My debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, relies a lot on place. Though this story has a simple premise—an upstate New York woman finding herself again after the loss of her twin—it relies on a second narrative that reveals her life as a child growing up with her sister in Castine, Maine. Notes are left for the woman in the present day after she purchases an artifact from her past, and suddenly she finds herself lured to Rome, Italy.
Upstate New York. Castine, Maine. Rome, Italy.
I know much about upstate, as that’s where I live, but I didn’t know anything about Castine and had only tour-book knowledge of Rome. In order to instill the story with the authenticity it needed, I tapped into the richest resource out there for place—speaking with locals.
I traveled to Castine and walked its streets. I stopped into its businesses and chatted with the people there. I learned that one of the town’s favorite hangouts was a little dockside eatery called The Breeze. I ate there and spoke with the owner—how long had it been there? Had it always had that name? I made a note and later included The Breeze in my story. I bellied up to a counter at a local café and, after a warm-up period with the others there, asked what their favorite town sayings were (“ayuh”) and for the name of the local storyteller—and then I sought him out. Kenny Eaton of Eaton’s Boatyard told tales of his town and shared details about life on the water. The twins’ father shouldn’t be a fisherman, he said, because the water was too deep for that in Castine; but he could be a boat builder or a lobsterman. The waters turned dangerous in late autumn, and things could change quickly on the sea at any time of year.
All of these details made their way into The Last Will; some became cornerstone details of critical scenes.
Rome was critical to the story as well, and specific aspects of the city shaped key moments in the plot and revealed character. I didn’t travel to Rome, though I learned a lot about it by speaking to someone with intimate knowledge—Adam Nixon at RomeBuddy.com, who lived in Rome for large chunks of the year. I devoured his site, then emailed him directly. Adam was terrific, explaining things I’d never read in a travel guide and describing the types of happenings you’d find in Rome around the holidays. I also conversed frequently with another, a man who’d grown up in Italy and who had a comprehensive knowledge of the Italian language; he smoothed over some of my textbook attempts at Italian to make them sing.
Would I speak with locals again when trying to learn more about a particular place? Absolutely. Speaking with those who live somewhere is one of the quickest and most reliable ways of learning about the heart and soul of a place, and imbuing your story with authenticity.
Write on, all!
Therese Walsh recently sold her debut novel in a two-book deal to Random House (Shaye Areheart imprint). The Last Will of Moira Leahy is about a woman who lost her identical twin–and a large portion of herself–about a decade ago, but reconnects with her former life after purchasing an artifact from her past. Through interwoven narratives, we see Maeve Leahy as she was and what led to the tragedy with her sister, Moira. We travel with her in the present day as she unravels the truth about the artifact–who’s following her and leaving her notes—as layers of her past are peeled away and the course of her future is forever altered. The novel was be published on October 13th, 2009. Therese is also the co-founder of one of the Writer’s Digest best sites for writers, Writer Unboxed. You can learn more about her and her novel at her website: ThereseWalsh.com.