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  • Writer's pictureK.P. Gresham

Journey into Unknown Worlds

by Francine Paino  AKA F. Della Notte  

Depth and realism. How do authors achieve it? Great writing, of course, but research into every aspect of character development, periods, and settings is essential. Readers often wonder how writers decide on the backdrop for their characters’ emotions and thoughts. Again, the answer is research.

Writers are intrigued and inspired by innumerable universes around them. Even routine occupations require thought, knowledge, and understanding. In the unusual story of The Maid by Nita Prose, the protagonist is a hotel maid, and the author’s knowledge of the inner workings of a hotel lends an authenticity that draws the reader in. In Stamped Out, a successful cozy mystery series by Tonya Kappes, the author credits the USPS worker who guided her through the inner workings of the post office. An essential ingredient to her series.

But there are the plots that require knowledge in areas not encountered routinely, or even known. In Kristen Hannah’s, The Winter Garden, a story of a mother and her daughters, she writes about the siege of Leningrad during World War II with such detail and realism a reader could believe someone who’d survived that nightmare wrote it instead of a person born in 1960.

Settings, periods, environments, climates, geography, and the list goes on forever. Writers are told to “write what you know,” but what we know isn’t nearly enough, for there are little universes around us where twists and turns take on different flavors and colors dictated by what we don’t know without examination and study.

A mystery or crime story involving police procedures written by someone who has never been a police officer requires learning the different rules, regulations, and methods that vary from one police department to another. Thus, the writer’s first determination is the city/state/town where the story takes place and how crimes are approached and solved. Even if the location is fiction, the writer will still need to communicate at least some recognized methods used to solve crimes unless they’re writing fantasy.

In non-fiction, Memo Book, by Lt. Retired Dan D’Eugenio, is an excellent source to understand how the complex New York City Police Department operates from the street level to the hierarchy of officers. His writing is clear, concise, and colorful as he leads us through police work in New York City, both above and below ground. He pulls no punches, describing the smells of decomposing bodies and garbage or the unexpected experiences, like falling through the rotted floors in abandoned tenements, or the stop, search, and question methods.

One of the most fascinating worlds is the backstage universe of live theater. Much of the magic the audience experience is directly related to the dramas and sagas behind the curtain, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City is an example.

The Metropolitan Opera has a cast of thousands responsible for the front of the house and care of everything from ushers to box office staff. The run crew backstage is responsible for the sets and set changes. There is a wig shop and, of course, a costume shop.

In an eye-opening interview on the Met Opera Channel, Suzi Gomez-Pizzo, describes the fast and furious pace of being the wardrobe supervisor for female leads. In a New York Times article, The Opera Wardrobe Diva, she conveys the challenges of being responsible for her singers, getting them into costume eight minutes before curtain—to avoid them sitting around in costume, and rapid costume changes between acts. She describes herself as the singers’ trusted constant. “They know that if they blow a note, the whole world hears it and that you’re the only constant they have.” And she reveals a Met quirks. Their costume shop never uses velcro. It might make those fast changes easier, but the Met costume shop is faithful to the operas’ original period and costume construction. In addition to her costume responsibilities, she feels a vital part of her job is to keep her singers happy and confident in her abilities to get them changed nack onstage in the allotted time. In a YouTube interview with Isabel Leonard, the Mezzo-Soprano star of the opera Marnie, Gomez-Pizzo and Leonard are shown making 15 costume changes in a small ‘pit-stop’ curtained-off area in the wings while the opera is in progress. “Trust,” agrees Leonard and Gomez-Pizzo, are the essential ingredient that makes it work.

The drama of the costume shop and its staff is worthy of its own legend and is used in Adriana Trigiani’s heart-wrenching saga, The Shoemaker’s Wife.

Trigiani’s heroine, Enza, is a young Italian immigrant in the 1920s living in New York. Her skills with needle and thread land her a job in the Met Costume Shop. As the tale of love, heartbreak, separation, and reunion of two Italian immigrants unfolds, the story also follows Enza’s climb from seamstress to a position of trust, fitting and caring for the costume needs of Enrico Caruso, one of opera’s greatest star.

Months of research were required to acquire the historical information that enabled Trigiani to give depth and realism to her story’s settings in Greenwich Village, NY, the Iron Range of Minnesota, and the Met Costume Shop. She is rightfully lavish in her thanks to those who assisted her researching Met Opera history, life in Italy, New York’s Little Italy community, and Minnesota.

In the second book of the Housekeeper Mystery Series, Catwalk Dead, Murder in the Rue de L’Histoire Theatre, is set in modern day Austin, Texas. Father Melvyn and Mrs. B. become involved in a theater murder when her son’s ballet company goes into rehearsal for Macbeth.

Extensive research into stagecraft, construction, and lighting was vital to developing the actions and dramas taking place in the theater. Additional knowledge about the history of prohibition, crime, and bootlegging in Texas was crucial, as it provided the backdrop for an old crime that comes to light in current times. None of this would have been possible without access to historical materials and the expertise of theater personnel.

Research opens the doors, turns on the lights, and cannot be overrated for the journey into unknown worlds.

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