I first met Jim at Left Coast Crime in 2016, when I was a debut author. That’s when I met Ellie Stone as well, and I love reading this series. I’m delighted to welcome Jim back to the blog to talk about Turn to Stone, the latest Ellie Stone
Three Interesting Research Challenges for TURN TO STONE
by James W. Ziskin
I write a series of traditional mysteries set in the early 1960s, featuring plucky young newspaper reporter Ellie Stone. In the latest installment, TURN TO STONE, I send Ellie to Florence, Italy, where she investigates the mysterious death of the man who invited there to accept a posthumous award for her father.
Since the series takes place in the early 1960s, research presents challenges at every turn. These turns can be fascinating. In the case of Italy in 1963, the research was even harder due to the language, but also the availability of documentation.
The straight historical research was the easy part. Much of the book’s plot centers on what happened during the twenty-year Fascist era in Italy and the Second World War. The dates and events are well documented. But there were a few other areas that made for a difficult time in getting the facts right. I’ve decided to concentrate on three of those today: food, transportation, and music.
- Food. This may seem straightforward at first, but my motto is “know what you don’t know.” That goes for writing and anything else. Many smart authors have tripped over their own misconceptions, and readers love to point it out when they do. I try to question every sentence, every word I put in my novels. I may miss some, but it’s a wise strategy nevertheless. It also helps in the line editing stage. You’d be surprised how many errors, plot holes, and typos can be discovered by challenging every word. For the food in TURN TO STONE, I relied on restaurant menus from the era to pick popular dishes my characters would be eating at Villa Bel Soggiorno. And, lucky for me, I remembered very well that Americans did not generally use the Italian word “pasta” back in the sixties, except in dishes like “pasta fasool” (pasta e fagioli). The word pasta came into popular usage in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States. Google’s Ngram Viewer is a handy tool that aids in this kind of research. https://books.google.com/ngrams
And here is a menu from the period, including prices in lire.
- Transportation. I wanted the air travel to be as accurate as possible in this—and all—my books. Americans have a great love affair for nostalgia, and it’s obvious to see by surfing the Internet. I found actual Pam Am flight information for the time period of TURN TO STONE, and I used it. Google searches often turn up treasures, especially the photos. But there’s also eBay. Lots of historical items can be found there.
- Popular music. When writing a book set in the past, I find it’s important to include some of the popular songs from the era in question. It helps create a sense of time and place. But just as not all cars on the street today are from 2020 or 2019, so music tends to hang around when it’s no longer brand new. That’s a why I always try to include some music that predates the year in question. For TURN TO STONE, I used popular Italian songs from 1962 and 1963, but also some from the fifties, like “Volare.” One interesting detail that emerged from my research of the Italian hit parade of 1963: Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, Andy Williams, and Petula Clark all had hits that year. And they were all sung in Italian. Can you imagine Beyoncé recording songs in Italian today? The world has changed, and Italians seem quite willing to listen to American music in its original language.
An added treat in TURN TO STONE is Ellie’s discovery of the Beatles. They were not yet well known in the US in September of 1963. They hit it big with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in December of 1963. It went on to be their first number 1 record in America.
These are just three of the fascinating research areas that made TURN TO STONE a lot of fun to write. There were plenty of others as well. I hope readers will find the same enjoyment reading about them as I had writing about them.
About TURN TO STONE:
It’s September 1963. Ellie is in Italy to attend an academic symposium honoring her late father. Just as she arrives in Florence, she learns that her host, Professor Alberto Bondinelli, has been fished out of the Arno, quite dead. Then a suspected rubella outbreak leaves ten of the symposium participants quarantined in a villa outside the city with little to do but tell stories to entertain themselves. Making the best of their confinement, the men and women spin tales and gorge themselves on fine Tuscan food and wine. And as they do, long-buried secrets about Bondinelli rise to the surface, and Ellie must figure out if one or more of her companions is capable of murder.
About James W. Ziskin
James W. Ziskin (Jim) is the author of the Anthony and Macavity Award-winning Ellie Stone Mysteries. His books have also been finalists for the Edgar®, Barry, and Lefty awards. He was the director of NYU’s Casa Italiana before spending fifteen years in Hollywood running international subtitling and visual effects operations. He speaks Italian and French. Jim can be reached through his website www.jameswziskin.com or on Twitter @jameswziskin.