Dreaming in Italian

When researching for my Italian story, I wanted access to a community where I could soak up the flavors and sounds of Italy without the expense of an overseas trip. I’ve been to Italy several times and adore the country, and knew I could rely somewhat on memory. But for me, nothing beats walking the terrain of my story, hearing accents, inhaling aromas, or taking my own photographs.

I took a trip to San Diego’s Little Italy and learned how the community was originally settled. While there, I spoke with many people in search of answers and one market owner directed me to a small book, Images of America, San Diego’s Little Italy, by Kimber M. Quinney, Thomas J. Cesarini, and the Italian Historical Society of San Diego.  Of course I bought it, and referred to it often. Much of the book contains black and white photographs contributed by local community members, and each photograph tells its own story. In my contemporary romance, with an Italian-American heroine and hero, the photographs helped me to imagine what life was like back then, and what might have shaped my H/H’s lives.

Setting always plays a big part in my stories and I have to hold myself back, keeping a light hand as I brush those strokes of color through the pages. History always appeals to me and even though I might not use any of the material I research, somehow it helps to infuse a tone. As did, putting in the CD titled “Say it Right in Italian,” and listening as I pedaled away on the indoor bike. Listening to the words said by the Italian male, in Italian, then in English but with the trace of a wonderful accent, and then repeating the phrases and trying not to fall of the bike with laughter, really helped me to get into the mood. I literally wore out a CD of Dean Martin singing his Italian ballads. Mama Rosetta’s favorite song became, Mambo Italiano.

In San Diego, I learned that many immigrants arrived in the 1870’s, but it wasn’t until the 1900’s that a large number of Italians migrated down the coast from San Francisco, following that city’s earthquake and fires of 1906. Many of the Italians who moved into what was then known as San Diego’s “Italian Colony” came from two Italian towns, Porticello, in Sicily, and Riva Trigosa, in Liguria. Most everyone arrived in San Diego knowing someone: a sibling, a distant cousin, a friend of a friend. The colony, situated slightly north of downtown, ran along India Street, bordered by Date Street, Kettner Boulevard, and to the west, the Pacific Ocean. By the 1940’s it held around 6,000 families and was known as “Little Italy.” Originally, the economic foundation of the area was fishing, mostly for sardines and tuna, and that or course spurred the opening of canneries, boat building industries, retail stores, and restaurants. There were strong ties to the mother country, adherence to tradition, and everything revolved around the church, and everyone spoke Italian. A journalist from the San Diego Tribune commented in the 1930’s, “Even the dogs speak Italian—and some won’t answer if spoken to in English.”

By the early 20th century, there existed a strong new identity—the Italian American identity, which exists today. I had the best cappucino at a small outdoor café, and don’t get me started on the amazing breakfast. It was wonderful to sit in the sun and hear the Italian language spoken freely, and yet be an hour and a half away from my own small American town. I purchased pasta, and amaretto cookies, and little trinkets at the market above, and they allowed me to take photos, and there were so many wonderful things to look at and think about. There’s an annual Italian festival held in San Diego’s Little Italy in the fall, and I hear the accommodations fill up quickly. With a little pre-planning I think I’ll be taking another trip soon.

 So tell me, does location matter to you? Does setting become a secondary character in your stories? Do you need to walk the terrain? And how do you establish tone?


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24 Responses to Dreaming in Italian

  1. Nan says:

    What beautiful photos, Roben! I love them and they made me want to come there and see Little Italy.

    Yes, location matters a lot! Interestingly, I’ve set three of my novels in MI–in an area that I remembered from my childhood and have since been back to several times as an adult. I even made a trip there last fall to research for novel 4–the whole western coast of MI just makes me happy. I think it’s the lake…I’m a water girl. I do indeed have to walk the terrain and feel the place where my stories happen. Tone comes not just from my own descriptions, but also from how the characters react to and talk about their setting. I try to bring the area to life with their conversations.

    • Robena Grant says:

      Yes, you do setting well. I think you evoke a great sense of place in your stories. Thanks for commenting. And, I think I can sense a lake story on the horizon. : )

  2. Hi Roben,
    Setting is definitely a secondary character in books. I love learning about a place just as much as I do about the hero or heroine’s physical characteristics. Your research was fascinating and fun.

    BTW – many many years ago, when I was dating a musician, I had the pleasure of hearing Rosemary Clooney (on a sort of comeback appearacne tour) sing Mambo Italiano live. Her family was there to support her, too, along with a certain teenage nephew named George was also in attendance. 🙂

    • Robena Grant says:

      Wow, that would have been a fun event. RC sang MI with such gusto. I remember listening to her video when I wrote, but of course I had to choose Dino because Mama Rosetta gets crushes. ; )

      I enjoyed the setting in your recent release, Courting His Favorite Nurse. I could sense the place. It was very familiar to me.

  3. Thanks for the wonderful blog Roben. As one of three panel members set to discuss setting at the upcoming Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Chicago (April 11-15), you blog could not be more timely.
    Ever since attending a year of university abroad, I have adored travel and immersing in foreign settings. The United Kingdom was my residence for that year and I absolutely fell in love with the place and its people. Little did I know that years later I would be an author and writing about those place and people. Since that time I try to get over there as often as I can to explore new setting and walk the walk as you term it.

