Writing and Research

by Michael DiMatteo

It’s easy to fall in love, really it is. Just find something that steals you’re heart, something your passionate about, and the rest takes care of itself. Simple, really. The part that’s hard is finding that something that steals your heart. As a writer (I’m still not sure I’m comfortable with that moniker as Hemingway, Dickens, Flaubert were writers – I’m more of a scribbler of thoughts and a wayward story teller), there are slightly less than a million ways one can go in search of something that truly pilfers your thoughts so thoroughly there is no recovery.

Most of the time I sit and pound away on my keyboard writing random thoughts, political meanderings that sometimes get published in Realclearpolitics (no, not a shameless plug, maybe), or begin stories that eventually peter out as a Chinese gong fades after the initial blow. They languish in my “bits and pieces” folder, frozen in time as Han Solo maybe to be revived at a later date, but more than likely not. They didn’t plunder my being and like a sometime lover, I got tired of them and simply left.

Then, on some Saturday morning, I sat down with my 6AM coffee to write as is my usual routine. For some inexplicable reason I told myself I was going to write a historical fiction novel – just like that – and then, again for some inexplicable reason, it poured out of me as an African cataract bounding over the cliffs in the southern Nile. I sat for two hours and wrote as though she, Apollonia Savucci, was speaking to me from a grave. I say “a grave” because she was an apparition from my mind. I have no knowledge if anyone by that name exists or existed, but whoever she was, she was speaking to me. I wrote down what she said, how she described losing her love to the plague in 14th century Italy and how she’d never recovered, her soul so damaged she had to flee the only home she’d ever known.

She began telling me about her distant family, where they came from and what they’d endured, and like an obedient servant, I wrote it all down. I found that I’d not been aware of some of the circumstances she was relating to me so I had to do some research. The more I researched the more besotted I became with her and her story, a story emanating from someplace deep in my subconscious. So, I researched location, weather during certain times of the year, food eaten, how people lived and what their homes were actually like. I discovered an entire world of the past this history teacher of over thirty years didn’t know existed. I became an archaeologist of time, brushing off an ancient world in a given space and age that once again became alive if only in my mind and on my computer screen.

I dug further and disinterred other families of power and influence during the period. I unveiled intertwined religions, and found that the tentacles of Italy stretched far further with greater influence than I’d ever thought. I found knights long dead coming back to life, and fictional characters interacting with them in ways I’d not imagined. I found people in love betrayed, and exposed heroism, all traits that existed then and now but with new life breathed into them by my fingers and keyboard.

I dug further. What did olive trees smell like? I found pictures of these places, now ruins but put back together by my imagination and by contacting professors who specialize in the time period. I reached out to a former student now a professor of Islamic history at UCLA who was more than happy to lend his expertise. He also gave me names of others who helped as well. I “cold emailed” a professor at Northwestern University who responded filling in a blank I had. I emailed others who didn’t bother to return my query – but no matter. I was, and am, undaunted. I was being eaten alive by this beast I’d unleashed and was loving every minute of it.

Volume one is completed. Revision has begun, beta readers have also been given copies. So far, the reviews are solid and the suggestions great. I’ve begun implementing some of them during the revision process and while I want it to be perfect, I know it will never be. There will always be something I can add, some other flavor to sprinkle in order to tantalize the readers’ tastebuds, but at some point, I’ll have to release the work to the greater world – or the five people that may choose to read it willingly. That’s ok – it’s the process not the result for me.

I’ve fallen in love with this world that once was and is now being recreated in historical fiction style. I’ve fallen in love with the process of writing and research. My heart has been stolen, my thoughts dominated by my work. None of this is to the detriment of my job for I have students counting on me each day whom I will never let down, but increasingly, I am losing ground to my writing. Good thing I retire next year.


13 thoughts on “Writing and Research

  1. Great blog post! I thrilled to your ignited passion, and salute your authorial stamina re: channeling the voice of your protagonist into an entire historical novel. Voice is everything, isn’t it? (Stephen King: “It is not the tale, but he who tells it.”)

