Brian Thiem—writing back in the US. Experiencing new sights is one of the joys of traveling. As I toured Italy last month, I realized authors are sort of tour guides for our readers—showing them around a world that may be unfamiliar and even bizarre. It may be a common US city, but an underworld unfamiliar to most, and when seen through the eyes of a homicide detective, it can seem as foreign to most readers as parts of Italy were to me.
Although I had seen many of the places we visiting in photos and movies, it wasn’t the same as being there. I was in awe of the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps of Rome. No photos could compare to standing inside the Vatican’s Basilica and Sistine Chapel. The Statue of David and Renaissance monuments in Florence left me speechless. We did the obligatory stop at the Leaning Tower of Pisa so we could say been-there-done-that.
But I liked the smaller towns and countryside the most: the Tuscany hills with its vineyards and lovely villages; the ancient walled cities that took me back in time; the seaside villages of Santa Margarita and Portafino, where yachts dotted the harbors; Lake Maggiore, with its huge estates and lush gardens; and the alpine village of Cortina d’Ampezzo, the home of the 1956 winter Olympics.
We spent our final two nights in magical Venice, wandering the alleyways lined with shops and crowded with people, seeing the “fronts” of palaces and villas canal-side via gondola, and listening to a concert at night in St. Mark’s Square while eating gelato.
Even our departure was an experience; a water taxi picked us up from the steps of our hotel and dropped us off right at the airport built on the edge of the Venice lagoon.
There are things in Italy I had trouble getting used to. All of our hotels had a buffet breakfast, and I’m not sure how long I could continue to eat three or four chocolate and fruit-filled croissants with my scrambled eggs every morning without a shopping spree for bigger pants.
I figured out that three shots of espresso with some hot water in a large cup equaled my normal cup of American coffee. Italians live at a slower pace than in the US: many shops close from 1:00-3:30; many restaurants don’t open until 7:30 p.m., the time my dinner at home is done and the dishes washed, and the dinners include an antipasto course and a pasta or risotto first course followed by a main course, about double the food I needed. But I couldn’t help but eat everything (thinking about those bigger pants again).
The roads are narrow, Italians park bumper to bumper, scooters are everywhere in the big cities, and even in four-star hotels, the rooms are small and the showers are tighter than in a Motel 6 back home. But the Italian people are stylish, warm, and very friendly. They appear far less stressed than most Americans.
While traveling I fanaticized about writing a story taking place in Italy with an American protagonist and a murder (I can’t help it—all of my story ideas include murders), but I’d have to spend much more time there to get the setting right. The problem is—where in Italy should my murder take place and my research trip begin?