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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Oh, the Places You’ll Go to Research Your Next Book

At the Baltimore Book Festival on Saturday, I fielded an interesting question I thought worthy of further blogification (yes, I made up that word). An audience member asked what sort of research we (the panelists and I) do for our novels. And given my current WIP, I actually have a lot to say on this subject—starting with my ongoing love for the Google Guys.

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know that I posted about my desire to thank Google on my Acknowledgments Page should my WIP ever make it to print. Google not only rocks, it’s probably the most helpful tool ever invented. If I need to know what a specific church in Italy looks like, inside and out, I can find photos from every angle. If I need a list of political scandals that took place in Poland in the 1980s, all I need to do is open a search engine. All my research is a click away.

But even still, it’s not enough.

In my opinion, regardless of whether you’re creating fiction, you shouldn’t write about a place unless you’ve been there. If you’re setting a book in Boston, you should swing by Beantown and check out the lay of the land before you presume to write that you know what life is like there.

For example, my WIP has a car chase in Boston. Now I went to college there (ahem, a few years ago), so I wrote the car chase based on what I “thought” the streets looked like. And that worked—for a rough draft. But I still ultimately traveled back to Boston. I mapped out exactly how my character would get from her apartment to the “car chase neighborhood,” and how she would navigate her getaway—because anyone who knows Boston, knows the majority of streets are one-way. I wanted my route to be accurate.


The Boston setting for my WIP

I know what you’re thinking, who cares? It’s fiction! Can’t you just have her weaving through cobblestone streets in the North End and call it a day? Sure, if I were lazy. But locals will notice. And they’re not shy on calling you out, trust me.

I have a scene in Amor and Summer Secrets where Mariana and her friends go to a concert at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. I say that they’re sitting on grass as the music’s playing. Now, I live in Philadelphia (not far from where that scene takes place), and I still had a local tell me that the scene was “impossible,” because there is no grass at Penn’s Landing. I obviously disagreed, and insisted that Mariana was sitting on a “grassy knoll,” not a field. This person continued to stand her ground.

So you know what I did? When I went to Penn’s Landing to watch Boyz II Men on July 4th weekend, I took a picture of people sitting on the patches of grass in between the concrete riverfront area. If the topic’s ever brought up again, I have proof (of the grass, and my mild neurosis).

Anyway, that’s why I went to Italy to research my WIP. Sure, I wrote about 60% of the book before I got there based on what I “thought” it looked like. But I changed almost all of those descriptions after I actually spent time there. I could now describe real restaurants, hotels, plazas, food, cafés and scenery.


Me in front of a café featured in the book

As a reader, I think that this is important. No, I’m not writing nonfiction. But I am writing about a real place, so I think my portrayal should be real. And if I’m going to take liberties with the locale, then I’m going to purposely, and openly, fictionalize it—as I did in Amor.

I say that Amor and Summer Secrets takes place in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia. This is true, and the lifestyle I describe is accurate (for the uber-wealthy). But the town of “Spring Mills” doesn’t exist. Why? Because I wanted to create my own world—make the school look the way I wanted, make her neighborhood the way I pictured it, and have her teachers react how I wanted, unquestioned. But in the midst of those fictionalized settings, I do add in real places in both the Main Line and Philadelphia (like the King of Prussia mall, Suburban Square, and South Street).

So that’s the line I draw with fiction. If you’re going to make stuff up, then make up the whole dog-on town. But if you’re going to set a book in Rome, get a passport. Believe me, traveling to Europe (or Puerto Rico as was the case for Amor) for research is not a hardship. Plus, it could be a tax write-off—how awesome is that?

In other news, I wanted to announce the second winner of PART TWO of the Amor and Summer Secrets Back-To-School Giveaway!

Congratulations…Lily Polley!

You not only share a name with one of my main characters (hehe), you also have just won a complete Amor and Summer Secrets Prize Pack, which includes a copy of Amor, and ARC of Amigas and School Scandals, two signed bookplates, and two exclusive Amor and Summer Secrets bookmarks!

Lily won, via a random drawing, for posting the following review posted on her blog:

Diana Rodriguez Wallach tells a fantastic story that I reminded me of some of the challenges I had growing up multi-ethnic and all the sacrifices that my family made just so I could be where I am today. I laughed and cried and I even learned a few things about myself. I was so touched by the sincerity of the story. I highly recommend reading this book and following up with the next two in the series: "Amigas and School Scandals" & "Adios to All The Drama"

Thanks, Lily and Congrats! Please email me with your mailing address and who you’d like the books made out to.

POP-CULTURE RANT: Lou Dobbs

You know it’s a scary time in American history when I agree with Lou Dobbs. Admittedly, he and I have not agreed on much in the past (specifically, his anti-immigration crusade). But I have to say, this past week he’s been the only reporter calling out Washington on the craziness of this now $850M BAILOUT. And I find it particularly ridiculous that on the request of politicians and lobbyists, the media is now calling this plan a “rescue effort,” because the word “BAILOUT” was turning off Americans (uh, I don’t think it’s just the word). And I commend Lou for using “BAILOUT” in almost every sentence of his broadcast last night. It would be nice if the rest of the media did a better job of reporting on what this bill actually means and why it is/isn’t good, rather than just featuring a bunch of pundits spouting generic talking points that vaguely dance around the issue. Step up to the plate, media! Because Lou seems to be the only one speaking his mind.

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