“How do you research your books on Italy?”
|Deanne and Friend|
As many of you know, I have two books published, one of which, UNTANGLING THE KNOT, was set partially in Italy. More importantly, I had such fun writing about Italy in that book that I decided to set a new story entirely there. Both books base the main character in Tuscany. But in the new story, MOLTO MAYHEM, the main character travels all over Italy on a hunt for missing religious icons and a mysterious company. It’s a fun book, filled with food, and place and crazy characters. I hope to have it out this year, but in the meantime, you can check out more about it here.
And, while I could talk about MOLTO MAYHEM all day, what I was asked to write about was how I actually researched the setting for the two stories, while sadly stuck at my desk (or local Starbucks) here in the Northwest of the US.
My writing process is pretty organic… no elaborate 3x5 cards for me with plot points and character arches. Although I begin with a synopsis, my characters tell their story as I take them on their journey. And, what I have found, is that by writing about interesting locations, the characters have tons more to say. So that, as much as characters driving my plot points, setting does as well.
I’ll give you an example, in MOLTO MAYHEM, the hero, being English, thinks all can be solved over a cup of tea. They are travelling in Salerno and I need them to see something interesting while they are there. First I have them simply stop for Gelato, but it doesn’t give me enough of a sense of the quirkiness and history of Italy and doesn’t add any depth to the characters. So, I begin to research Salerno and the surrounding area. I find something intriguing, a special garden attached to a university and known for being a spot where students learned about herbal remedies. Like a dog with a bone, I dig deeper. It mentions words like Tisaneria and The Four Humours. I do more research, expanding it out to my local tea shops to speak with people who might know more. I find I am immersed in the ancient world of Hippocrates.
I’ve added an excerpt of this section to my website so you can read it there if you are interested. But suffice to say, this takes my characters into a completely fictitious, and hilarious encounter with two Italian men. And later, it directly results in the main character having dreams that help resolve a major conflict in the story.
It is misleading to suggest, though, that my process is entirely by the seat of my pants. Knowing that the story was set in Italy I put in place a few key pieces of support before I got farther than the first chapter:
1. I researched the best translation and/or slang Italian websites, and had them on my favorites bar, ready to use at a moments notice. Some favorites: http://dictionary.reverso.net/english-italian/café, http://becomingitalianwordbyword.typepad.com/, and http://www.italylogue.com/about-italy/italian-idiomatic-expressions.html
2. I downloaded a map of Italy, with roads marked. And I favorite an Italy site which could calculate driving distances/times.
3. I pulled out all of my old photos, brochures, and books from past trips to Italy and kept them with me as I wrote.
4. I don’t use Pinterest, but I did make my own version of a pinned wall on my computer, with inspiring photos of Italy, the architecture (which plays a major role in the story) and people.
5. I downloaded my favorite Italian songs as a soundtrack while writing.
6. I watched a bunch of movies in preparation for, and then whenever I needed some inspiration while, writing. My favorites were: Only You, Under a Tuscan Sun, Letters to Juliette, and a new addition, The Trip to Italy.
Once I began writing, I used the above resources to help me research locations, themes, words, and cultural details. I also used Google Earth to get down to the road level of any towns where I sent my characters. (Here’s an example for the map where the Tisaneria is in Salerno: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Giardino+della+Minervafirstname.lastname@example.org,14.753565,15z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0xb6d3b7de2db48795)
To me, the very best part of setting a story in a foreign locale is the chance to get to know more about the culture and the people there. (It also doesn’t hurt that in some cases you can write off research trip expenses directly related to your writing…. But check with your accountant before making an assumption on this:>) I took two trips to do fact checking on my Italy stories. But to be honest, most of the detailed Italian information came from the above research.
It is tricky not to let web surfing take over your writing time… especially when you have set your story someplace as wonderful as Italy. But at least in my case, my characters wouldn’t let me ‘stop-over’ very often before they would demand I send them on to their next adventure.
Here’s to you own virtual trip to Italy or wherever – may it be a Journey Inspired by Love.