DEBORAH CROMBIE: Every so often you run across a book that you absolutely love. It may seem a bit odd that there are crime novels that create a world you don't want to leave, but it does happen. It takes just the right combination of story, setting, and character, but when it happens, it's magic.
I've been a fan of David Hewson's books since I met him at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference in Corte Madera, California a few years ago. (I was on tour for In a Dark House, I think, so it's been a good few years! And that, by the way, is also how I met Hallie! It's a terrific workshop for aspiring writers.) I picked up one of David's Nic Costa novels, set in Rome, and was immediately hooked. So when I heard a few months ago that David had a new novel coming, set in Florence, called The Flood, I couldn't wait to read it. Here's a little synopsis.
Florence, 1986. A seemingly inexplicable attack on a church fresco of Adam and Eve brings together an unlikely couple: Julia Wellbeloved, an art student, and Pino Fratelli, a semi-retired detective who longs to be back in the field.
Their investigation leads them to the secret society that underpins the city, and back to the darkness in Florence’s past: the night of the great flood in 1966.
Rich in the culture of Tuscany’s most mysterious city, The Flood takes a dazzling trip back into the history of Florence, recent and as distant as that of the Medici.
The book is terrific--one of my best picks for the year. But David can tell you about it much better than I can.
DAVID HEWSON: I’ve written so many books set in Italy that I have sit to back and count them. Lucifer’s Shadow almost fifteen years ago. Then came nine Nic Costa novels, mostly set in Rome. This is where the Nic Costa series actually starts.After that there was another Venetian kind of standalone, Carnival for the Dead which featured one of the Costa series most popular characters, Teresa Lupo.
And now we have The Flood set in Florence, with scenery like the wonderful Medici dwarf in the Boboli gardens you see here. So that’s a round dozen. Over the last twenty years my books have encompassed Spain, the US, the adaptations of The Killing TV series in Copenhagen, and now a new crime series set in Amsterdam. The fact these are all lovely places to work and visit apart, why do I do this? Aren’t we all supposed to ‘write about what you know’?
Well I don’t believe in rules for writing, and even if I did I wouldn’t think any of them were universal. ‘Write about what you know’ may be great advice for some, but rotten for me. My very first book back in the Nineties was set in a city much like Seville during Holy Week. I was a working journalist at the time and couldn’t afford the time and money to go there to research it. So I simply created a fictional Andalucian city and wrote the damned thing anyway.
Semana Santa got me a three-book deal and was later made into a movie. And yes, I did get a few letters saying that I’d made ‘mistakes’ when it came to portraying Spain. But just as many saying I captured the true spirit of the place too.
Five books later I made the decision to focus on Italy, moving to Rome for a while to enroll at a language school and try to see the world through Italian eyes. It was probably the best investment I ever made.
Writing about what you don’t know works for me on many fronts. For one thing it makes me work, and if writing isn’t work then something’s wrong. I have to deal with a foreign language, culture, and history. I need to read background books and learn to navigate strange cities. I must pound alien pavements, taking pictures, imagining scenes. Those photos are important by the way and I still keep them. Here’s a grainy photo of Tiber Island taken on a rainy February day in 2001.
Books must build worlds, in the heads of both author and reader. By assembling all this material about places I don’t know, I have to construct my locations from the ground up brick-by-brick. It wouldn’t be the same if it was London or some place around the corner.
And the great thing is you develop a routine. In 2011, with my friend A.J. Hartley, I produced an audio novel of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Now this is a fascinating play, but it’s full of holes. We’ve no idea, for example, why Macbeth begins as a hero and abruptly turns in a bloody villain. I hopped on a plane to Scotland and spent a week exploring Macbeth’s real-life Highlands — here’s a photo of Birnam wood, part of his comeuppance. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and there was the clue to his character.
Our Macbeth is a patriot, killing Duncan to oppose tyranny, just as Brutus and Cassius murdered Caesar to maintain the Roman republic. Could I have got that out of a book or Google Maps? Not in a million years.
The Flood is a standalone novel, not part of the Nic Costa series. While I tried quite hard to picture a Costa book set in Tuscany every effort stumbled on a simple obstacle: the characters don’t fit.
Romans are southerners, colourful, sociable, outward-looking. Whereas Florence has a darkness to it, a grim side visible in the fortress-like architecture of its rusticated palaces. Rome has always been a show-off, keen to display its glories to the world. Florence, especially under the Medici, preferred to keep them hidden and show them only to the privileged few.
It took a lot of visits before that became clear, and only when it did could I began to grasp the story I wanted to write.
The tale begins in Rome in 1942 where a young Jewish boy is being smuggled out of the ghetto to keep him out of the hands of Mussolini’s thugs. We then move forward to the winter of 1966 and a terrible real-life flood which claimed more than thirty lives in the city.
Then, for the bulk of the story, we find ourselves in 1986, dealing with two far from complementary characters desperate to unravel secrets from both those previous eras. One is an eccentric carabinieri officer, Pino Fratelli, the second is a young Englishwoman, Julia Wellbeloved, fleeing a failed marriage, thinking she can find herself in the art and history of Florence.
I want the reader to feel they’re there walking the streets with Pino and Julia, feeling her disgust when he stops for a Florentine snack of tripe, and his wonder at the marvelous paintings in the Brancacci Chapel and San Marco. I can’t think of any way to achieve that without going to the place myself. I know. It’s a tough life. But someone has to do it.
Jules Verne wrote Around the World in Eighty Days and he’d never set foot outside Europe. But today the world’s a smaller place, which makes it so much harder to create a vivid version of it for readers’ eyes.
So what do you think? Can you write convincingly about somewhere without going there? Or is fiction just that… made-up stuff and the secret’s in the making?
DEBS: You can probably guess where I stand on David's question. I think writers can build any world they can imagine, convincingly, but it does take work. REDS and readers, what do you think?
While you're contemplating, I want to have another Negroni in a cafe in Florence with Pino and Julia....
And David, I have to ask: Wellbeloved is such wonderful name. How did you come up with that?
David will be dropping in to respond to comments, and will pick a lucky commenter to receive a copy of The Flood.
One last thing, although certainly not least. Be sure to follow David on his blog, where you'll find some of the best advice I've come across on writing. And David's book about writing a novel, Writing: A User Manual, is a terrific resource for both new and experienced writers. I'm hoping he'll come back and talk to us about that!