    The internet is perhaps the most wonderful research tool ever invented, but it has not of yet produce smello-vision or enable the researcher to have that leisurely visceral experience of sitting back and just listening/watching/breathing in the surrounds.

    I adore your suggestions of local visits to ethnic enclaves, language CDs and music to set the mood. It is an inexpensive way to walk the walk for those who either can’t afford the time or cash to go to the homeland.

    I was talking to prolific author and playwright, Robert Hecker, at the last romance writer’s meeting. He said that when a flower is called for in setting in his work he uses the only two he knows–roses or bougenvilleas.

    “All the houses, parks and landscapes have them, don’t you know” He gave a nod and a wink of course, but it well demonstrated the natural tendency for authors to rely on their memory or past knowledge without adding the richness of actual present experience and research. Risking being called on incorrect information by readers who either live in the setting or have walked the walk is fraught with embarrassing possibilities.

    How much fun is missed if you don’t take the time to walk the walk. It is one of the most wonderful parts of being a writer–the ability and desire to create the tone. It makes this the best job in the world!
    Christine London

    • Robena Grant says:

      Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful comments, Christine. I’ve always known that you and I share a love for similar countries, France, Italy, England, Scotland, and of course, Australia.

      Good luck with your talk at RT. That would be a fun one and worth going to hear. Although I’m not attending. : ) Hope you’re doing a slide show as you have taken and shared some gorgeous photographs.

  4. Roz Lee says:

    Great post, Robena! This brings back wonderful memories of nearly twenty years living in the San Diego area. There are so many of these little enclaves in and around the heart of old San Diego and each one is a treasure. Thanks for taking me back, and best of luck with the writing!

    • Robena Grant says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Roz. I’ve always liked SD. Used to take the kids down there when they were young; however, I’d never been to Little Italy before.

  5. Now I’m embarrassed. I grew up in San Diego, and I never knew we had a Little Italy. I imagine that has something to do with my leaving town at 19, just when I would otherwise have been exploring the city in my new car…

    • Robena Grant says:

      Ha ha. Christine, you are so funny. I didn’t know there was a Little Italy so close by my own town, until I googled. I knew there was one in SF but didn’t relish the trip. So easy to drive an hour and a half and then to enjoy such pleasure.

  6. I went to college in San Diego and didn’t know there was a Little Italy either! Must check it out the next time I visit. You’ve painted a beautiful picture for me. 🙂

    • Robena Grant says:

      It’s lovely to stroll around and go in and out of the stores and eat at the sidewalk cafes. But learning the history was the thing I found so enchanting.

  7. Anne Kemp says:

    I absolutely love finding any “Little Italy” when I travel – from San Fran, to NYC, Baltimore, Md and San Diego…the food is the BEST and the people are the most entertaining folks you will ever meet!

    Fun blog!

    • Robena Grant says:

      Yes, Anne. The people are wonderful to watch. There is such a richness to not only their spoken words but their mannerisms. I adore Italians. I once had an Italian boyfriend named Carlo. Strange how the hero in my story has the same name. ; )

  8. Gina B. says:

    Hi Robena,

    I love the setting for your book, and the pictures are wonderful!

    I usually need to walk the terrain of where I set a story…it definitely sparks the imagination to experience what the location looks, smells, and feels like.

    I lived in San Diego for several years and never visited Little Italy, but next time I’m there, I must!

    • Robena Grant says:

      I keep forgetting you lived there, Gina. It’s funny how many LARA members have lived in SD. Funny that you never visited Little Italy. And yes, you do write setting as a secondary character. I always know where I am in your stories, especially your snow scenes. I can always feel the cold. : )

  9. What a great blog. I haven’t been down to San Diego in years. Your blog made me think it’s time I go back!

  10. Robena Grant says:

    Hi, Kathy! Maybe we should make it a field trip. Cappucino and Amaretto cookies anyone?

  11. londonmabel says:

    Nice post! I love books where the setting feels like a character–every time I read a Jane Langton mystery, I want to go to the town where it’s set. I don’t know if I achieve that in my writing, but it’s something I aspire to. 🙂

  12. Carol says:

    Yes, setting with such flavors and music is like another character in a novel. Very important. Love all things Italian and Italy, too.

    Have you ever seen the Cary Grant/Sophia Loren movie House Boat? She sings MI. A favorite movie.

    • Robena Grant says:

      Carol, how did I know you’d love all things Italian? : )
      I think I can recall House Boat. I’m a huge CG fan and think I’ve seen every movie he ever made. Now I’m going to have to google that too.

  13. I spent 5 years in San Diego (minus 2 or 3 short sabbaticals). I love Little Italy there.
    Setting is my weak link. So weak, in fact that I keep procrastinating instead of making a decision about where to set my wip.

    • Robena Grant says:

      I did not know that about you, Judy. I love SD.
      And yeah, I hear you on setting. I love description, and I have to forcibly hold myself back from doing too much.