A few years ago, an acquaintance told me a story about his search for his family’s roots in Italy. He had tracked down some distant cousins through the internet, and he and his wife made plans to travel to Italy and meet his relatives. Off they went—affluent Americans laden with gifts, off to the coastal town from which his forefathers had sailed to America. When they arrived, they were greeted warmly, gifts were graciously received and a fine feast was laid out in celebration. Language was a minor barrier when hearts were so expansive. Still, the local priest, who spoke fluent English, was summoned to translate.
The grandmother of the family bade the Americans sit at the table she had prepared with her best linens and silver, while she served them the specialty dishes of the region: octopus, mussels, orecchiette, calzoni and fried polenta. When the priest arrived, he attempted to trace the family connection. Almost immediately it became obvious, not only that the Americans were not related, but also that they were kin of a rival family. The matriarch didn’t hesitate. Picking up the corners of the tablecloth, she whisked away the food, plates and all and shoved the bewildered Americans out the door. She kept the gifts.
I found this story so hilarious, in so many ways, that I became determined to write it as a short story—and I did. But during the process, I uncovered another story, one so compelling, that I couldn’t ignore it. Here’s how it happened…
I needed a setting for my story. In a different life, my husband had been to Italy to visit the relatives of his then girlfriend, and he suggested I place my story in Bari, a port on the southern coast of Italy. He remembered an old section of the city that had been standing since the heyday of the Roman Empire, and a medieval basilica that housed the relics of St. Nicholas. Perfect for my family and my priest. But that was just the beginning. The more I researched Bari, the more fascinating I found its history. How did the bones of St. Nicholas—the popular saint of Christmas—come to rest in Bari, when he lived, died and was buried a thousand miles away in the town of Myra in Lycia, now Turkey? And there were other questions, questions about Bari’s more recent history, questions about the bombing of Bari during World War II that changed the city and its people forever. I had to find the answers. And the answers called for something more than a story. They became a novel.
One of the great joys of writing a novel is the need to do research—it gives you a guilt-free respite from having to actually write and, as a bonus, you get to learn about all sorts of neat stuff. “Secrets of Bari” required research into two completely distinct eras of history, covering dress, speech, technology, religion, geography, weapons and weather, as well as momentous historic events. I travelled to Italy where I met with an anthropologist, an archeologist, Dominican and Resistanza historians, and a priest who is a world-renowned authority on the life of St. Nicholas. For the modern story, experts on and off the internet shared with me copious amounts of data about robotics, prosthetics, and medical conditions.
It is truly amazing how many details you can unearth about life seventy or even nine hundred years ago. The bombing of Bari during World War II is a little-known event, but a few excellent books and online articles by survivors of the disaster gave me a window into the shock and horror of the experience. The Middle Ages, on the other hand, have been described in countless books, movies and TV shows down to painstaking detail—except for one thing: Italian merchant ships in the late 11th century.
A key portion of “Secrets of Bari” takes place on the Mediterranean Sea in 1087, and recounts the experiences of a young boy aboard a ship bound for the Lycian town of Myra (now in Turkey) for the purpose of stealing the remains of St. Nicholas. When Tom and I travelled to Bari for the Festival of St. Nicholas, Dr. Antonio Brusa, professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Bari, took us into the restricted archives of the Museo della Cattedrale where we were thrilled to watch him extract antique parchments from a drawer marked 1087. Later, Fr. Gerardo Cioffari of the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari was kind enough to direct me to two detailed accounts of the translation of the bones to Bari, one written the week the remains arrived, the other in the 13th century.
I was excited to discover that the Basilica archives even contain a manifest with the names of all the sailors who were on board during that fateful voyage. There they were, sixty-two sailors, priests and merchants listed by name: Commandante Alberto, Stefano Tarantino, Gittagno, Summo, Leone Pilillo, Disigio and Matteo or Matthew, the sailor who smashed through the bishop’s crypt and bathed in the oil from his bones. All at once my characters came alive, their quest no longer just a story, but the adventure of real men who lived and died and who lay beneath my feet, having been honored for their service with burial under the Basilica. It was a week of such discoveries, so I was surprised that no one was able to shed light on the number or names of the ships that participated in the quest, or even the type of ship. What to do?
Popular culture has planted some ideas in our minds about old ships. If you were asked to picture an ancient Roman or Greek ship, you could probably conjure up a fairly accurate image of a long boat with a sweeping prow, a single mast and rows of oars issuing from the sides. Likewise, an ancient Viking ship would be easily imagined as a narrow, shallow vessel with tall posts at each end crowned with ferocious serpent or dragon heads. Descriptions and images of these ships abound in books and online, as well as in epic films about Biblical times, going back two and three millennia. You are probably familiar with later ships too—the ships that carried Columbus to America, carracks and caravels with raised decks and deep holds and three or four sails.
