I am enormously fortunate to live a life rich with pickings for my writing. Scene ideas for my novel are never far away because for an Australian girl, everything I live here in Tuscany is unusual and interesting.
Last weekend I went up to cousin Vanni’s farm in Casentino, the mountains of Eastern Tuscany. We made sausages, pancetta, capocollo, capaccia, salami, ribs, pork fillet, prosciutto and cotecchino. We spent the day making these ‘salumi’ using every part of half a pig. The process we used has not changed for millennia, apart from the meat grinder – a mincer that in the old days was cranked by hand.
So here’s the tip: in every story something happens. Writers are always looking out for how and where a certain plot event can happen or evolve. I plan to use our ‘salumi’ making scene as an occasion where action takes place. While making our sausages, I took notes, but not your typical notes. My records center on the senses. What we smelt, heard, tasted and the scene’s atmosphere. These are the nuances we forget when we finally have time to sit down and write the scene we witnessed, sometimes even years beforehand.
Here are some of my notes as an example:
- The smell of wine, vinegar, spices, cinnamon, raw garlic.
- Cognac like tea drizzled
- Red wine bubbles with garlic in an ancient pot on the austere stove-top
- Silence punctuated by steel tubs being rinsed
- The men hum
- Bay leaves crackle
- Fennel sticks and fennel seeds
- Air is pungent, thick with these smells
- The men work quietly, humming or breathing heavily through their noses as they work with their tube of sausage, twisting and knotting it into four finger lengths.
- The women chatter in the kitchen as they pull pasta, mash potatoes with conserve and cinnamon.
This is just a simple example of what you can draw from, later, when you’re ready to write your scene. Can you do this too? Do you do this? Write the smells and sounds to keep ready for when you’re ready to structure your action scene?
There are no excuses anymore. By joining my little writers group in Florence I must write, must edit and must listen to my fellow writer’s thoughts and advice. Why didn’t I do this earlier?
My writers group lets me know what is not clicking. So often we think our readers will understand, that they will ‘get’ what we’ve written. But my writers group lets me know that, actually, they didn’t pick up the thread because I wasn’t clear enough, or didn’t explain enough. Yes, it’s a little daunting, scary, being picked apart but it’s so good for your work! Your writing group sees where you can extrapolate. They let you know whether your story is engaging or not. My last question to my fellow writers this week was ‘do you want to know more?’ and that, as a writer, is what we are aiming for, no? Are you hooking your readers? Are they bored? Overwhelmed? Disinterested?
I must say, I had put off joining any kind of writers group for years. It’s my first time. Funny, huh, after four books and finally on my fifth that I now know I need fresh takes, readers, second opinions. Probably because this is my first Fiction book, while the others were all Creative Non-Fiction. I cannot recommend sharing with a writers group highly enough. Especially if you are embarking on a new form of writing, like I am.
Am I being narcissistic also adding that the thought of plagiarism within writers groups also scared me? I had heard of writers sharing their work, only to have ideas copied, concepts imitated and phrases plagiarized. But I flattered myself. Their work is fantastic! Who did I think I was? They’re amazing! My work is paltry compared to theirs.
Check your library or local arts group for any writers that meet up. Start a Google Docs Sharing session so you can all post your work, and pick the month to upload your work.
Go on, do yourself a favor and force yourself to diarize, write, share and enjoy writing with other people. Regularly!
When writing Death in the Mountains, I made sure to give each member of my 1907 poor Tuscan family a characteristic or quality that made each person memorable.
- Bruna liked to touch things. She was so in sync with the land and farming environment around her that she was tactile with the things she grew, made and created.
- Artemio had bandy legs, a leftover from soft bones due to a lack of Vitamin D and rickets in his youth. He was swaddled and left inside for months without the sun. A common disorder of Tuscan babies in the past.
- Fiamma was a fire brand, like her name which means flame.
- Mario was violent and exuded anger like a perfume. Because of this characteristic he ultimately beat up the farm’s overseer. You can imagine the problems that caused!
- Maria was beautiful.
- Silvio hated wearing shoes.
- Pasquale was only ever mentioned as ‘baby Pasquale.’
And onwards for each character within the pages of Death in the Mountains.
Giving each character at least one mannerism is a process that many writers follow. It helps writers dig more deeply into a character, enlarge upon or extrapolate the person or the location. It also helps readers remember your characters, no matter how big or small their part in your story.
