Ear­li­er this week Debra Spark wrote about meet­ing Adin Stein­saltz and why she makes her char­ac­ters Jew­ish. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

These days, when peo­ple write a book, they invari­ably have an acknowl­edg­ments page, where they thank a few peo­ple or – like some­one going on and on at the Oscars – every­one they ever knew, down to the babysit­ter who once braid­ed their hair in ele­men­tary school. My own acknowl­edge­ments page for my most recent book thanks my first read­ers – the friends who com­ment­ed on my sto­ries in draft – and the artist colonies that offered me an extend­ed time to write.

Now that I think about it, and think about it in terms of what real­ly enabled me to do what I need­ed to do, I real­ize I should also have thanked New York’s Ten­e­ment Muse­um. The muse­um con­sists of a mod­ern vis­i­tor cen­ter at 103 Orchard Street and a ten­e­ment at 97 Orchard that has been restored” – or per­haps safe­ly kept in its ear­li­er dis­mal con­di­tion. The rooms have been fur­nished as they were dur­ing the years (18631935), when the ten­e­ment was occupied.

This may sound drea­ri­ly like any num­ber of muse­ums, where you stand behind a rope while you look at a Vic­to­ri­an bed­room or see the trun­dle bed where Melville’s chil­dren slept. But it is noth­ing of the sort. Instead the tour guide who takes you into 97 Orchard Street (you can’t just wan­der alone) tells you the sto­ry of one of the immi­grant fam­i­lies who once lived there. And at least some of those immi­grants were Jewish.

The Muse­um gave me the very thing that I need­ed to write: a sense of the lived life, the specifics of dai­ly exis­tence. I have at times got buried in, and dis­tract­ed by, my efforts at verisimil­i­tude. I have tried to do research for books and only learned how much I don’t know, how there was no way I could write my book unless I had more courage, more of an abil­i­ty to ask peo­ple who I didn’t know what their lives were like. But intruth you don’t need to know every­thing to write a sto­ry or nov­el. You just need enough to con­vince. In an inter­view on iden​ti​tythe​o​ry​.com, the fic­tion writer Jim Shep­ard talks about the role of research in fic­tion this way:

Hen­ry James said, She had eyes like this and a nose like this.’ And you go, I could real­ly see her.’ You have two details! The­o­ret­i­cal­ly you could do the same thing with the Bat­tle of Anti­etam, right? If you get the right details. Part of the point of all that research is not, Oh, I am going to be able to deploy more details.’ It’s that I am more like­ly to come across those two.”

What The Ten­e­ment Muse­um gave me were the details, iron­i­cal­ly enough, to imag­ine where my char­ac­ters lived. I only used two things from the vis­it to the Muse­um: a detail about where toi­lets were placed in a ten­e­ment and what the lay out of an apart­ment might be like, but, in my head, the whole world was quite vivid. I could see it all, and hope­ful­ly my read­ers can as well.

Debra Spark is the author of The Pret­ty Girl, a col­lec­tion of sto­ries about art and decep­tion. She has been the recip­i­ent of sev­er­al awards includ­ing a Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts fel­low­ship. She is a pro­fes­sor at Col­by Col­lege and teach­es in the MFA Pro­gram for Writ­ers at War­ren Wil­son Col­lege.

Debra Spark is author of the nov­els Coconuts for the Saint, The Ghost of Bridgetown and Good for the Jews. She edit­ed the best-sell­ing anthol­o­gy Twen­ty Under Thir­ty: Best Sto­ries by Amer­i­ca’s New Young Writ­ers, and her pop­u­lar lec­tures on writ­ing are col­lect­ed in Curi­ous Attrac­tions: Essays on Fic­tion Writ­ing. Debra is a pro­fes­sor at Col­by Col­lege and teach­es in the MFA Pro­gram for Writ­ers at War­ren Wil­son College.