an absurd universe) appeared for an instant. “I don’t do research. I write fiction. I make it up.”
Well, that’s one way of doing it. Make up your facts. As the god creating a new universe, it is your divine right to plunk down the Champs Élysées in Kansas City or poison a tyrant with diathalene chloride, a lethal compound I formulated three seconds ago.
The obvious problem with this kind of invention is that whether nine-tenths of your readers are scratching their heads over why a French boulevard has moved to Missouri or whether merely a lone chemist/reader is muttering “Wha’?” an error of fact has caused the universe you’ve created to lose its gravitational pull on the imagination. The reader is yanked back into the real world as he or she wonders whether the author was merely sloppy or had some obscure literary purpose in including such a misstatement. So? Is one fiction-reading chemist really such a major deal? Is it worth an hour or a week’s time finding the perfect poison?
I’ll tell you why I think so: The more you know about a substance or a character’s means of getting and dispensing that substance, and whether that substance kills without a trace or causes an agonized, “He’s been poisoned!” death, the smarter your writing will be. By “smart” I mean authentic. It will feel real because you’ve made yourself an omniscient god with the power to bring every aspect of your universe to life. I needed to go through the experience of “greening out “ a container before adding the flowers.
So today, when the temperature is supposed to hit one hundred, I’ll be mascara-ed and flat-ironed to a fare-thee-well, at my photo shoot, thanking Joan for teaching me enough to make me believe – if only for the time I was writing – that I was a master of the botanical universe.
Happy pub date!