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On Trust and the Value of Being There

The storyline was compelling: a spy novel set in modern Tel Aviv. I can't remember the name of the book, but I very clearly remember the scene at which I threw it down in disgust (this was in the olden days, when you could actually throw a book down without cracking its screen): Having overcome a rival, the protagonist sits coolly on the balcony of her Tel Aviv hotel room. Sipping whiskey, she ponders the nature of good and evil as the sun rises over the Mediterranean and a new day dawns on the troubled Middle East.

A powerful image, no? It could be, were it not for the fact that the sun doesn't rise over the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv. It rises over the city, and sets over the ocean to the west. The author couldn't be bothered to check such mundane facts, and as such completely lost me.

Living in Israel, I have the unfair advantage of having Tel Aviv (the partial setting for all my books thus far) nearby. But for the other venues in my books, I've thus far visited all humanly possible and can say with some authority that there really is no substitute for being there.

While researching Galerie, I visited Prague with my son in the winter of 2012. We spent a full day at the sites of the Jewish Museum of Prague—whose staff assisted me greatly in the research and writing of the book. We took public transportation to Terezin, the site of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, in which Galerie is partially set. But mostly, we simply walked and looked around. The images from these endless (and tiring) walks are still with me, and enabled me (I believe) to create more vivid, more realistic and more engaging descriptions of the settings through which Galerie's characters moved.

More recently, I spent a long weekend in Warsaw, Poland, where I was researching my new book. Despite the February cold (why do these trips always end up in the winter?), I spent three days pounding the pavement of that graceless city. I hit out-of-the-way museums. I stood looking at various vantage points long enough to arouse the suspicion of passers-by. I asked pesky questions of museum attendants, hotel staff, and even cab drivers. With the object of getting a feel for what my protagonist might have seen, I soaked up the atmosphere, and took copious notes in the evenings at my hotel.

It is not always feasible to be there. As an Israeli, there was no possibility of visiting Beirut to research the scenes set there in my novel Enfold Me. To compensate for this, in addition to copious background reading, I spent hours upon hours 'walking' through the city via Google Maps Street View. I watched countless videos shot from planes landing at Beirut airport (yes, these really exist, and not just for Beirut) to get a feel for what the protagonist would see looking out the window of the plane, even noting from which side of the plane he would have seen what. I pored over maps and Google Earth. Oh, and I triple-checked from which direction the sun rises (to be fair, it's the same as Tel Aviv).

As a reader, as in life, I have high expectations. I am unforgiving, and expect authors to do their homework. As a writer, I expect nothing less of myself. By setting my novel in a certain location, I am claiming a level of expertise that should be of value to you, my intelligent reader. Peddling inaccuracies–especially one so blatant as the sunrise fiasco–is not only an insult to the reader's intelligence, it is a fundamental betrayal of trust. And if you, the reader, cannot trust that my story is accurate as well as compelling—why would I expect you to buy my book? 

The Elusiveness of Childhood Memory
 

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