Finding the Story in the Place

I’ve written in this diary in the past about how important travel is to getting the details right in historical fiction. It’s exciting to see how accurately I have portrayed some locations just from researching photographs and descriptions of places, and there is also blessed relief in realizing how much embarrassment I may have avoided by being able to correct what was blatantly wrong.

I’ve also been reminded daily on this trip through Spain and Portugal researching THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD (my novel in progress) that a lot of the value in travel isn’t to confirm or correct details but to discover what simply wasn’t knowable without direct experiences of places or chances to talk with local people.  About Sagres, for example, I would probably never have known how much of a factor the wind is in everyday life on the southwest tip of Portugal.  The hotel clerk told me, “people who live here think something’s wrong when the wind stops blowing.”  Just the three days I spent in the area convinced me that the wind needs to be a dominant part of my description of the place.

Yesterday in Arevalo, north of Madrid, where Isabella (of “Ferdinand and Isabella” fame) spent her childhood, I understood for the first time what Isabella’s mother was up against when she was declared mad and sent away to live in seclusion with her small children in a town so small it isn’t even mentioned in the Michelin Guide and can barely be found on their map.

It was the equivalent of being sent to live in a palace on Alcatraz, a place whose very remoteness and inaccessibility made it a prison even though she lived in luxury.  If she wasn’t mad when she went to live there, it’s hard to see how she could have avoided madness afterwards– or perhaps even why she would have wanted to, since there must be some solace in detaching from such a reality.  I didn’t have a detailed plot for this part of the story until I understood what life would be like in Arevalo. Now I see so clearly how my protagonist Aya fits into the place that she seems like part of its true history.

And then there are places like Sevilla and Granada, which are wonderful places to visit, but the reality is that with few exceptions, like Granada’s Alhambra Palace, there not much in the urban landscape that hasn’t been rebuilt since the fifteenth century, when my novel is set. The synagogues and mosques are gone and even the churches have gone from medieval to baroque and beyond in their styles.  Aya may have sat in the Seville cathedral but none of the decorations that dominate the experience today would have been there.  Likewise, taking a boat ride along the Guadalquivir River, I saw a number of amazing modern bridges with stunning archtecture, but had nothing resembling Aya’s experience coming up the same river.

Bridge over the Gualadquivir River in Sevilla
Bridge over the Gualadquivir River in Sevilla

I’m not complaining—I am lucky to be here and having a rich experience—but it’s turned out to be hard to find my story in many of the places I have visited, unlike in Venice, Greece, or France, where I traveled for the first three novels. This is due in large part to the fact that the Reconquista so thoroughly and deliberately reshaped Spain. I was told that if I wanted to know what Granada was like under the Muslim Caliphate I should go to Marrakesh. Sounds good to me—next time!


The Lay (or Lie) of the Land

I went on high school dates with James Bond.

Well, not exactly. The first movies made from Ian Fleming’s Cold War-inspired spy novels came out when I was in high school, and I goldfxxlsuppose the date who paid my admission and bought the popcorn thought I was only with him.

Looking back now I can see how important movies like “From Russia with Love” and “Goldfinger” were in adding wanderlust to the general–well, what can I say?–lustiness of my teenage years.

Even when James Bond movies went from the right kind of silly to just plain silly, I saw every one over the decades, first with boyfriends and then with my own children. Even when they were wincingly awful, at the very least I was exposed to some fabulous places I wanted to visit some day. Many years later I planned a side trip in Italy to include a stop at the Italian ski resort at Cortina d’Ampezzo just because I loved the way the town looked nestled in under the peaks of the Dolomites in “For Your Eyes Only.”

Except it didn’t look like that.  The street scenes didn’t match the actual streets, and the big action sequence obviously had been shot on a set and later merged with a backdrop filmed on location. I was really disappointed, though I suppose I shouldn’t have been. Presumably it would be hard to find a florist willing to have a motorcycle crash through the window of his or her shop, even to help James Bond make a point about how he can fend off the bad guys without breaking a sweat.

I thought about this yesterday as I took stock of the area of Portugal just west of Lisbon, the first stop in my research trip for novel number four.  Though I do the most thorough research I can on the settings of every scene, sometimes the imagination is, well, a bit too imaginary.

Sometimes every last little bit of accuracy doesn’t matter all that much. Though the typical reader might not know or care whether the ocean is visible from a particular hilltop, or what kind of trees or wildflowers grow in a specific valley, I care about all that down to the last detail, even though I know that in the end, I may choose plausibility over the exact facts I uncover.

But not always.  The first days of my research trip to Portugal and Spain  have been an odd combination of “uh oh,” “ah hah,” and “oh well,” an amalgam of things I have to rewrite because they are simply wrong, things that can be made much clearer and vivid in detail, and things that are not exactly the way I pictured but don’t really need to be changed.

An example of the first is how Aya, the heroine of the novel, arrives at the palace of Sintra. Plain and simple, I had the look and layout of the entrance to the palace wrong. Easily fixed.  An example of the second is my realization that this part of Portugal resembles the Pacific Northwest more than the Mediterranean climate I imagined.  That matters a lot.  Aya lives in a thick forest, and she would move around far differently than I thought. Many scenes will have to be adjusted, but I will be able to make the book far more vivid as a result of having visited the places where the novel is set.

Probably the most common reaction I have had is a shrug of the shoulders.  The Sintra palace garden isn’t exactly the way I pictured it, but I need certain details to be the way I have them, and because the inaccuracy is irrelevant, I’m sticking with my version.

Historical novelists, at least the ones I know, approach their work with integrity.  Our job is to fill out observable and recorded fact with what could have been. We don’t make it all up. We embellish with our imaginations, change what we must when we uncover important new information, and leave alone what works when there is no relevant issue at stake.  The facts make our books “smart reads,” but the characters and story make them “good reads.”  I’m going for the best of both!

On the beach near SIntra Portugal
On the beach near SIntra Portugal

Giving the Overlooked a Lookover

A lookover by a booklover.  Say that four times fast!

I’m happy to announce that such an overview is exactly what will be happening at San Diego State University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in November 2010, when I teach a mini course entitled “Forgotten Females.”

I first learned about the Osher Institute when I was asked by author and PBS host Kathi Diamant to give a talk to the SDSU Osher book club, who read THE FOUR SEASONS a few months back.  I had so much fun with this lively and well informed group (of course it helped that they really liked the book!) that when the director of the institute, Rebecca Lawrence, asked me if I would like to join their faculty, I jumped at the opportunity.

I’ve spent so much time teaching and writing about women who have not received appropriate and sufficient attention for their  accomplishments that I have a backlog of things I’d really like to talk about.  I came up with a four-part class, now listed in the calendar section of this website, that will focus on music and science, as well as two historical eras, the ancient and medieval worlds. There are female political and military leaders as well as mathematicians, physicists, poets and scholars whose names and accomplishments have been by and large pushed to the margins of history, but even the women who stuck to traditional roles often played a larger role in the economic success and social stability of their cultures than has been acknowledged.

Interested?  Check out the SDSU Osher website and sign up!  And if you don’t live in the area, check out the Extended Studies department at a local university.  Chances are there’s an Osher Institute there too.

In the San Diego area there is also an Osher Institute at UCSD, and if you check my calendar you will see I am giving a talk there this fall as well.

Osher’s purpose is to promote lifelong learning, and the only rule to be a member is that you must be at least fifty-five years old.  You are supposed to be retired or semi-retired, but when I bemoaned that this would make me ineligible (if you count my writing I have two full-time jobs!), I was told that basically, no one asks.

Take a look at Osher.  I bet, like me, you’ll want to sign up for just about everything.