But can research replace the real thing?
Well, I’d like to hear from travellers who’ve been to the Greek Island of Lesbos to find out if it can. Here’s my experience in writing the location into my upcoming novel: ‘A Pearl of Wisdom’.
Setting the scene
The port of Mytilini on the Island of Lesbos where my characters, Pearl and Anna arrive.
In the second of my trilogy of the ‘A Lesbian Affair’ series (which I am currently writing and is called ‘A Pearl of Wisdom’) Pearl and her friend Anna go on an OE from New Zealand in the 1960s and visit the Island of Lesbos, the famed birthplace of the Poet Sappho. The problem was that I have never been to Lesbos though it is on my bucket list, yet I had to make the experience of these two women as authentic as possible.
Time and location
The year is 1963, post war Europe, as we enter the heady days of Women’s Lib, flower power and women doing their own thing. I wanted the two young women to meet up with other women and also have a realistic view of life in the 1960s. So I needed to know a number of things:
- The terrain of Milan where they first start their OE
- The terrain of Lesbos
- The port where they land from the ferry
- The weather temperature at the time of their visit
- Any distinguishing features of the weather, houses, mountain ranges, transport
Where to research?
How could I find out that kind of information?
In the past I would have visited the library and come home with an armful of travel books, but today I could access most of this information by searching on Google.
Here’s what I found out
Milan is built on a fertile plain between two mountain ranges, so I couldn’t have my two heroines looking down on the city. They had to look out from their hotel. However, I could name a few likely places they would see and describe the architecture of buildings around the piazzas where they would wander.
Old building architecture is constant
Historic buildings don’t change even if we modernise the buildings in between or inside the facades. I let my young travellers wander around Piazza del Duomo where they would see the Milan Cathedral and La Scala Theatre (Opera House).
The likelihood of them coming across a cafe where they could observe the people was high, so I let them taste the local brew.
(Pearl speaking) We decide to take a break at a little cafe in the Piazza del Duomo, choose takeaway cups of steaming coffee and buns and walk out into the square where other tourists are sitting on the raised steps under ornate street lights.
Even the people passing, raising their voices in expressive Italian, hands waving in emphasis, capture our attention. At one point, I realise I have been sitting for several minutes, coffee cup raised, mouth half open, listening to the cadences of a light-hearted argument between four men, who stand legs astride, hips forward and talk over the top of each other.
Maps can tell us lots about locations
Here’s how I learned about the terrain of Lesbos – Google Maps and Images.
The wonderful thing with Google maps is you can actually get to see street views, so as an author you can describe what you see, as well as view photos for added detail. Of course, I had to be careful that my descriptions were not too detailed, in case I described something that did not exist in the 1960s.
A few words in the local language adds authenticity
I wanted to drop in some authenticity using the Italian language so I went to THIS PAGE for a translation service. I didn’t need many words, because most of my readers will be reading in english and will accept only a few words before they become annoyed at not understanding what is being said.
The same website will also translate into many other languages, so when you get there, BOOKMARK IT.
Meeting people with authentic names
It is so easy to delve into your own repertoire of known names when introducing minor characters, but I try to look up genuine names of the location or the event. Here is a passage when Stephanie (note the male name root – a device I use for other minor characters) – an english woman settled in Lesbos talks to Anna and Pearl:
“How did you find out about my B and B?” Stephanie asks us.
“A woman at the Milan airport travel agency gave us your address. We really didn’t know anything else about you,” Anna informs her.
“Yes! She said we’d be safe here,” I add.
Stephanie leans back her head and laughs hugely, her lungs gasping with the effort.
“Good ol’ Carlita,” she grins once she’s regained her breath. “She taught me all the Italian I know.”
And she says it as if there’s a story behind the Italian lessons.
Speed of spoken language
It’s hard to convey speed of language in text but it is a part of writing that helps you give colour to the story. At one stage I asked the question in Google: Are some languages spoken faster than others? The answer took me to THIS PAGE. But I ended up with a lot of speculations. As one forum member said: “Out of the several languages I am learning, I would say either Greek or Italian.”
This film suggests Italians have the quickest tongues: “Fast talking? Marcello Mastroianni and Sandra Milo in Fellini’s 8 1/2. Photograph: Channel 5”
Here is a quote from Pearl about language and its differences:
“Una piccola quantità,” he (the driver) assures us, so we lug our suitcases up the bus steps and find an unoccupied double seat. The other passengers watch us struggle on in silence, but as soon as we’re seated a hubbub of conversation erupts.
I feel a wave of loneliness wash over me. Even in crowds at home, I have not felt this. I understand in this instant how living surrounded by another language is as isolating as actually living, like my mother, alone.
Discovering underground nightlife
I found out about a Lesbian nightclub through Sappho Travel’s website. Now that particular travel guide and the club may not have been around when my pair were exploring Lesbos, but you can be sure some night-life was happening. It gave me a location to create a club for the pair to visit with their newly found friend and landlady, Stephanie.
I entered the words: ‘skala eressos nightlife’ in Google images and immediately gained a great picture of what is there now. Here are a couple of images:
Again I could assume that the permissive attitude to female nudity in Lesbos was the same as when my travellers arrived.
Working with the weather in novels
I have learned that the weather can be used to colour your location in novels, and I’m not talking about those long descriptions about sunsets over the sea. In ‘A Pearl of Wisdom’ my characters are introduced to a dominant wind that affects Lesbos – The Bora.
(Pearl’s voice) I’m about to scream when I feel Anna shaking me (from a dream).
“Sorry love,” Stephanie’s voice comes out of the gloom. “I just want to shut the shutters. The Bora is cooking up a storm and we’re in for a wet night. Can I turn on the light?”
Anna replies. I can’t shake the dream from my head. “Sure. The storm woke me too.”
Yellow light floods the room and Stephanie is standing there in an old robe, tied loosely with a cord that has worn into something like old rope. She moves over to the window, opens it and leans out into howling wind. She grabs one shutter but can’t quite reach the other.
“Just a minute,” Anna calls and climbs out of the bed to help her. Together they wrestle the shutters together, Stephanie secures them, and then shuts the window.
“Wow,” she says shaking the sodden arms of her robe.
“Are you wet too?” she asks Anna. “Come on down and we’ll towel off in front of the stove. Won’t take me long to stir the fire into action.”
People who know about the weather in Lesbos will recognise the effects of the Bora wind. If you don’t know anything about it, you’ll just accept that the wind brings in storms and accept that bit of local colour.
So thank-you Google, for giving me access to all that information. And thank-you for the people who shared it on their websites.
NOTE: I expect that ‘A Pearl of Wisdom’ will be published in July after the publication of my second novel: ‘Family Ties and Rainbow Bonds’. If you would like advanced notification of publication, or would like to receive review copies, please register at my author website: WriteGear.co/
Yours in the creative flow – Heather Sylvawood