I’m sure I stood out on that sunny Sunday afternoon, standing in the parking lot of a shuttered convenience store, still dressed in church clothes, as I used my phone to take pictures of the park across the street. It’s not a part of Columbus, Ohio, I’d be comfortable spending much time in, and I wasn’t sure what interest my presence might attract. But I needed pictures of that park. A police officer had identified the green space as a prime location for prostitutes and their customers. I wanted to know what it looked like when it came time to describe such a corner in my latest mystery.
With reporting as my day job, I’m accustomed to relying on notes and observations to describe a scene or landscape. I try to do the same when writing my private eye series set in Columbus (the latest installment, The Hunt, arrives in April). Increasingly, though, and thanks to the ease of smart phones, I’ve added photographs to my descriptive tool bag.
I learned the value of pictures researching a pivotal scene near the end of my first mystery, Fourth Down And Out (2014). In the climactic chapter, my private eye protagonist, an ex-Ohio State quarterback, returns to Ohio Stadium for the first time in two decades. Once a popular and successful player, Andy Hayes fell into the gutter of public opinion after a point shaving scandal his senior year that cost him his college career and his team the national championship. For many fans, the sight of Hayes stepping foot on the stadium’s hallowed grounds would be the equivalent of watching Benedict Arnold strut down the streets of Philadelphia after the Revolution. For the purposes of my fiction, I wanted to get the facts right about his return visit. Given the outsized nature of Ohio State fandom, I also had to be sure I didn’t commit any flagrant fouls when it came to describing the stadium and its environs.
Thanks to the generosity of the university athletic department, I toured the inside of the stadium for an hour one day, taking pictures of the views Hayes would see as he made his approach, from Gate 18, where he’d show his ticket, to the walk along the inside concourse, to the entrance into the stadium itself—all the way to the particular luxury box Hayes was headed to for a culminating show-down with the man who’d helped facilitate his fall from grace. These pictures, combined with my notes, came in handy many an early morning as I put the finishing touches on my manuscript. They also reminded me that while the Internet and its many eyes are a wonderful thing, there’s still no substitute for being there and recording the exact images you need.
I took a similar approach with my second book, Slow Burn (2015), in which Hayes tries to solve an arson fire in an off-campus neighborhood that killed three Ohio State students. I walked the streets in question many times, during the day and at night, to get a feel for the houses and their architecture. I took plenty of notes. But there’s no way what I jotted down could have captured in full the elements I was able to get with a few snapshots of some of the archetypal houses, with their dark brick porch pillars, second-story window filigree and multiple chimneys sprouting from roofs like something out of the Mary Poppins chimney sweep scene.
Ironically, the most pictures I took were for the third book in the series, Capitol Punishment (2016), set in the Ohio Statehouse. It’s a place I should be able to describe in my sleep after reporting there for many years. And for some of the scenes, those set in committee rooms or the windowless first floor known as the Crypt, that was largely true. But once again, photos were crucial as I explored some of the lesser known nooks of the building, including the Cupola, the Greek revival structure at the top where the book’s finale plays out. The pictures captured details like the rough wooden bench circling the room and some of its carved signatures dating back to the 1870s—such as “J. Cook,” whoever that was.
That leads me back to The Hunt, in which Hayes searches for a missing prostitute at a time a serial killer is stalking and killing street women across the city. I didn’t try anything so crass as sneaking pictures of such women, though, sadly, it wasn’t all that hard to see them, sometimes in full morning light, driving to work through a depressed neighborhood not far from downtown. Aside from those visual observations, the pictures that helped the most were street scenes of the type I captured across from the park; abandoned houses on the city’s east side which Hayes and his assistant visit during their investigation; and photos of derelict grain silos—including interior pictures, thanks to a helpful engineer who’d been inside—that come into play during the novel.
Of course, verisimilitude has its limits. “This book is a work of fiction. That means I make things up,” Harlan Coben says at the end of Darkest Fear. Photos help me get descriptions correct where they count, but they should be signposts, not traffic barriers. If a plot point requires a shifting of the time-space continuum in the form of a fake in a real neighborhood or a building never erected on an otherwise familiar corner, so be it. In researching Capitol Punishment, I took pictures of a glass Statehouse cabinet filled with mementoes of the building’s earliest days. That helped me describe a scene in which characters pass by the cabinet, turn the corner and come across a commemorative gavel “fashioned from a two-hundred-year-old oak tree that got hit with lightning last summer in southern Ohio.” If you visit the Statehouse, you’ll find that cabinet without a problem, but you’ll look in vain for the gavel. No matter: the plot needed both. Despite the advantages that pictures provide, sometimes images must reside forever in the imagination.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins works for The Associated Press in Columbus and writes the Andy Hayes mystery series for Swallow Press, featuring an ex-Ohio State quarterback turned private eye.