By Barbara Fister

American Libraries 32.4 (April 2001):82-84

What kind of beer do Rwandans drink? How does a person disappear and create a new identity? Do Chicago police use hollow-point bullets or full metal jackets?

Oh, and one last thing: How do I break into a Corvette?

Not a typical day at the reference desk. But they are real questions people have asked in the course of their research. Gregg Sutter should know. He fields questions like these as a full-time occupation. He's Elmore Leonard's researcher.

Leonard, bestselling author of 35 novels, has said he would rather write than do research. But authenticity is his trademark. How does he get the look, the sound, the deftly deployed detail that convinces his readers they're in Miami or Detroit or even hanging out with a missionary priest of dubious origins in Rwanda?

He calls Gregg Sutter.

Encountered at a New York bookstore, browsing while his boss signs books, Leonard's legman turns out to be a tall, lean 49-year-old with dark hair and stylish clothes that would fit right in at a reunion of Elmore Leonard heroes. When asked if he would do an interview for American Libraries he says sure--and quickly adds, "I love librarians."

Add to his description: The guy's got class.

What kind of questions does he tackle for his employer? "It literally could be anything. He may ask me to research a general topic like insurance fraud, or background a specific location such as Harlan County, Kentucky. Or he may have a specific question like the name of a baseball bat model used to beat a guy to death. Every topic in the novel either comes out of his collective memories, common sense, or from the research."

It's not just a matter of looking up facts. Fiction needs to convey the way a place feels, vernacular speech patterns, the quirks and oddities that make a story seem real, "I rely a lot on newspapers and magazines to gather information on a subject like the hurricane of 1926 in La Brava, or Harper's Weekly in 1898 for Cuba Libre," Sutter says. "Libraries will always be depositories of information that is older and not likely to appear any time soon in digital format on an information service on the Web."

But not everything can be found in a library. "Field work and interviews customize the research and are an important part of the mix," he adds. Questions about breaking into Corvettes, for instance, are best answered by someone who has experience--not a standard part of librarians' training.

Librarians are used to the lengthy interrogations necessary for a good reference interview. Sutter has an advantage--he's been hanging out with his client for 20 years. "I've learned his sound, sense of humor, and his affinity for irony and high contrast. I have developed an intuitive sense about his research needs."

The work is a two-part invention. "We discuss the general topics in advance. I background it and then go on a field trip first and then depending on the importance of the topic, we go together. Of course, I take video and photographs and conduct interviews. It's a continuous, daily process. While writing, Elmore reads pages to me and I either fact-check, make suggestions, or look for new research avenues on the spot."

Given the creative nature of the final product, Sutter doesn't always know how his research will be used. He produces a wide mix of research material, guessing at what might spark the creative moment. "This is unconscious research but it works between the two of us."

Sometimes an interesting tidbit generates a plot twist or character. "I try hard to spread a broad net when I research a topic to allow for a corollary discovery. For example, Elmore wanted to know about smugglers along Interstate 75 between southern Ohio and Detroit for Pagan Babies. The research produced many articles about cigarette smuggling between Detroit and Kentucky in the early '90s. This was much better and he used it. For his e-novella, Fire in the Hole [available at contentville.com], I was researching Harlan County, Kentucky, and ran across a local recipe for baked possum. I knew he'd get a kick out of it. He ended up using it as an important element."

And sometimes those happy accidents start a book rolling. "Perhaps the most serendipitous was a newspaper clipping I had on file showing a female United States Marshal guarding the Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I gave him that clip about nine years later and it formed the basis for the character of Karen Cisco in Out of Sight.."

Sutter is able to do much of his research on the Internet, but he finds the library an essential complement. "There will always be reference sources at the library you are not going to find online." And he takes advantage of librarians' talents. "Recently I was researching geology in Kentucky. The librarian did some very skillful computer searches and steered me toward material that yielded more than an ordinary catalog search. I was impressed with her searching skills and realized the ongoing importance of librarians in the Information Age. The true librarian has a commitment to helping patrons and you can spot them easily."

