Sometimes you have to be there!
The internet is a marvelous thing. I don’t know how we ever did research without it. I have almost blocked out the memory of those endless hours spent pawing through the library card catalogue, trying to guess how your subject would be indexed. Or crouching in the aisles of the musty stacks, flipping through obscure books in search of just the exact fact you needed. Why was the most promising book – the one that seemed to cover precisely the topic you needed – always missing?
Nowadays, almost everything is at our fingertips. Even if the information is not online, the library catalogues are, and the right books can be tracked down without even leaving your living room sofa. The maps of many corners of the world are online and Google Earth can even give you a satellite or street view, almost as if you’re standing on the street corner yourself.
Almost, but not quite. Google Street View can’t give you the sounds of the trucks roaring by, or the bass beat from the restaurant patio across the road, or the smell of stale French fries and baking asphalt on a hot summer day. Street View can’t put you in the place, living it in all its layers and textures, any more than a web article can give you the nuances and personal flair of the personal interview.
So it was that my pursuit of authenticity brought me to Schwartz’ Main Hebrew Deli in Montreal. In my latest Inspector Green book, Beautiful Lie the Dead, Green goes to Montreal to track down a cold case, and of course, Schwartz’ is on his to-do list. While in Montreal, I also visited the Mount Royal Cemetery, Summit Circle in upper Westmount, the police station and old Forum, but Schwartz’ and ‘The Main’ were the settings I needed to experience in all their sensory glory. A picture would not capture the arched brow of the impatient waiter, nor the splatter of grease stains on his apron. It would not capture the laughing chatter of the patrons jostling in a long queue outside, renewing old friendships and making new ones. It would not capture the mingled scents of smoked meat, garlic dills, frying oil and coffee that hit you the instant you stepped in the door. Nor the sweet-salty taste of the meat so soft it falls off your fork.
Not all that detail makes it into the book, of course, lest the reader cast it aside half read and leap on the next bus to Montreal. But it’s the best way to sink into the scene and to truly live it from inside the character’s head. The internet and Google Earth make us mere observers, distant and analytical. They are no substitute for getting out there, talking to people and drinking in the whole scene. And a lot less fun!
Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green novels which havewon back to back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, explores love in all its complications. And, her new Rapid Read from Orca, The Fall Guy, was launched in May.