Sunday, March 9, 2014

Research diary: Part 1 of 2

After writing about my writing process last week (see here), I started thinking again about my research process as well.  After all, the original intent of this blog was to explore the research process, though in practice it has often turned into sharing research results.  

I find that research never entirely ceases.   Though the preliminary reading and organizing for my work in progress is done and I am now writing, hardly a day goes by when I don't have to hit the books for something:  to clarify a point, find a date or other bit of information, check a detail, or just to pursue a new line of thought that has emerged in the course of writing.  

So I decided to post a research diary for one six-day week, and to give each day's research a star rating of one to five, based on how successful it was (or wasn't).  I'll post the first three days this week, and the last three in another week.  Here goes:


Research problem:  My main character was lady of the castle in a place called Marino, not far from Rome.  I need to know something about what Marino was like in the early 13th century, and whether it would be worthwhile traveling there to learn more.

View of Marino from a nearby villa, Gaspar Van Wittel, 1719

What I find:  I learn that there is an Ikea in Marino.  Also that it's possible to sign up for zumba classes.  Somehow I don't think either of these applies to my characters.  Searching further, I learn that much damage was done during WWII when the town was bombed; that and the fact that many of the tourist sites seem to be later than my time period suggest that it might not be worthwhile to visit.  

Frangipane tower

But I also learn that Marino has a donut festival, which is a plus for visiting, and a wine festival, which is an even bigger plus.  And I find some pictures of surviving medieval towers, which is another plus - and one of them (above) belonged to my character's family, the Frangipane.  I learn that there is a huge lake nearby.  I learn some things about the terrain, and the vegetation that grows there. 

I learned of a nearby quarry that produces "peperino," which is not in my Italian dictionary.  (The closest thing is either the word for "peppers" or the sheep-milk cheese called "pecorino," but I doubt that it was a quarry of either cheese or peppers.)  The internet came through this time.  It means "tufa."

The prize:  During the wine festival, a fountain in the heart of the city is made to flow with wine, free for the taking (which results, apparently, in a rather boisterous festival).  One year, the transformation of water to wine was announced, and the mayor and other dignitaries held out their cups, only to find them filled with - water.  Much consternation ensued, until suddenly a woman inside a nearby building cried out, "Miracolo!"  It seems that someone had made a slight mistake, and the wine was flowing out of her kitchen tap instead of the fountain.  Can I use this story?  No.  Do I love it anyway?  You bet.

Star rating:  ****  Promising results, fun story.  Do I visit?  Maybe.


Research problem:  It's written in the earliest biographies of Saint Francis that on his deathbed he called for the Roman noblewoman Lady Giacoma dei Settesoli (my main character) to come to him, and to bring with her some of the almond sweets that she used to make for him when he visited Rome.   What, exactly, were those sweets?

What I find:  Many, many people have tried to reconstruct them.  They are often said to be similar to mostaccioli (not the pasta version, but an almond cookie popular around Rome).  Another source calls them mortarioli, but when I request a definition of that, an online dictionary sniffs, "Did you spell that right?" - thereby revealing its ignorance.  Hmpf.  Then it goes on to suggest that maybe I mean "mortuaries," or possibly "mortarboards."  Hmpf, again.

Others think that what Giacoma brought to the saint was something closer to frangipani, an almond-flavored cream pastry filling named for her husband's family, the Frangipane.  I looked at dozens of recipes.  The ingredients listed in the earliest writings about Francis were simple:  almonds, honey, spice, eggs, flour.  You'd be amazed at the variations.  

They all have almonds, however.  There is a bit of a debate about whether Giacoma used sugar or honey.  The sugar group says that she was wealthy and therefore could have afforded the expensive commodity.  The honey group says that sugar at that time was mostly used for medicinal purposes, and honey is the likelier sweetener.

Purchasing sugar
Or was it honey?
Some modern recipes for mostaccioli include chocolate, which was obviously not part of Giacoma's version.  I also discount the ones that involve Crisco and self-rising flour, as well as vanilla extract, dark rum, and baking powder.

Mostaccioli often use grape must, which is tempting, except I don't happen to have any.  So I proceed with this list of ingredients:  blanched almonds, honey, cinnamon, egg whites, and flour.  And just for good measure, I also make some frangipani to slosh on the almond thingies, which look like they're going to need some help.

