Before the idea behind my novel, Tempesta’s Dream, ever stirred in my mind, I travelled to Milan with my wife. We strolled the streets of Milan, sat at its cafes, saw La Scala, the famous opera house, the Galleria, the first shopping mall ever created, and the Duomo, the great Cathedral of Milan.
I believe that an author’s main objective in historical fiction is to transport the reader to another place and/or another time, and to do so skillfully. Literary people will call this “escapism.” However, with that objective, there comes a responsibility that the author has toward the reader. The author must take the time to describe accurately the place or setting that the author is using in the novel.
As I said, I walked the streets of Milan. So, it was easy for me to grasp that atmosphere when writing Tempesta’s Dream. It is reflected in some of the reviews I have received for the novel. For example:
“We can smell aromas as the author takes us past cafes and shops on the streets of Milan.” –Amazon Reviewer
“LoCoco skillfully brings to life the streets of Milan, so much that I could almost taste the espresso and smell the flowers on the cafe tables. Overall, just a very interesting, intelligent and believable book – 5 stars!” – Amazon Reviewer
“The author paints a vivid picture of Milanese life, populated with colorful denizens (most notably, retiree Alfredo, and Isabella, Giovanni’s soulmate) for whom the passion of opera is universal. Tempesta’s Dream’ will transport and inspire.” – Amazon Reviewer
However, in my novel, there is one place in Milan which comes to the forefront in the story. That place is the Casa di Riposo, or as it is called by locals, the Casa Verdi. The Casa Verdi in Milan stands as a towering tribute to the legacy of one of the greatest opera composers the world has ever known – Giuseppe Verdi.
Built in 1896 by Verdi, the Casa Verdi is a retirement home for retired singers, composers and musicians. Verdi’s dream was to build a home where musicians could retire in peace and be surrounded by others who at one time in their life were all involved in the arts. In his Last Will and Testament, Verdi granted all of his future royalties from all of his operas to help support the Casa di Riposo. Verdi said of this magical place, “The Casa di Riposo is my greatest work,” which is quite a statement when you think of his life’s output of his musical works. It is also at the Casa Verdi where Verdi and his wife are buried.
The Casa Verdi plays a major role in the novel as it is at the retirement home that our young protagonist, Giovanni Tempesta, pursuing his dream to become an opera tenor, finds Alfredo del Monte, a retired, blind opera singer, with a secretive past, who takes him on as a student. Yet it is the Casa di Riposo and the residents who leave there that actually takes a central place in the story.
Had I known that the Casa Verdi would one day take a part in a story I was going to write then I definitely would have made it a must stop. But, sad to say, I did not.
Which brings us to the point of this guest post. How can an author achieve realism in historical fiction when dealing with a real, existing place without actually visiting the location? In other words, how does one transport someone to a place that the author has not visited personally?
Of course, in the perfect world, an author would call his publisher, say I need to hop on a plane to get to Milan for two weeks to soak up the atmosphere and walk around the Casa Verdi, and then board that plane and enjoy a glorious two weeks with a pen, a journal and a camera, walking around the Casa Verdi and interviewing residents the whole time. Well, that will not happen for most authors. And it certainly did not happen to me.
So what does an author do?
I think there are three things an author does when dealing with creating the atmosphere for a real place for which they have never seen personally.
RESEARCH. RESEARCH. AND RESEARCH: Read everything possible that you can find on the subject. Find pictures of the place and study them constantly. Look for videos online. Talk to people who may have visited on a trip. For historical fiction writers, like myself, this is the best part of writing. Discovering details about a place, all the while trying to figure out what and how you are going to incorporate it into the story.
USE YOUR OWN LIFE EXPEREINCES: The Casa di Riposo is a nursing home. My wife, for ten years, was a nursing home administrator in New Orleans. When I would go to her work, I would pay attention to the residents, the interaction of the staff and the residents, and the general feel of the place. True, I was not in Milan, but at least I could get a feel for how people react to situations, for that is one thing to understand, all people, no matter where from, react the same, with slight deviations for cultural reasons.
IMAGINATION: After steps 1 and 2, now the real fun begins. You let your imagination run wild, all the time staying within the parameters of your research and own life experiences. And by that I mean, if the Casa di Riposo has more than one floor (which it does) do not make the building a one-story building.
By following those steps, it is hoped that a reader will completely be taken with the descriptions of the place, and in their own mind, they are sure that you must have spent many days at the locale to be able to describe it so well – when in reality the author never stepped a foot inside.
And even more important, will people who know the locale agree with the way the author described the place. There can be no greater joy for a writer to have a person very familiar with that location depicted in the novel to not only love the work, but acknowledge that the author nailed the description of the place instead of just throwing their hands up in disgust.
For me, after following the above steps, I had a great result, which provided me with great sense of relief. I received an email from the current President of the Casa Verdi who stated: “I offer you my warmest congratulations on your beautiful work that truly enhances the Casa Verdi and its’ residents.”
That certainly makes writing fun. So, in closing, for you readers out there, make sure you congratulate writers who do a great job describing locales you know well. And for the authors out there, live up to your responsibility, and take the time to get to know everything you can about a place, even if you have never seen it.
Author of Tempesta’s Dream – A Story of Love, Friendship and Opera
Summary for Tempesta’s Dream:
Tempesta’s Dream is the story of an aspiring opera singer coming of age in Milan; a tender and moving love story; a testament to the bonds of friendship; and, at its core, a tribute to the beauty, majesty and miracle of opera.
Giovanni Tempesta always dreamed of becoming an opera tenor and one day singing from the stage of the La Scala Opera House in his hometown of Milan, Italy. But with no real training, his dream has little chance for fulfillment . . . One day, he meets and immediately falls in love with Isabella Monterone, a dark-haired beauty, whose father, a very rich and powerful Milanese Judge, refuses to allow his daughter to date a penniless musician . . . At the lowest part of his life, Giovanni comes upon the Casa di Riposo, a rest home for musicians established by the great opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi . . . It is at the Casa Verdi that Giovanni meets Alfredo del Monte, a blind, retired opera singer with a secretive past who gradually becomes his mentor . . . Could Alfredo be the one person who could assist Giovanni in finding the break he needs? Or is Giovanni destined to be on the cusp of reaching his life long dream, only to find failure? . . . Tempesta’s Dream, at its core, is an Italian opera love story. The author tells the story simply and swiftly with an ending that is both an emotional and poignant moment of both “amicizia e amore” (friendship and love.)