He adds, "I love being in libraries, smelling the books, and picking up on the convergence of so much thought. I like finding the unexpected treasure or exposure to new techniques for searching." And there's the practical side, too: "I especially like libraries with microfilm printers and copy machines that work."

Legmen for hire

For the writer without a personal legman, there are other options. Facts for Fiction (www.factsforfiction.com) is a research firm in Portland, Oregon, that provides personalized "fact packets" for writers pressed for time or facing questions they can't answer. "They pay for personal service and doggedness. We keep trying till we get it right," says owner Annette Mathias, who previously used her MLS working in libraries. The questions tend to be harder than the typical reference question, but at times "it's like a treasure hunt."

Many writers rely on their own research and use the same kind of library and fieldwork combination as Sutter. Novelist Leslie Pietrzyk plied her relatives with questions for Pears on a Willow Tree (Avon/Bard, 1998), a novel about four generations of Polish-American women. She also spent hours at the Fairfax County, Virginia, library system. "I researched topics like alcoholism, lace-making, Polish customs, immigration, Ellis Island, Polish cooking, Thailand--along with having to verify a number of little things like whether the Ambassador Bridge (Detroit to Canada) existed in 1961 or not." The mix of imagination and research paid off. "What I like about having done my research is hearing someone who's read my book tell me that the portrait of living with an alcoholic rings so true, even though I've never lived with an alcoholic. Or hearing someone assume that I've been to Thailand since one chapter is set in Thailand-when I haven't been there at all." She's currently at work on a new novel, Year and a Day.

Ann Patchett, whose most recent novel is The Magician's Assistant (Harcourt Brace, 1997), confesses "I'm a lazy researcher in many ways"--a surprise, coming from a writer whose work rings with authenticity. She often turns for advice to her friend, the novelist Elizabeth McCracken who left librarianship to write fiction. And she has the help of a highly trained detective--her father. Now retired from the police force, he conducts investigations on Patchett's behalf. "He has an amazing eye for detail. He always helps me put together a very complete picture."

Both Patchett and Pietrzyk say they typically start with their imagination. "I tend to write my story and then do research, filling things in, adding bits of color and detail afterwards," says Pietrzyk. "It's less tempting to get bogged down in researching if I do it that way." Patchett agrees. "I almost always prefer to make it up as I go along and then fill in the details later. Research can be a wonderful place to hide." But sometimes it is key to developing a character. One in her forthcoming book, Bel Canto (HarperCollins, June 2001), is an opera singer. "I spent an enormous amount of time listening to opera, not because I needed the facts but I needed to understand this character's passion."

The needs of authors

Librarians don't always know when they're helping a novelist. "We have many writers working here because we are such an open library and have such a rich collection," Denise Hibay of the New York Public Library Research Division says. But often she is deep into a reference interview before patrons will "'fess up" that they're working on a novel. She finds that their research needs are different from those of scholars. They look for context and atmosphere more than specifics. Tom Mann of the Library of Congress recalls helping a novelist: "She was writing a historical romance set in the jungles of South America, on a rubber plantation. I recommended that she get a copy of the old Clark Gable/Jean Harlow movie Red Dust, which is also set on a rubber plantation, and, I remembered, has a couple minutes of 'expository explanation' on how the rubber is made." She returned later to say it was just what she needed.

Librarians often use tricks of the trade to crack a case. The question about creating a new identity didn't throw LC's Sheridan Harvey. The clue was the right subject heading: Identification cards--forgeries--United States. His colleague Lee Douglas says, "We sometimes get historical novelists who want descriptions of American life at a particular time or in a particular place." No problem: "Any catalog search for Irish Americans (fill in nationality) will produce personal accounts of everyday life. The sub-heading 'customs and social life' will produce more." Case closed.

Gregg Sutter appreciates librarians and their craft. "They have to stay out ahead of the information revolution and establish and maintain their niche as a relevant factor in the research process well into the future. I know they will."