The results?  Well, remember about how the WWII bombing wrecked a lot of older buildings in Marino?  Let's just say that if they had been built out of these almond cakes and mortared together with frangipani, they'd probably still be there.  They tasted fine, but they were dense.

Star rating:  ***  Nothing definitive, but at least I managed to give some thought to the ingredients.  Plus there were almond cakes.  With frangipani.


Research problem:  I want to find out when the controversial Brother Elias joined Saint Francis's band of brothers.  

What I find:  I satisfy myself that he was not part of the original small group of brothers who traveled to Rome, which is the point where my story begins.  And I satisfy myself that he was part of the group by 1212, which is the year where Giacoma's next encounter with the saint is to take place.  But I cannot find out exactly when he joined. There are thousands of biographies of Francis of Assisi, and I own several, have looked at many more from various libraries, and have pursued this question while in Assisi, and I absolutely can't pin it down.  Francis's dates are notoriously elusive, and scholars often disagree on the exact year in which something happened, let alone the month and day.  Do I need to know exactly when he joined?  Well, no, not really.  Would I like to know?  Of course I would.  

Brother Elias is almost certainly one of the friars depicted in Giotto's painting of the verification of Saint Francis's stigmata, above.  It was Elias who wrote the letter announcing both Francis's death and the miracle of the stigmata to the order.  The only known contemporary portrait of Elias has not survived.

Brother Elias is a fascinating character, an enigma, controversial in his time and since, who died estranged from the Franciscan order and just barely reconciled with the Catholic church, yet who was instrumental in the creation of the great Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.  One find in this frustrating research journey:  an article by a Catholic businessman who credits Brother Elias with being the CEO of Francis's order.

Basilica di San Francesco

Star rating: *  Not helpful.  So, I assign him a probable date of entry into the order.  It's not certain, but it's as educated a guess as I can come up with.  And it invokes my emergency mantra for such things:  "Dammit, Jim, I'm a novelist, not a historian."

Come back next week for the second half of my research diary:  a visit to Assisi, Christmas in Greccio, and traveling the Via Francigena.

Images in this post are in the public domain either because of their age or because of the generosity of a photographer who released his/her work into the public domain on Wikimedia Commons, except for the picture of the Basilica, which is my husband's.  Thank you, photographers.


Jo Haraf said...

Having visited Assisi and St. Francis' tomb, I find your posts especially interesting. I love your emergency manta; I hope you and Dr. McCoy don't mind if I borrow it.

Prue Batten said...

This is a wonderful journey through your novel and i look forward to next week with delight. Sometimes when I am on a run with my narrative and don't want to stop to check facts, I write the piece in question in red, so that I can go back and check during one of the many edits.
Re the almond concoction, I used one for the 12th century called gaylede which was essentially almond paste stuffed into figs/raisins or hard bread. Sounds quite yummy but I think your mostaccioli would be even more so!

Nancy Jardine said...

I haven't actually broken down the many digressions I make during my researching but I do tend to do the same as you, Tinney, in that I check,check and do more checking- Gradgrind from Dickens 'Hard Times' doesn't have a look on us!

Tinney Heath said...

Jo, I love Assisi. My husband and I were able to spend three weeks there last November, and I would go back in a moment. As for the mantra, I can't speak for McCoy, but I think all of us who write hf need it! Prue, I think the best of the lot might be almond paste stuffed into figs. That sounds wonderful. What you put in red, I usually put in brackets - makes it easy to search, later. Nancy, you're right. We check and recheck and worry at it, much of the time for information that won't find its way into the book at all. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

Dorothy said...

May I just say that wine + donuts + Ikea = perfect reasons to visit, research be damned! :)

Tinney Heath said...

Well, yes, Dorothy, but the two festivals are at totally different times, alas. Re Ikea, have you read Christopher Moore's book The Stupidest Angel ("A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror")? In it, the newly-emerged zombies decide that as soon as they finish snacking on some brains, they'd really like to head on over to Ikea. He never quite clarifies what the connection is between Danish modern furniture and zombies, but somehow it works.