Monday, November 16, 2009

Santorini: An Occasional Series

It’s been a while since I did a post on Santorini, the Greek island where most of my novel is set. I was fortunate enough to live on the island for almost three years as a kid.

While the last posts I did talked about the music I remember during my time there, and how the island kind of was, this post will discuss something you'll relate to: the need for research.

My memories of the island are shaky because I haven’t been there in twenty years. That being said, there are parts of the island that are ingrained in my mind--the pistachio orchard that was my playground or the dusty, hot hill we lived on and which I have my main character living on at the end of the novel (that's me with my dog over there on said dusty, hot hill - age 11).

I thought when I started writing my novel that I would have no trouble at all remembering the island—indeed, my memories would pour out and voila. In point of fact, this was very much not the case. Much has changed in the last twenty years, like technology. When I lived on the island, few people had phones and if someone had a VCR in their house it was considered an extravagant luxury (and fat good they did because there weren't any video stores). During the 1980s, the old ways of the island were starting to clash with the modern world. There was a central telephone office (OTE) and of course Al Gore hadn’t invented the tinterwebs yet. Now I am given to understand that there are wifi hot spots around the island and the hotels are quite modern and luxurious.

Rediscovering the island through research was one of my favorite things about writing the novel. Google maps and Google Earth were my friends, as were the official web site for the island, numerous travel blogs done by people, random image searches, and of course the live web cam through which I watch the sun set and rise. There were numerous people who run web sites about Greece and the Cycladic islands who were helpful and willing to tell me things I needed to know, and I mined my mother’s memories for details. Still being able to read a little bit of Greek was enormously helpful for those sites in Greek--including a forum I found where guys on the island had posted football (soccer) games they were trying to organize in the small village football pitch that I remembered well. That really blew my mind that the islanders would post requests for games on an internet forum. I also visited bookstores and checked out the guidebooks on Greek islands; almost none were helpful except the Thomas Cook series--the one for Greek islands is extremely well-written and researched. I bought a few guide books and consulted two books on the island that I still have.

Despite all this, the fact remains that I haven’t been back in twenty years. The question arises: can you write accurately about a place you haven’t been to for such a long period of time, or ever? Can you set a novel in a city you’ve never set foot in? I actually think you can; visits to places leave vague impressions at best unless you’re there scouring the streets for research purposes. I fear criticism for not getting the details right if the novel is published, but I did research the heck out of the place. I've put in details like the pebbled mosaic pathways, donkey poop everywhere, and how almost every wall is whitewashed with blue trim, but I constantly questioned whether I conveyed the right image of the island. The only thing left to do is actually go there.


Travener said...

You can write the trip off against any go for it!

Julie Dao said...

Oh how beautiful! I've always wanted to visit Greece and Santorini sounds like a heavenly place to set your novel. I'm actually in sort of an similar position myself, except that it is family members who have been to my setting. I'm sort of living vicariously through them and trying to see the place through their eyes, but it's really tough. There is only so much research you can do about a place, but to truly get the feel of it, you have to go there. I'm sure it will come back to you! And you can always do "field research" and take a little vacation if need be :)

Tina Lynn said...

Yes, I am going to pick your brain when I start writing my MG series set in San Francisco. Be prepared:) I lived in the Bay Area for twenty years, but it was fifteen years ago. Yep, don't remember much.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Travener-- can't wait, and planning on it, but trying to time it right.
Julie -- Agree about the feel of places. That's why guidebooks are so valuable because they give you a flavor for the food and events of a place.
Tina-- Feel free! Ready when you are.

Midlife Jobhunter said...

Yes, I think you can write about a place you haven't been in a long while. Isn't that what we do often as writers? Recreate places we've been?

Would so love to go Santorini. Someday.

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