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A Summer in Europe: Finding Meaning in Florence

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Therese here. I’m so happy to present today’s guest to you, Marilyn Brant [2], who’s here to tell us about her experience in making setting pertinent to character growth. Marilyn’s third novel, A Summer in Europe [3], was just released this past Tuesday. If you love books that plunge you into place, know that Marilyn is a master at describing setting in her novel. But that’s just part of the picture. Said Publisher’s Weekly of her book:

Brant’s newest…distinguishes itself with a charismatic leading man and very funny supporting cast, especially the wonderful elderly characters with their resonant message about living life to the fullest.

From Romantic Times:

Brant’s charming and engaging tale will allow readers to immerse themselves in the magic and beauty of Europe along with the characters. Although the descriptions of the scenery are amazing, the development of the characters and their unique personalities are what really make this novel shine. What an enjoyable escape!

Read on to hear Marilyn describe her experience in transporting readers and characters both.

A Summer in Europe: Finding Meaning in Florence

Therese, thanks so much for inviting me back to WU—it’s wonderful to get to visit here again!

Just this week, my third women’s fiction book from Kensington, A Summer in Europe [4], was released and, as the title announces (with no attempt at subtlety, LOL), the heroine of my story gets to spend some of her summer in Europe. My main character, Gwen, is a junior-high math teacher who is unaccustomed to foreign adventures or, really, to dealing with anything outside of her ordinary routine. While she’s abroad, she starts out very much as an “accidental tourist,” trying, like William Hurt’s character in the film by that name, to regulate her environment. To control it. To keep herself from being too affected by it. She’s also a bit naïve about love, similar to E.M. Forster’s heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, from A Room with a View, whose world is altered immeasurably by a visit to Italy.

Like Forster’s Lucy, Gwen’s first impressions of Italy (and the unusual people she meets on her trip) spark the initial changes in her outlook and set her on a path quite different from where she’d been heading. She absorbs the highlights of Rome, Pompeii and the Isle of Capri, but as their tour bus zips toward Tuscany, I know she’ll be entering an ideal place to have a key realization or two. In fact, I couldn’t have made up a European city that was better equipped to inspire a personal rebirth—both literally and symbolically—than the actual Birthplace of the Renaissance: Florence.

As writers, I know you’ll know what I mean right away when I say this, but I spent hours sifting through my memories of that city for significant details. Photobucket [5]I haven’t been back to Italy since 1997, so I invested no small amount of time lurking on Italian travel web pages and flipping through our old photo albums. I ate lots of pasta and gelato for inspiration. (Hey, I’m nothing if not a slave to my art.) And I repeatedly walked my main character through my mental map of Florence, considering each of the major sites—and some of the minor ones—trying to figure out which would best reflect the sense I was hoping to create in that chapter: the growing revelations of a woman who’d vowed to begin her life anew.

What would she see that might make her question her old ways of doing things?

How would she interpret the classic art, architecture, history and culture of a city so much older than her Midwestern American hometown?

Which sites would have specific relevance for her and, most of all, why?

For any of you who may have visited Florence before or even read about it in any detail, you realize just how many famous sites the city offers to us. To name only a handful: Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia, the Uffizi Gallery, the Pitti Palace, the Ponte Vecchio, Brunelleschi’s Dome (aka “The Duomo” or the cathedral known as Santa Maria del Fiore), the Medici Chapels, Piazza della Repubblica, the San Giovanni Baptistery with Ghiberti’s bronze doors, the Arno River, the Basilica of Santa Croce, not to mention one of my favorite gelaterias in the world: Festival del Gelato. (There’s always a place for good food in fiction, right?!)

During the course of Gwen’s visit, she gets to make stops at quite a few of these sites. She reacts in her own way to each of them and, slowly, begins to show changes in her thinking as a result. She also begins to collect mementos and memories—both of which she’ll carry with her throughout the rest of the trip. To me, it was important to have her not only learn something new during each phase of her journey, but to have a token that would remind her of that lesson later. Because, of course, there will be conflict ahead (!!), and she’ll need to remember what she’d learned. So, in Florence, I gave her a very specific object, something tangible that she could purchase and take with her, knowing it would emotionally rocket her back to that time and place whenever she would look at it.

And I knew for sure that this would be true…because I gave her something of mine. Something I personally found on a visit I took to Italy, which I then brought home with me. I still have it.

Photobucket [6]Back in the mid-1990s, my husband and I were window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio, the historic bridge that spans the Arno River. You can see it on the left-hand side of the photo of us—and, yes, that picture is from the ‘90s, too. (How young we were!) The merchants on the bridge are known for selling gold jewelry, so we saw lots and lots of items fashioned beautifully out of 24-carat gold, including some famous landmarks from around the country. There was a necklace with a finely tooled pendant shaped like the famous Duomo, the signature image of the city (it’s on the right-hand side of that same skyline photo). There were cases of pins and broaches featuring my favorite sculpture—the David. I remember a golden replica of La Bocca della Verità—aka “The Mouth of Truth”—which had been one of the most charming sites we’d visited in Rome. And there were quite a number of earrings, pins and necklaces in the shape of Venetian carnival masks, which I happen to love and collect in their full size.

I bestowed upon Gwen a similar shopping excursion on that bridge and, in the course of her Florentine retail adventure, she purchased one of those items. I won’t tell you which piece she chose specifically, but it was something she ended up wearing throughout the remainder of her trip. For her, it became a personal touchstone from that day forward—an object she could tap with her fingertips and remember something important that she’d just begun to learn.

To me, this is where our travel experiences and our fiction writing merge. We could go anywhere for story inspiration—it doesn’t have to be a place that requires a passport—but, as writers, I feel we need to bring with us our deepest awareness because we don’t know when we’ll be called upon to share a memory or a memento with our characters. I bought a lot of little things in Europe (my husband would be the first to tell you just how many!), but not all of them are items that would have any meaning to Gwen. Were I to take another character with me to Florence, I’d have to walk through the city all over again, sifting through different details in hopes of finding the ones most significant to this new character. In some ways, it’s like getting to revisit a favorite place with your child. You get to see it anew through their eyes. And even getting to remember—in such a personal way—a city I haven’t seen in 15 years was, for me, very much like taking the journey again, too.

What about you? Is there a place you personally love that you’ve found yourself sharing with the characters in your fiction? Or, perhaps, an object you came across in real life that you worked into a storyline? I’d love to hear about it!

Photobucket [3]I’ve been celebrating this new book by taking a trip around the web to share some of my favorite European sites and to explain how my own real-life memories from visits abroad influenced the writing of this novel. If you’re a travel lover like me, my book tour/grand European adventure is in progress with the itinerary up on my website [7]. I hope you’ll join me for a few other cities on the tour! And if you’d like to read an excerpt from A Summer in Europe, which is a Literary Guild and Rhapsody Book Club featured alternate selection for December 2011, you can find one here [8].

Thanks, again, to all of you for having me here today!

Photo courtesy stevehdc [9]