by Laura Michelle Thomas
I am counting down my last four days in southern Italy. It is my honeymoon, but what to a writer is a honeymoon in a history-rich country without a little writing? (Actually, we can thank the Mediterranean storm that has kept us high and dry in our cliff-side apartment in Positano for this opportunity to sit and put some thoughts together on my laptop.)
Though this is the first time in almost two weeks that I have taken time to write, I have been making notes in my travel journal about the writing lessons I have learned while touring ancient Roman sites, especially the fiction writing lessons. Here are four fiction writing tips from Rome.
Tip #1 – The Magic is in the Details
From the Colosseum, to the Vatican Museums, to the Pantheon, and even the average building in downtown Rome, everything that is impressive because of its grand size is even more impressive because of the intricate details laced into its constituent parts. I saw floors made with mosaic tiles no bigger than my fingernails. I craned my neck to take in massive frescoes that left no patch of ceiling un-worked. Every column, every corner was creative, expressive, unique, and gave tremendous depth to the places we visited.
As a writer this reminded me of something Vladimir Nabokov believed—all writers are teachers, storytellers and magicians, but “great” writers are magicians first. The architecture of Rome (both modern and ancient) has reminded me of the importance of adding a thick layer of meaningful, plot and character-connected details to your story, especially with bigger projects like novels. For the reader (like the tourist), the magic truly is in the details. That’s how you win them.
Tips #2 – Juxtapose the Old and New
Contrast. It’s a powerful writing tool. I was reminded of this while hiking up the Palantine Hill, which is part of the ancient Roman ruins and sits above the Forum and Colosseum. It’s that time of year in Rome, almost spring, when the world is becoming lush and green (thanks to all the rain). As we climbed up the ancient brick steps which are the colour of fired clay or rust, I was amazed by the contrast between the fresh, young greenery and the old, foot-worn brickwork.
They both leapt out at me because of the contrast. Their juxtaposition amplified them both in my imagination. This is what contrast does. Use it in settings. Use it when you introduce new information about your plot or a character. Create a foil character who is the opposite in every way from your protagonist. Contrast. It will help your reader remember your story long after he has put the book down.
Tip #3 – Be a Fish Out of Water
This vacation has reminded me that I have been spending far too much time in familiar places this winter. The settings in which I exist have become stale and uninspiring. Until Rome, I was in a rut—same old workspace, same old walking routes, same old stores, same old ski hill, etc. This has probably spilled over into my writing as well. Just like my characters, I needed to get out of my rut and go places that are unfamiliar, that make me feel like a fish out of water. Italy has been refreshing for that. The sights, smells, tastes, sounds have been shock therapy for my senses.
I have realized that there are parts of Vancouver that I do not go to often or at all. I am going to try to do a walkabout in some of those places once or twice a month. I think it will lift my spirit and, perhaps more importantly, give my fiction writing a kick in the pants.
Tip #4 – Conflict is Everything
Without conflict there is no story. Here’s an example from the Milvio Bridge in Rome. For six years, this bridge was famous for love padlocks. An author-inspired, romantic tradition began in which you would write the initials of yourself and your loved one on a padlock and then attach it to one of the street lamps on the bridge. Apparently, this was hugely popular with young, in-love Romans.
Then, last fall, the city of Rome discovered that the rust from the thousands of padlocks was harming the ancient bridge (it is more than 2,000 years old). To preserve the bridge, the city banned the padlocks and levied a fine of 50 Euros for anyone caught putting a padlock on the bridge. So, how does this relate to conflict in a story?
Well, last week I rode my bike over the Milvio Bridge and saw about six love padlocks attached to one of the lamp posts. Knowing that those romantics risked a fine to show their love gives those padlocks more meaning than those thousands of padlocks that had been previously locked there when it was legal to do so.
Do you see? Conflict, in life we hate it, but in fiction, you have to love it.