Please welcome my writing friend Katherine Reay. Her fourth novel, A Portrait of Emily Price, comes out on November 1st: After a whirlwind romance and marriage, Emily Price heads home to Italy with her new husband to find that life at its richest is found only when she accepts its chaotic beauty.
Enjoy this post she wrote for us about her book research in La Bella Italia!
Setting, for me, is a character.
I rely upon it and feel I need to know it very well. For my first three novels, I relied on places I have lived and, after years in each, felt I understood well. And I could’ve kept on with this, for after seventeen moves across three countries, I have plenty of choice.
But for A Portrait of Emily Price, I wanted the sensorial opulence, the beauty of Italy, and the “otherness” of an Italian experience for my young American heroine. I wanted to take her out her world in such a dramatic way that she might imagine “something new” for her life.
While living in England, I’d visited Italy several times, but not for any extended period. In the summer of 2015, my family was able to take three weeks, step way from life, and roam the Italian countryside under the guise of a “research trip.” We had a marvelous time! And I found my setting for Emily Price.
If you are planning a research trip for a story – I have a few suggestions...
1. Determine your goals? A sense of place, an understanding of people, one aspect of the culture, one moment in its history... Define exactly what you want upon your return.
2. Plan your itinerary to get you close to your answers. I needed a small hilltop village and a glimpse at Rome – so we stayed two weeks in a couple small towns and spent our final days in Venice and Rome.
3. Take notes. Take pictures. While there, don’t think so much about forming your story and editing your impressions – Simply absorb as much as possible.
4. Watch everything around you: the way women wear scarves, how children run/sit/play, how drivers act on the roads, people interact waiting in line...
A research trip is about filling up your well of understanding.
It's a first draft. Put everything in. Edit later. Everything you discover has value because it will color your story – your impressions will filter into each and every description and inform the tenor of your writing. So be awake!
And when you write your story – once home – allow yourself grace.
You won’t get it all correct. Some aspects of culture and country can’t be learned during a research trip – after seventeen moves, I know this to be true. It can take years to recognize and understand the culture of a people or an area. But that’s part of the beauty too. You learn something new and extraordinary and, with respect, strive to share that with others.
So I certainly recommend research trips – in any form. And if you do take one, I hope, first and foremost, you enjoy the experience.
For my newest novel, just written, I went fishing.
Thanks for letting me stop by today... How do you research foreign locations? What suggestions do you have?
Katherine’s first novel, Dear Mr. Knightley, was a 2014 Christy Award Finalist and winner of the 2014 INSPY Award for Best Debut as well as Carol Awards for both Best Debut and Best Contemporary. She is also the writer behind Lizzy & Jane and The Brontë Plot, a 2016 ALA Notable Book Award Finalist.
All Katherine’s novels are contemporary stories with a bit of classical flair. Katherine holds a BA and MS from Northwestern University and is a wife, mother, runner, former marketer, avid chocolate consumer and, randomly, a tae kwon do black belt. After living all across the country and a few stops in Europe, Katherine and her family recently moved back to Chicago.