What mannerisms or habits have your protagonist’s history given him/her? What kind of impact does that have on your story or scene?
The Italians are fascinated by beautiful women, more so than other nationalities that I have encountered. They LOVE a beautiful woman; they venerate ‘bella.’ Making Maria absolutely drop dead gorgeous helped me examine the Italians attitude to beauty. It helped me form Maria’s character; it even helped me create the narrative and plot line for the book. Who could fall in love with her? What impact would that have on the family? How did Maria feel about being so beautiful? Did she see the impact that she had on people? How did it feel for her father, Artemio, to go into town or church with a daughter that everybody stared at and talked about? How would Mario, Maria’s aggressive, troubled brother feel about her beauty? Was he protective of her?
In the end, giving Maria that physical characteristic of beauty helped me write a much better book. Her beauty gave me ideas, outcomes, reactions, actions, scenes.
In my next Blog I’ll look at the difference between superficial and deep characterization.
Follow me on Facebook and Instagram too for my new #WriteTipWednesday! Every Wednesday I’ll give a writer’s tip and then examine the issue more deeply with my Friday Blog.
If you’re interested in reading more about the rural life of Tuscany’s past, check this post out on Nonna.
I am a feeder and being a feeder is different to being a good cook. Firstly, I admit to finding great joy in feeding people, whilst I would never say I was a great cook. Secondly, being a feeder is about knowing that the feedee is being nurtured, comforted, cared for, full, content and healthy. Great cooks like that feeling too but I think while a feeder enjoys the process of preparing the food, their real satisfaction comes from watching the feedee eat the food, rather than in the actual preparation of the meal.
It could be argued that living in Italy has made me more of a feeder than if I had always lived in my home country of Australia. I may have ended up being a feeder but never, and I am positive about this, to the same extent.
My Italian mother-in-law lives food. Food dictates the unfurling of her day. Cooking creates the structure of her day. The lunch and dinner menu is discussed at breakfast. Then what is needed to feed the family is bought today; yesterday’s menu plan is reorganized so that left-overs fit today’s recipes and tomorrow’s meal needs are anticipated.
It seems I have absorbed the Italian way of food and feeding with no conscious striving or understanding.
With dad in hospital, I take him food. Oddly enough it’s Italian food he craves. Salami, pizza, soups and crusty bread with cheese.
A fixation with cauliflower and leek soup soon enveloped me. The cauliflower soup obsession was shortly followed by a fresh chicken noodle broth fixation then a lentil and minestrone passion. Like nonna, I had to structure my day around shopping for these dishes, cooking and feeding them to dad. As they cook, a feeder envisions their feedee sitting up in bed growing strong on their food. Dad gained comfort from being fed but I wouldn’t be surprised if I gained more comfort from feeding him.
Maybe all this feeding is simply maternal or paternal extinct. Why a person needs to feed doesn’t matter in the end. What really matters is that food helps heal my father. And it also helps heal me.
To be honest, I am in Australia to see my father. The dreaded phone call, the call that every expatriate fears, came through last week. ‘Come home, dad’s had a fall, broken his hip and he’s not doing well.’ Coupled with his cancer, dad’s fall clearly had serious health consequences.
Within twenty-four hours of the call I was on a plane to Sydney, tears falling as the plane taxied out of Florence, Rome and then Hong Kong. Finally thirty-seven hours later, I was in Australia.
For all our love of living in Italy or France or wherever in the world you feel you’ve found your heartfelt peace, leaving your elderly parents for a faraway land is more difficult than can be imagined.
Stents around the heart and a hip replacement later, Dad is, thankfully, fine now. He’s a battler. The kind of old school father that doesn’t complain. He worries more about you flying out from Italy than about his difficulty breathing. The kind of man who wears jaunty red cravats, uses handkerchiefs rather than tissues, enjoys a good hat, a fine whiskey and an excellent documentary about either war, dad’s generation is disappearing. The dignity, distinction, poise, manners and charm of the men born in the first three or four decades of the twentieth century are fading away. Their kind will never return.
Someday soon we will see dad and his old fashioned, gentleman kind of contemporaries only in movies and books. They are the Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Walter Matthau and Leo McKern characters of our lifetimes. And it’s the end of that era.
I am blessed to have that kind of man in my life.