Stephen Leigh & S.L. Farrell

Roaming at the intersection of fiction and reality

Research & Writing

(NOTE: this was written as I was writing the draft of IMMORTAL MUSE, back in 2012 or 2013)

As a writer, I love it when things like this fall together. I'm just not sure that it's good that I love it...

In my novel-in-progress, I have chapters that take place all over historical times, using fictionalized versions of genuine characters. In the chapter I'm currently writing, I have Anna Giraud, the paramour of Vivaldi, as the POV character. In researching as I was putting together the proposal for the novel, I came across a quote from the journal of Carlo Goldoni—a contemporary Italian playwright—who called Vivaldi "an excellent violinist but a mediocre composer" and said of Anna that "she has a small voice but many languages in which to harangue." Evidently Goldoni was not a fan....

I put the Goldoni quote in the proposal just for fun and historical context. Now, months later, I was writing that section and decided, hey, I might as well have Goldoni as a minor character, so I had Anna overhear Goldoni giving that quote about Vivaldi and Anna to a friend, as dialogue. And since I'd placed and described Goldoni as a character, I figured I should keep using him rather than making up new characters. I planned to have Goldoni make a return as an accessory character in a later scene.

Now, that later scene takes place in an opera house in Venice in 1737. Mind you, I could have easily made up an opera house. The only person who might have objected would be the lone Venetian scholar (Hi, David!) who would write to inform me that that there was no such opera house in 1737 Venice and therefore he was thrown entirely out of the story. No one else reading the novel was going to be able to tell that I'd completely made up the opera house and its location in 1737; heck, no reader's likely to be able to tell me the name and location of an opera house in Venice today, much less almost three centuries ago.

So I should just make up the name and plow ahead, right?

Yeah. I should have. I didn't.

I started out intending to do that, honest. But in the scene before, Vivaldi is telling Anna where they're going that night, so I needed a name, and it also seemed 'natural' in that conversation for him to mention the program they'd be viewing. I could've made that up too, or just given it all a handwave: "We're going to the theater tonight, Anna; there's a new opera playing that I want to hear..." Or, alternately, I could have just inserted placeholder names and gone back later to fill them in.

It just didn't seem realistic enough to me. And hey, if I'm writing to satisfy anyone, I'm writing to satisfy me. So...

Research! I kicked up the browser and started googling. From a listing of Italian operas, I found several likely candidates that had their premier around the same time, and eventually chose Pergolesi's Il prigioniero superbo (The Proud Prisoner), which was performed first in Naples in 1733, so it was newer and might just be coming to Venice. The opera was an opera seria, or serious dramatic piece, but it was performed with a buffa (comedic) intermezzo, La serva padrona ("The Servant Mistress"), also by Pergolesi. "The Proud Prisoner" wasn't all that well-received then and time hasn't changed that opinion—it's long forgotten and never performed. However, "The Servant Mistress" was evidently rather well-liked, and still receives occasional play. I rather liked this contrast, and so decided that would be the opera that Vivaldi and Anna go to see.

Okay, one detail done. But where? I looked up some theaters in Venice that perform opera, but nearly all of them are far too new, or use buildings which (like the Doge's Palace) have been re-purposed for performance and in Vivaldi's time weren't theatrical venues.

After more judicious googling, I came across an academic site that listed operatic venues in Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries. That helped, though it seems that theaters in Venice (as in other cities of the time) regularly burned down—there were theaters a'plenty that had opened in the late 1700s, but not so many earlier in the century, and many of those built in the late 1600s were, umm, gone by 1737. But one of the early theaters, I learned, the Teatro Vendramin di San Salvador, was built in 1622, was operating in Vivaldi's day, and was a premier venue of the time.

Even better, I found out that the theater still exists (though many, many times remodeled), and is still a theater. I could place it precisely in Venice and even look at satellite images. Even better, I discovered that it was renamed in 1875: to Teatro Goldoni. Yep, that's right: the very same Carlo Goldoni I'd decided to use in this section as a character.

Serendipity like that simply can't be ignored. Obviously, I had to use that name. Anna and Vivaldi were to attend the opera at the Teatro San Salvador, where they would meet Goldoni... for whom the theater, in our own time, would be named. Wow, that was true serendipity. I grinned as I typed in the dialogue in Scrivener.

Bear in mind that for those three words, Teatro San Salvador, I'd spent at least two hours researching, hours in which I could have written far more words, had I simply created a frigging name out of whole cloth and gone with it. Bear in mind, too, that no reader would have known or much cared that I made up the name of a theater. Bear in mind that no reader (unless they've read this post) is going to know or care that the Teatro San Salvador was a genuine opera house or that it's now the Teatro Goldoni. My readers aren't going to make the connection.

But I'm happy, knowing that. I'm pleased that I can look at a few photos of the interior and exterior and thus have a better mental image of the real place, rather than a 'generic' setting I made up. To me, the research was worth the time. Mostly. I think so, anyway. On the other hand, it's a lot of work for little gain, and no reader's going to notice.

What about you, you writers out there? Do you sometimes fall into obsessive researching -- even at the cost of production? Or do you disconnect your browser when you're writing?