Did one of my favourite things this week: met a writer friend at Jumping Bean on Elizabeth Avenue for a long chat about the craft of writing. Cannot think of a better way to pass the time (except for writing, of course!). We kicked around some pros and cons of online publishing, discussed the merits of traditional publishing, exchanged anecdotes and advice. Then we moved to the nitty gritty of writing.
Good research, we agreed, is as critical to fiction as to non-fiction. If you’re writing about St. John’s in the 1940s or Florence during the Renaissance or where you live at the moment, you need accurate details to create scenes that resonate and won’t bite you in the ass down the road. What do/did the people look like? How did/do they dress? What do the streets look like? The houses, buildings? What historical details would enhance the settings? It is important not to skip this leg work. My just-completed novel, Echo of the Child, is set in 1980/81, in several scattered locations. This required two levels of research. The first part was to get a feel for what these places looked like then. Secondly, I needed to get a feel for those years. What major events transpired that would lend authenticity to the story. In November, 1980, southern Italy was devastated by the Irpinia earthquake. My protagonist was already going to be in Italy at that time. Now there were specific dates and my character was drawn into that drama. In creating a back story for one of my characters, I discovered there was a major flood in the region of Florence in 1966. I used this detail but set it in 1958 with a disclaimer at the end of the manuscript. Dark Water by Robert Clark is an excellent source for the history of this disaster. It is a fascinating account of the flood, loss of life, and the damage to great works of art in this historic Renaissance city. As the event came alive in my mind, I was able to use details: the washing out of bridges, the fact that the water reached as high as 6.7 metres (22 ft) is some places forcing many citizens of Florence to flee to upper floors of buildings in the oldest part of the city where many were stranded for days. Huge numbers of priceless artworks and rare books were damaged or destroyed when the Arno waters flooded centuries’ old churches, galleries, museums, in the most historic part of the city.
Most of my research reading I do in the hours I’m not writing. Another book that came to hand during this period was Silence on Monte Sole by Jack Olsen, an account of the genocide committed by the Nazis in their retreat from Italy in the face of advancing Allied Forces in 1944. It was an act of unimaginable cruelty and helped shape a minor character who we never actually meet. Immersing yourself in this kind of research can be a reward in itself. It will definitely lend your writing authenticity.
The internet can be useful as well but that comes with a caveat. Much that is on sites such as Wikipedia is not always factual. Case in point: on Wikipedia, the genocide referred to above is called the Marzabotto Massacre suggesting that this event took place in the town of Marzabotto, Italy. Details were sparse but a diligent search eventually turned up Silence on Monte Sole which gives an accurate accounting. Why make a point of this? If one of your readers happens to be a great fan of Italian Second World War history, they will be very disappointed if this event is misplaced or skimmed over carelessly. We don’t know who is going to pick up our novel. A bad review can do devastating damage, particularly to new writers. We do well to avoid a reputation of inaccuracy or laziness in research.
Drawing on our own experience can also enrich your story. Do you love music, art, cooking, spelunking? Music is a theme that runs throughout my novel. Although I drew on my own love of it, I also assiduously researched each title/artist to make sure I had it right. My short story, Time Signature, began with contemplating my piano bench. What could be developed from that? Well, an elderly man residing in a home for the aged who has given up on himself. But his granddaughter hasn’t. She convinces him to play again, to claim the life of a musician he’s forsaken. In preparation for writing this story, I learned a lot about the big band era which was before my time.
Simple things can create an atmosphere of authenticity. While in Florence several years ago, I took photographs of restaurant menus. These came in very handy for scenes in restaurants or cafes. Treat your experiences as research even if you don’t have a specific project in mind. These can sit on a back burner somewhere then pop into our minds at crucial moments.
Another useful source is guidebooks containing maps, photos, restaurant guides, and listings of places to see. They’re great to refresh your memory of a place you’ve been and want to write about.
So don’t be reluctant to do the leg work. It will pay off not just in authenticity in your writing but also enrich your general knowledge. Who knows what spark will ignite the next story?