I scoured the library and the internet for information on the history of ships, but like the images in my mind, there was a frustrating gap about ships during the specific time and place of my story. Archeologists have not found any shipwrecks dating from that period, so we are in an area of what is delicately known as historical speculation. Was Matthew’s ship clinker built with overlapping planks or carvel-built with planks laid edge-to-edge over a skeletal frame? Was it powered by a square or lateen sail? Was it long and narrow like the northern hulk or flat-bottomed with towers fore and aft, like the cog? The next 300 years would be a time of transition for shipbuilding throughout Europe. In a few years, travel would expand with the first Crusade, and developments in navigation would lead to the building of faster, more sophisticated merchant ships with multiple masts, greater storage capacity and navigation techniques making them capable of extended voyages on the open sea. In 1087, however, single-masted ships navigated by the stars at night and crawled along the coast by day.
In Secrets of Bari, the vessel that carries Matthew and the Barian crew to Myra is modeled on earlier Roman merchant ships, with some features, such as the raised forecastle, that were developing in Northern Europe at the time and would soon be common in the region. Both square and lateen sails were used during the period; I’ve chosen the lateen, or triangular sail, because it was popular on ships venturing into the open sea, as it allowed a vessel to tack into the wind. Thus, we have Matthew’s ship—a hybrid of the boats of the earlier part of the millennium and the rapidly evolving ships of the later Middle Ages.
Research into real people, places and historical events can yield fabulously enriching discovery and detail—or frustrating dead ends. But thankfully, novels are by definition fiction, and where evidence is in short supply, we can use what we know to make an educated guess about the mysteries that still prevail.
Everyone tells me I’m a really good cook. A gourmet cook. Friends, family, my book group—all rave about the dinners and desserts I prepare for them. Dinners like lobster paella or herb marinated Greek lamb with yogurt mint sauce, and desserts such as Valrhona chocolate mousse with fresh berry coulis, crème fraiche and homemade hazelnut praline crisp. When company is coming, I sometimes spend two or three days in the kitchen, planning, prepping, timing. And often, I’m proud of the result. I’ve been told I should start a restaurant.
But I do not think I am a good cook. In fact, with every meal, I am terrified that I won’t be able to pull it off.
To me, a great cook is someone who scavenges through the refrigerator—or the farmers market— and throws together ordinary ingredients to make something fabulous. Someone who intuitively knows what will work, someone who has such flair that they can create a memorable meal in an hour. Someone who chops and stirs and whisks and sautes while also talking up guests and pouring a new wine she has discovered. In other words, a cook with talent.
What I have is the willingness to spend hours scouring cookbooks to find a recipe that I’m confident I can make, then days prepping and preparing, so I’m not caught off guard on the day of. Yes, my plate is beautifully presented with a garnish of homemade chutney—but only because I spent three hours making it two nights ago. And only because I followed the recipe, step-by-step. If the meal is great, it is because I was willing to put in the work.
Writing is like that. I know there are talented people out there who can whip off bestsellers at the rate of one a year. And there are creative writers whose sentences flow so beautifully, you want to read them over and over to bask in their loveliness. I, personally, hate those writers. For most of us, writing is just a lot of hard work. Yes, there are those glorious moments when my character takes off and writes herself, when I don’t know how the words appeared on the page. Bravo! That’s what makes it all worthwhile. But most of the time, my writing gets on the page because I forced myself to plan and outline and research and revise. I am driven by the same terror that drives my cooking—terror that I can’t do it, so, in order to do it well, I have to put in the work.
Once, my husband Tom suggested that I make something “easy” for our company meal. Relax, he said; keep it casual (I think he was hoping it would relieve him of sous chef duties…). So I bought taco kits, chopped a few onions and tomatoes, and put out bowls of the ingredients for guests to make their own. I can’t say how it went over—our friends may have loved it—but I was too busy feeling humiliated to notice.
So ultimately it’s about what works for me. Do I always feel like cooking for company? No, but if I know they are coming, I get the cookbooks out and start making lists. Do I always feel like writing? Absolutely not. In fact, I’d almost always rather do anything else, from playing solitaire to folding the laundry. Writing is terrifying. What if I can’t pull it off? But I’ve learned, just as with cooking, the more time that goes into it, the more confident I can be of the result.