A few months ago, I started reading a historical fiction novel set in Italy. Since it took place during World War II–the same time as my new novel–I was eager to read it. Besides, I can’t resist anything set in Italy. So late one night, I curled up with the book, eager to devour it. I read one chapter. Then, two. But within an half hour, I was getting impatient. After an hour, I stopped cold and turned off my iPad.
The writing annoyed me. There were glaring mistakes, like the italicized phrases that were supposed to be Italian, but did not exist in that language or worst still, they were incorrect. For example, Germans are called “Germanesi,” instead of “Tedeschi.” Soup is called “menestra,” but it should be “minestra.”
There were also assumptions about geography and customs. In one scene, the main character visits the village cemetery encircled with thick oak fencing. The graves were laid out in rows, each marked with a headstone, like you’d find in America. But in Italian villages, cemeteries are often vertical to save space. There simply isn’t enough available open land, so the practical Italians figured out a way to create rows of coffin-sized compartments within large blocks of stone–often chiseled out of the mountainside. Also, instead of wooden fences, the Italians often use stone–because it is so plentiful, relatively inexpensive, and far more durable.
The bottom line is that the author did not take the time to do his homework. Therefore, he did not create an authentic and believable setting for the novel. He also relied on stereotypes and made assumptions about Italy based on American practices. But this leaves us with the question: how do you create “reality” on the page? How do you make the reader believe he or she has stepped back in time to another place?
The short and simple answer is: research. Some of you may be groaning right now as you remember those dreaded assignments in high school and college. The musty smell of the library stacks and pouring through volumes of old books made you want to curl up and take a nap. But I’m here to share a radical thought: research can be–dare I say it–fun and exciting. To make you a believer, I will share some research tips that will help you locate just the right information to create believable characters, settings, and situations.
1. Let people know the time period and topic you are researching. Friends and even casual acquaintances may have surprising connections that can help you uncover valuable information and connect you with people who lived during that time or are experts in that area. This happened to me a few months ago, when I told one of my husband’s colleagues that I was researching Detroit during the war years. He arranged a tour and luncheon with the wonderful people at the Willow Run Bomber Factory and 3 women who worked as “Rosie the Riveters” during World War II. It was such a treat to meet and interview these real life “Rosies” who are now in their 90’s and have a wealth of wisdom and life experience. Their insights into that time period and authentic details will make my story so much richer.
2. Use the web to locate libraries with special collections that will be useful for your research. For researchers, special collections are treasure troves of information, often bequeathed by families to the library. They can include letters, photos, telegrams, diaries, and unpublished manuscripts. When I needed more background information on Italian Americans in Boston, I visited the Boston Public Library, which has a special collection about Italian-American labor organizers and anarchists. Imagine my surprise when I found original handwritten letters from Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti to family members and fellow-activists while they were in prison in Boston. In this same collection, there were telegrams sent by the anarchist Emma Goldman to activist Carlo Tresca, who fought for the re-trial of the two Italian immigrants.
I’d recommend emailing the special collections librarian beforehand (if possible) and let him (her) know your area of interest. That way, he (she) can do a little research before your visit and pull together some additional information that you may not know about. Be sure to ask the librarians for their business cards, so you can note them in the acknowledgement section of your book. I’d also suggest sending them a copy of your book once it is published. These “unsung” heroes are living, breathing treasure troves of information.
You should also be aware that every library has its own set of regulations. Visitors may be required to check their personal belongings in a locker before entering the special collections room. In Boston, I could bring in a computer and a cell phone, but no notebooks, notepaper or pens. However, I could take photos of the material. Some librarians will also email you information afterwards. A librarian at Brandeis University emailed a digitized collection of World War II propaganda posters that I could view and download after my visit. As a final tip, often their hours are different from the regular library hours, so be sure to check in advance.
3. If possible, visit the location that you are writing about. Take reference photos and talk to local people. In Boston, I was taking photos on Salutation Street in the North End, when I spotted a man delivering newspapers. He gave me a copy of the Post Gazette and told me he was a columnist. On his advice, I went to the newspaper office a few blocks away and spoke to the publisher, Pamela Donnaruna whose family has been publishing the Post Gazette for 3 generations. She gave me some valuable insights and some leads for finding more information about Italian Americans living in the North End during the war. On my next trip to Boston, I plan to spend a few dollars and take a tour of the area with a local guide.
4. Expand your research beyond books and articles. Include photos, videos, movies, interviews, census records, and magazine articles. With a click, you can zoom into a location in Google Maps and get a birds-eye view of the place. By clicking on “Street View” you can see images of the actual location and even “walk” down the street with a click of your mouse.
5. Don’t forget ephemera. Sometimes it’s the little details that are the most convincing. I’m sure you all remember the scene in “Back to the Future” when Marty McFly’s future wife Lorraine calls him “Calvin” because she sees the Calvin Klein label sewn into his underwear and assumes that’s his name. And instead of a generic time travel machine, Marty McFly rockets to the past in a DeLorean with 1.5 gigawatts of power. In addition to reading articles, you can “soak up” the movies and music of the time period. Don’t forget fashion and comics and popular magazines. I also collect postcards of people who remind me of my characters and the time period. I pin them up on a bulletin board near my desk for quick reference as I’m writing.
What tips do you have for creating authentic characters and realistic settings? What little details have you used in your writing to make the scene or character come ‘alive’?