Big question 1: Can you write about somewhere effectively if you have never been there?
Big question 2: If you’re creating a fantasy world, is there anywhere that you can visit that will actually be like it?
So I was asked to blog about my Italian influences and world building, in relation to my two books the Shadow Master and the Floating City. They are both set in a version of Renaissance Italy, where science works like magic.
Where that idea came from is easy to tell. I was in Florence for a work conference – thankfully out of season – and after spending a few days sitting in conference rooms with ornate paintings and frescos, I went to visit the Galileo Museum. It’s a pretty awesome place – if you ever get the chance to visit.
So I’m walking around and looking at all these telescopes and pulley-machines and all these marvellous things that he invented, and I’m thinking that these must have seemed like magic to the people of the time. And then I thought, what if they were magic? And that was the germ of the idea for everything.
But I like to scaffold my worlds on both the imagined and the historical, as well as literary precedents. So first I did a lot of research into Renaissance Italy – particularly the Medici family. Wow – they were kick-arse, and were a story unto themselves! Power and corruption and assassinations and family feuds – but being instrumental to triggering the whole artistic rebirth of the Renaissance as well. They had to go in the book!
Then I looked for examples of Italian literature to build upon. For the Shadow Master, a lot of people presumed the young male and female protagonists were adapted from Romeo and Juliet – but in fact they were adapted from the Betrothed (Il Promessi Sposi), written by Alessandro Manzoni in 1827. It’s quite an interesting book set during the plague years in northern Italy – etc etc if you ever get the chance to read it.
I didn’t really expect anybody to pick that – but one rather clever reviewer did!
Anyway, the sequel – the Floating City, was something different. I wanted to set it in a Venice-like city and found that I was in two minds about whether to visit Venice to research it. I was keen to go, but talking to a friend of mine who had just been there – albeit in peak season – she said the reality of it ruined her imagining of what it would be like.
Hmmm. That got me to thinking. So I decided not to visit until after I’d written the book, and for my imagining of Venice to stand as the city I wanted to write about. I did read a lot of histories of Venice though, and watch lots of videos, and spent a lot of time stalking the streets and canals on Google Maps.
So when people ask me if I went to Venice in researching the book, I say, ‘I went to Italy more times than Shakespeare did.’
And Shakespeare was the basis for my literary scaffolding of the three main female protagonists in the Floating City. They are the Montecchi sisters: Giuliette, Disdemona and Isabella.
They might sound like variations of Shakespeare’s characters: Juliet, Desdemona and Isabella (from Romeo and Juliet, Othello and the Merchant of Venice). But in fact they are the original characters from the Italian folk tales that Shakespeare adapted his plays from. Think of them as “origin” stories if you wish.
The original stories are worth checking out if you’re interested in seeing the way that Shakespeare built upon them and changed them in his own world-building: Luigi da Porto’s Giulietta e Romeo of 1530, Ser Giovanni’s Il Pecorone (the Dunce) of 1558, and Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi of 1565.
It was quite a challenge to entangle the three stories together in a way that did not give one more prominence than the others. But it was the same challenge for balancing the three elements of history, my imagining and literary precedents that I use in world-building.
To my thinking it’s like building a three-legged platform out of three different sets of building blocks. You have to keep adjusting and rebalancing, and you only know you’ve got it right when whatever you balance on the top no longer tips off.
And for me that’s the mysterious character the Shadow Master, standing up tall like a Renaissance statue, using his magic and wiles to maintain the balance of things. He’s pretty awesome and kick-arse himself and etc etc etc if you ever get the chance to read it.