Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Research or reality

Research versus reality

Part of my novel Side Effect is based in Verbania, in Northern Italy, a place I've never been to. I did pass fairly close to it on a coach going to a ski resort, but that hardly counts.
How come I set the scene there? I needed one of the characters to have come from somewhere near London and to have been on a holiday to Italy, when she was still at school. I searched for places south of London that were twinned with towns in Italy that looked as though they would make a plausible holiday destination. After a certain amount of messing around I found that East Grinstead was twinned with Verbania, a town on the north side of lake Maggiora. On that ski trip the coach had driven along part of the shore of that lake, on the way from Milan, and I remember that it looked pleasant. So Verbania was, at least a possibility.
I set about researching the place from the Internet and spent about an hour playing with Google Earth, trying to get an idea what it was like. It seemed to fit the bill. The place looked as though it had a romantic charm and a certain amount of style, sufficient to be impressive to a 17 year old schoolgirl, who might fall for an older italian in a place like this.
Much later in the book that same schoolgirl's daughter returns to Verbania, with the same italian, after she has discovered that he is her father. By then he is dying and the place also has to make sense as a a setting for a sort of nostalgia, that she has never had, a place that could be sad and happy at the same time, where ragged ends could come together and life make sense.
Finding all that out from the Internet is a tall order, but the tools available now are very impressive. After a day researching it I was fairly sure that it worked and I included Verbania in the book.
This year I got the chance to go there and see if the real thing lived up to my imagined view. At one level I have to say that I was slightly anxious, what if it was completely wrong? I guess I would have to go back and edit the book. As it turned out I found that my impression from the web was a good reflection of the actual town.
The real thing has more depth. You can't get the atmosphere of little cobbled streets and the elegance and style of some of the shops, by looking at pictures taken from a satellite miles above. What is surprising, I think, is the way that the structures you can see give the impression of the sort of place that it turns out to be. Well designed public areas, like the harbor for instance, are clearly seen from space, so it is easy to assume that there would be shops and restaurants capable of paying the kind of taxes necessary to keep up appearances. It wouldn't be cheap and there wouldn't be rubbish in the streets; and there wasn't. The picture show Lois in one of the charming, winding streets. It would be impossible to capture that from space, but google street view is already beginning to provide pictures that do reflect local detail.
If I had been there would I have written the same thing? I think there is a real risk that I would have written too much, would have been tempted to include a little more flavor, a little more depth and perhaps got in the way of the story.
If you want to write about a place, then I suspect you have to go there and walk the streets, smell the flowers and eat the soup, or in my case, the pizza. If on the other hand you need a place for something to happen, then what you can find on the Internet may be enough. If the place is a setting, then you need about as much reality as the backdrops and scenery in a theatre; enough to take the imagination of the reader to a place that works for them in the story, and preferably no more than that.

This post is being produced on my iPad, sitting in our camper beside Lake Maggiora, see the second picture. The text was written in pages, which seems to default to American spelling and the post was constructed in the free blogger app for the iPad, which is a bit on the clumsy side. I am fascinated to see how it turns out,

1 comment:

  1. I do like looking at other people's photos of abroad. You go so I don't have to :o)

    I love Google maps and street view, and used them for my novels.