    Also loved that bit about all the story fragments that died due to lack of passion/interest/confidence. I’m certain many of us can relate, heh!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Oh, this is delicious! It puts me in touch with how I met up with my MC. My wife and I had a favorite rental house overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Bodega Bay. I would sit on the deck and muse.
    One beautiful orange sunset, there was a woman sitting there with me. She told me about the time she’d been sitting there with her friends, and something came whooshing overhead and crashed on her back hillside. Of course she went to see.
    She explained why she didn’t like her name, and how she’d chosen a new one, Selena. How she’d become a singer on a dare from her big brother. She sang a song to me, and it brought tears to my eyes. I got the words down, but not the melody.
    She took me to a local bar called Locos Only, where she sang on stage with her guitar named Gibb, singing over the noisy drunks.
    She said she didn’t know what would happen, and neither did I. She sat there quietly for several years. I would look at her from time to time, feeling restless and guilty for neglecting her. Then one time she sang another song to me, and said, “This is an anthem to my secret self.”
    I saw that I needed to let her tell her story. Several years and four books later, she’s still telling it. I’m glad I’m along for the ride.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    I love the way you think!

    I also research heavily. I have stories set in the sixteenth century and the nineteen-twenties and every line, even if it’s a throwaway thought, I want to get it exactly right.

    I complicate my life even further. I have created several characters on the basis of needing them to perform a specific short-term function for me. Then I fall in love with them, and have to research their histories, see what else they have to offer me.

    Liked by 6 people

    • mimispeike says:

      Ask away!

      In addition to focused research, I lean heavily on fiction set in my periods, and, I find, the more obscure the author the better. I glean language, setting, and prose style. Those Victorian/Edwardian writers, even when they wrote the lowest of melodrama, wrote it beautifully.

      Ever read Oliver Wendell Holmes? … not the judge, not Junior. Senior! He wrote a marvelous series: The Poet at the Breakfast Table, The Poet here, The Poet there. A little philosophy, a lot of color.

      I love the stuff no one else will touch. That’s my idea of a really good time.

      Liked by 4 people

      • mimispeike says:

        I’m also reading papers on the sex life of capuchin monkeys. I am registered with Academia.org. I get pdfs of serious research. My monkey that Sly falls in love with at Queen Elizabeth’s court, I stated her out as a capuchin. I had to confirm that capuchins were in Europe by that time.

        I stumbled across a paper, followed it back to Academia. I had to apply to be a member. They probably asked me, why do you want to be a member? I probably replied, I’m writing a comic novel in which my hero (a cat) falls in love with a monkey. And they took me in. Ain’t that a gas!

        They asked me, what university are you affiliated with? I said, I’m affiliated with me, period. They still took me in.

        I need to know about monkey behavior. When I get to that episode I will cite those Ph.D. candidates in my footnotes, maybe put a smile on their faces.

        My Sha-Sha, Sly’s grand passion, is no longer a capuchin. She’s a douc langur. But much of that behavior will transfer. I’ll make it transfer.

        Sadly for Sly, Sha won’t give him the time of day. She has eyes only for Robert Dudley.

        Liked by 3 people

        • LOL Mimi! Your academic credentials remind me of a (fictional) character who was applying to run a nuclear reactor. They asked about his degree. He answered, “I have a theoretical degree in physics,” They said, welcome aboard.

          Liked by 2 people

  4. Great piece, Michael – describes very well how some characters grab you and won’t let go, then the discovery, bit by bit, of the world they live in. The research is always enjoyable – not just learning new things but seeing how they can fit so nicely into what we’re writing. I look forward to reading it!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. victoracquista says:

    Michael, thanks for your inspiring post! I can relate to being overtaken with story and character. From your brief introduction, I find I want to learn more about Apollonia Savucci, her life and times. I’ve never been drawn to writing historical fiction. Both you and Mimi give me a glimpse into the drive to research the time, period, customs, sights, smells and robust features that are essential to the story. When a reader is taken to a new land and begins to experience it through a story being told, it is magical and transcendent. I share your view of process and often remind myself to invest in process, trust in outcome.

    Liked by 4 people

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