Friday, April 28, 2017

Traveling in my pajamas by Sarah Wisseman

I set my second mystery, The Dead Sea Codex, in Israel. I hadn’t been in Israel since 1972, a very long time ago. But since I’d lived there over two years as an archaeology student, I thought I could recreate that environment virtually—without having close encounters with suicide bombers. I didn’t want to write about terrorism, I wanted to write about early Christian manuscripts and the black market in antiquities. So I deliberately placed my book sometime during the gap between 1972 and the present, using the Internet, modern travel books, articles, videos, movies, and other books set in Israel to flesh out what I remembered or imagined.

Two archaeologists race to find an early codex before Christian fanatics destroy it.

I call this “travelling in my pajamas,” and many authors do it. I know one successful book written by a well-respected author who has never been in two of the countries she wrote about! Another author related a funny story about researching an airport in Eastern Europe: he said he’d never been through that airport, so he lifted most of his description from another novelist. Then he met that novelist a few years later, and thanked him for the excellent description of the airport. Response: “Oh, I’ve never been there either. I made it up.”
Fiction writers can get away with making it up—sometimes. I don’t plan to write about a place I’ve never visited. I value the vital information gained by the five senses, not to mention the life-changing moments of talking to people, eating strange food, and learning another language.

That said, I voyaged in my pajamas a second time when I wrote Catacomb. Physical travel to Rome was not possible at the time I wrote the book, so I used my memories of several summers spent living and working in Italy plus the same tools from the library and online I’d used before. I supplemented my memories of Rome and its catacombs with photos, videos, articles, maps, and email correspondence with friends in Italy. I researched the geology of Rome, the kinds of tunnels that intersect with the catacombs (sewers, subways, ancient quarries, etc.), archaeology of the Etruscans (pre-Roman founders of Rome), Nazi-looted art, and police procedures in Italy.

An art conservator and her policeman boyfriend search for a lost trove of Nazi-looted art under Rome

Did I get the Italian setting right? The creepy atmosphere of being underground with bones and tombs and funerary art is easier to convey than a map-like knowledge of underground Rome or what it’s like to be an Italian policeman. But I’ll revisit Italy in November with my daughter and I’ll revisit the catacombs then. Then we’ll take the train to Florence where I plan to set the next book, The Botticelli Caper. My on-site research methods? Lots of exploring on foot and taking photos of places I’d like place my characters. The plan includes plenty of recovery time in cafes and wine bars. 


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Sarah,

Like you, I've written about places I've actually visited or lived in. However, that is not always the case. For example, with a novel like Tea Leaves and Tarot Cards, set in the Regency era, I did considerable research. We writers are imaginative people and in fiction we can create worlds that appear real without always needing actual experience of a particular place and time.

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