How to write a book: Part three

The late, great Sandy Ross had a wonderful description about how to write a magazine story. Here it is: “When I sit down to write a magazine piece, I am not writing a long newspaper article, I am writing a short book.”

Following that advice makes the difference between a rambling article that has no apparent structure and guiding your reader through something that is coherent, organized and readable. So, a magazine profile might begin with an anecdote that captures the reader’s attention and establishes a particular characteristic of the person being profiled.

Next comes the “billboard” paragraph that answers the question: Why am I reading this story NOW? A few more paragraphs lay out themes, then there’s a line space, as if the writer took a deep breath, and a paragraph that begins: Amy Amstead Lovell was born in Estevan, Saskatchewan, in 1964. Biographical info follows as well as quotes from her Grade One teacher and best friend in public school. Whatever.

September, the first full chapter in Fantasy in Florence, is what happens after that deep breath. It opens with the back story, Sandy’s mother dying in 2000, Sandy going back to school and how the Florence opportunity came along.

Usually, you begin a book by getting your characters out on stage, since a book is like a three-act play, but in this case I thought I better set the stage first. That’s why there’s a description of our apartment (including our furniture rearranging), then the next circle out, a word picture of the city, followed by what Sandy and the other students will be doing.

OK, now, let’s plunge in and meet somebody. Antonio Belvedere, a waiter at Paoli, was my first sit-down interview. After we’d been served by him one night, I was curious to learn more about him and his profession, so I asked if he’d meet me and he agreed. He not only took me behind the scenes in his business, he became a friend. More important, that successful first step with Antonio propelled me to interview other residents of Florence, much in the same way as I built research for my previous non-fiction books.

The final scene in the chapter, our visit to the walled garden at the Palazzo Vivarelli Colonna, is there for two reasons. First, it is a gem of a place, undiscovered by most visitors. Second, our thoughts as we sat there underscore one of the book’s major themes. In this garden, which represents Florence and our new surroundings in general, we have a begun a journey of discovery not only about the world around, but also about the world within: ourselves.

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