If the book you are writing is set in your hometown, details and interesting locations are relatively close to hand: a few days will go a long way in establishing tone, mood, and finding intriguing, unusual places for scenes to happen. But what if your protagonist lives in another city, another state, or even another country? My debut historical mystery, The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, is set in mid fifteenth-century Florence at the height of the Italian Renaissance. Untold numbers of nonfiction books have been published about this vibrant time in history and, believe me, I have scoured many of them while researching the poets, painters, and politicians who illuminated this era and made it famous.
But I have also visited Florence several times; with paper maps and notes in hand I have walked the town’s cobbled streets and thin, dark alleys to the point of exhaustion. Did I have to go? No. Am I glad I did? Yes! Why? Florence remains much the same today as it did five hundred years ago; many of the same palazzos are there and are inhabited by descendants of illustrious renaissance families. Florence is a popular tourist destination: people from all over the world know about how long it takes to walk from the Ponte Vecchio to Florence Cathedral. Whether your book is set in London or Wetumpka, Alabama, get things wrong, and readers will know. They will throw your book against the wall and say evil things about it.
These are serious considerations, of course. But what about the magic that happens when we walk in our characters’ footsteps, feel the atmosphere surrounding them and breathe the air they breathe? What about serendipity? (More about this in a moment.)
If you go:
Go Armed—Have a general idea of how and where your chapters and scenes play out. Write a brief synopsis for each chapter and take these pages with you. The more you know about your story in advance, the more focused you will be. At the same time, stay open to possibility.
Whether small town or big city, visit museums and local bookstores. Is there a genealogy society nearby? The local library—no matter how small—will have a genealogy room or shelf. Check it out. Ideas live there. (Not to mention old maps, diaries, letters and journals!) Gather ideas.
Find special exhibits.
Collect brochures and pamphlets from churches, government buildings, homes open to the public, castles, and palaces. Collect floor plans.
Take photos and videos, even when you are one hundred percent certain you will remember the area. You won’t.
Pack mailers and address labels. Mail home all the terrific—and heavy!—books and other research treasures you have collected along the way.
Engage with people. People love talking about their city, their town, their village, their street. Listen to gossip.
Expect magic. When I was in Florence last time I was doing research for the next book in the Guid’Antonio Vespucci series (my work in progress). I was looking for a place where my killer might have lived. Florence is a small city divided into four quarters and sixteen districts: in my research, I had already come across the Viper district. Viper! Wow, terrific! I wanted to place my evil antagonist there. But…would using that name tip the reader to my killer’s identify? Probably. So, scratch that.
But then in Florence one afternoon while wandering around aimless, I turned into a narrow byway in the Viper district that led into a tiny piazza. I went into the church there, which as it turns out is the oldest church in Florence (which is saying a lot). Upon leaving the church, back in the piazza, I happened to glance up and from an old inscription carved into a plaque, I discovered I was in Piazza Limbo. Here during the medieval ages there was a children’s graveyard. A chill ran over my body. Given the particulars of my plot in progress, I could not turn this location, these place names, down. Now, somehow, some way, my villain will live in Piazza Limbo in the Viper district of Florence.
This is the kind of magic that happens when you are on location: this could not have happened if I had been home in Nashville. So, if you go, wherever you go, go prepared, wander here and there, and you will stumble across wondrous things that will illuminate your writing and enrich your characters and their personal stories.
“Library Journal” selected Alana White‘s debut historical mystery, The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, as a Top Ten Pick for Spring 2013, and she was a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award at Killer Nashville 2013. Set in 1400s Italy, the novel features Florentine lawyer Guid’Antonio Vespucci as he investigates crime at the height of the Italian Renaissance. Recipient of a Starred “Kirkus Review” assigned to works of exceptional merit, the book has sold to Portugal, with rights to Italy pending. A Nashville native, Alana is a member of the Historical Novel Society, The Authors Guild, SinC and MWA, and she reviews books for the “Historical Novel Society Review. ”
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)