June 11, 2018

The Dazzle is in the Details

By Sandra Orchard, author of A Fool and His Monet, Another Day Another Dali, and Over Maya Dead Body

Yes, I have as much fun twisting a phrase for a good title as I have twisting what readers think they’ve deduced as they read. The details make the difference. Accurate, illuminating, surprising details.

But how does a writer know what details to use?


Please tell me, you didn’t just groan. Research is fun! You get to learn new things, see new places, and meet interesting people. What’s not to like?

The key is to not settle for what you glean from an Internet search or a book. Talk to people. Talk to people in the various vocations depicted in your novel. And . . . talk to people of varying personalities, backgrounds, and life experiences, to better imagine how different people would react to the scenarios you plan to write.

Whenever possible, also visit the “environments” you wish to depict—whether a specific town or a factory or a farm or a ghetto or a grand palace. Gain a sense of the atmosphere and rhythm of the place. Ask lots of questions. Jot down lots of details—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures.

Choosing which details to use and how is an art in itself, but if you don’t know the details, you’ll inevitably fall back on stereotypical descriptions that aren’t nearly as interesting.

My Serena Jones Mysteries are fun adventures, and the research for them proved to be the same. I started, as most writers do, by reading online articles about art crime. From there, I devoured biographies of the best-known art detectives and books on art and forgery. I even took an online course with the University of Glasgow on Art & Antiquities Crime, which proved to be a fabulous way to “meet” several experts in the field.

But the real adventure started after I settled on a location for the series. I wanted to attend a conference in St. Louis, so I decided to make it my heroine’s hometown and contacted the FBI headquarters there to see if I might visit. It turned out they had a straightforward approval process in place. And after I filled out the appropriate online forms, my visit was approved!

A member of the FBI Art Crime Team even called me at home prior to my visit to answer questions. Likewise, art museum staff willingly, albeit a tad nervously, answered my questions about their security. Overall, I’ve found that most professionals are happy to share their expertise with a conscientious writer. But you’ll never know unless you ask.

And sometimes research opportunities just drop into your lap, like that late night visit to the ER, that totally unwarranted traffic stop, or the wonderful new friend you make at a writer’s conference who invites you to visit her home, which happens to be in the perfect location for your next novel—in my case, Over Maya Dead Body, since even FBI agents need a vacation and what better place than Martha’s Vineyard?

In fact, I had to visit twice; just to be sure I got the details exactly right. <wink>
Sandra Orchard is the award-winning author of several books, including A Fool and His Monet; Another Day, Another Dali; and the Port Aster Secrets series. The winner of six Canadian writing Awards and a Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award, Sandra has also received a HOLT Medallion Award of Merit, a National Readers’ Choice Award, and a Daphne du Maurier Award. She lives in Ontario, Canada. Learn more at WebsiteBlogFacebook,  and

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