Research is One of the Best Parts of Writing!

There are a lot of things I didn’t learn about writing as a career in my MFA program.  One of them is how enjoyable and even exciting researching a book can be.  And I don’t just mean tracking things down online or spending time in an archive.  I mean talking to experts.

Working on book after book, I’ve found how helpful experts can be, and how much they enjoy opening up about their fields of expertise.  One of the first was a county Medical Examiner I interviewed because my firts mystery had a body found in a river.  We talked about decomposition and a lot of other aspects of the situation, and went very deep (pun intended in our hour-long chat.

I’ve spoken with lawyers, cops, private investigators and have never found anyone unwilling to talk about what they do and love.  I tell them who I am and why I’ve contacted them and ask if they have time.  The majority of interviews get done in person, but once or twice I’ve had to work on the phone if the expert was an inconvenient distance away.

These interviews don’t just help ground my books in reality, whatever the genre, they also take me out of my own world into worlds I don’t know and find fascinating.

In my current novel-in-progress, music plays a role and so I’ve interviewed a cello played I know and a friend who’s played the piano for years, and a professor of piano at Michigan State University.  I have eight years of piano behind me, but don’t know much about repertoire and the kinds of issues professionals deal with and the talks have been fascinating.  I’ve also interviewed a fire chief and the head of an advertising agency.  Each one has been unfailingly generous with their time and of course will be acknowledged when the book comes out.

It may not take a village to write a book, but it definitely takes human resources who live in very different worlds than I do, and enjoy sharing their wisdom and experience.  Talking to them doesn’t just augment the reality of whatever book I’m working on, it almost always opens up new possibilities.  Better still, it breaks the isolation of writing a book, and that makes me very grateful.

Even if you’re shy, contacting the expert you want is easy via phone or email.  What’s most important is thinking out your questions in advance and being prepared for the book to go in a different direction or take on aspects you hand’t imagined, based on what you learn.  As Henry James advised a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of 26 books in many genres including the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder.

Remembering My Father’s Times In The Kitchen

Even though Father’s Day is about six months off from Hannukah, it always makes me think of my father’s rare times in the kitchen making potato pancakes.

Fried in a large, battered cast iron pan, these latkes were always perfect: crisp outside, juicy inside, delicious whether served with sour cream, sugar, apple sauce–or just plain. My brother and I tried them every way.

I loved to watch my father cook.  He was as patient as a scientist, as skilled as a musician playing a piece he’s performed more times than he can remember. Sometimes he even made what he called a potato babka: pouring the batter into a large loaf pan and baking it. The word itself still makes my mouth water decades later, though my own kitchen will never be filled with that aroma.

I’ve used all kinds of pans, potatoes, and onions over the years, but have never been able to duplicate his latkes, not even with his advice. I’m not just being nostalgic and romanticizing the past. Back then, my mother said her latkes were never as good as his, and she was a gifted cook.

Did he consult a cookbook or was he remembering a recipe he had learned at home in eastern Czechoslovakia before the Holocaust? No, he just worked instinctively with the onions and potatoes, the flour, eggs, salt and pepper.

Years later, in a college course where we read Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, I learned a wonderful Italian word: sprezzatura. It was the art that concealed all art, the ability to do things flawlessly without betraying any effort. While my father was no Renaissance man — I don’t remember him ever cooking much of anything else — perhaps sprezzatura was a secret ingredient of those latkes.

And perhaps I tried too hard to equal him, longed too deeply to recreate a moment in time that looked like magic and felt like a feast. These days, I don’t worry about equaling what he did, I just enjoy the memory of the love and dedication, the patience, and the sights and smells of my taciturn father loving his sons without words.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery. You can study creative writing with him on line at writewithoutborders.com

My Mother’s Life Lesson

I think about my literate, multi-lingual mother all the time, even though she died nearly twenty years ago.

Well-read and well-educated, she inspired me with a love of learning for its own sake.  She was always ready to help me with homework in any subject, made me pay attention to politics and the news, and encouraged me to follow my dreams of travel to Europe. Even though I started learning French in fourth grade, my command of that language wouldn’t be as good as it is if she hadn’t been so thorough and patient.

More than that, she also taught me a valuable life lesson.  I was pretty young when my parents, my brother and I were walking into some downtown Manhattan restaurant for lunch and we were approached by a homeless man.

I didn’t understand anything about how people in our wealthy society could end up at the bottom like that, I’d never been in a situation like that, and I was embarrassed and confused.

Dressed in several layers of clothing including a tweed topcoat that seemed too heavy for the season, the man asked my mother for a cigarette, sounding as formal as a college professor.  She opened her purse and offered him a whole pack of Larks.  And money.

He shook his head in thanks, said, “One cigarette was all I asked for.”  And that’s all he took.

Inside, I asked why she had offered him all of her cigarettes.  My mother was a Holocaust survivor and had seen worlds of horror that I was only just beginning to learn about.  What she next said has always stuck with me: “I could never beg for anything in the war.  If someone does what he did, I have to say yes.”

It was an eye-opening, heart-expanding moment.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir.  An assistant professor of English at Michigan State University, he also teaches creative writing on line at http://writewithoutborders.com/