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Sunday, July 24, 2011

USING YOUR ETHNIC HERITAGE IN YOUR WRITING



USING YOUR ETHNIC HERITAGE IN YOUR WRITING



by



Cara Marsi


You’ve all heard the old adage, “Write what you know.” Of course, we do research to write about places we’ve never visited, or we make up our own worlds. But regardless of what worlds we writers imagine, we put a little bit of ourselves into everything we write.

I hadn’t thought of using my ethnic heritage in my writing until my third book. In the first two books I wrote (one published, one not), my heroes and heroines had Irish/English names, as do most characters in American books. Face it, we Americans have an easier time pronouncing English, Irish, Scottish and German names than we do Italian, Polish, French, etc.

When I decided to write my third book, I had an epiphany. Why not make at least one of my protagonists of Italian descent, as I am? Thus, Doriana Callahan, the heroine of my romantic suspense, Logan’s Redemption, originally from The Wild Rose Press and now available on Amazon Kindle, BN Nook and Smashwords. Doriana, named after a woman I know who is an immigrant from Rome, Italy, is half Italian, half Irish. Doriana has the quintessential Italian mother, loving, but intrusive, named after one of my favorite aunts. Doriana’s Nana lives in South Philadelphia and is a sweet, tiny elderly Italian woman who is a terrific cook, modeled after my husband’s grandmother and mine. I had such fun writing these people because they are so familiar and dear to me. I put in a scene where Doriana, her mother, her cousin, and Nana are making Italian wedding soup. My cousins make wedding soup together every year.

I used my ethnic heritage again in my romantic suspense novella, Murder, Mi Amore, available now from The Wild Rose Press. Murder, Mi Amore is set almost entirely in Rome, Italy, with an Italian hero and an Italian-American heroine. I even included a whole chapter set in the small town in Abruzzo where my grandparents were raised. Writing Murder, Mi Amore brought back memories of my trip to Italy in 2006. Every bit of setting — the hotel where my heroine Lexie stays, the streets she travels, even the food she eats — are authentic, based on my own experiences. However, unlike my heroine and hero, I wasn’t chased through Rome by very bad people trying to kill me.

In the past two years I’ve sold a dozen short romance stories, most of them to the confession magazines. I’ve used Italian and Polish names for many of my short story characters too. You have to be careful when using ethnic last names. The names must be easy to pronounce - like Russo, DiMarco, Novak, Morelli, Brioni, Cortese. You don’t want readers tripping over the names.

But then there’s my werewolf paranormal, Cursed Mates, available now from Noble Romance Publishing. No ethnic names there. My hero is an English nobleman who happens to be over 500 years old. I’d originally given my heroine an Eastern European first and last name, but that didn’t work for various reasons. Now she has a name which better suits her, even if it’s not exactly ethnic.

Writing characters who are familiar, who might have a shared background with you, can make for stronger stories. But the name has to fit the character. I used an English name for the hero of Cursed Mates because being a tortured English nobleman is a big part of my story and of this character.

I’ll use an ethnic name whenever it fits, but I know, regardless of ethnicity, the characters’ names must tell the readers a little bit about them.

22 comments:

Tina Donahue said...

Great idea, Cara. I've never thought of using my particular ethnic heritage (mixture of a lot of things) in any of my books.

Maeve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maeve said...

Let me try this comment again now that I've had enough coffee to SPELL correctly. SHEESH!! Here's what I "meant" to say:

I think when you write your ethnic heritage, your words echo with deep, heartfelt emotions. Great post!

Julianne said...

HI Cara, yes. I do. Like you, my family's from Italy *waves*. I have several mss shoved in the drawer, but I decided on the first one, that I would always try to have at least one Italian character in every story I write, when possible. :)

Cara Marsi said...

Thank you for posting, Tina, Maeve and Julianne. I agree that when you write characters who share your heritage, you can tap into deeper emotions. And I do try to have at least one character of Italian heritage in most of what I write.

Miriam Newman said...

I've only had the courage to tackle one side of my family tree. Many of my books draw on the Irish half of my pedigree and it's always a delight writing them. I have incorporated scenes straight out of actual events at the family dinner table and laughed all the while. It brings back such great memories.

TessStJohn said...

Cara, I do love how you've managed to get so much heritage into your characters! They're a joy to read.

I've put in a couple of little Cajun people, like my mom and dad, in one of my stories.

The Sweater Curse said...

The titled of your post really caught my eye. I love to use my ethnic heritage in my writing. In this small way, I feel I'm helping to promote my Icelandic-Canadian culture. Like yourself, however, I try to pick names that will be easy to pronounce for those who don't share my culture. My motto: Leave no reader behind.
Thank you for this interesting post. It may inspire one of my own. At any rate, I will definately link to it.

Cara Marsi said...

Miriam and Tess, thanks for posting. Miriam, I love your Irish stories. And Tess, you know how much I love your books. Cajuns are cool.

Cara Marsi said...

Thank you, Sweater Curse (love that name). Wow, Icelandic-Canadian. I'd like to read more about that culture. Very cool that you too use your heritage in your writing.

The Sweater Curse said...

Thank you Cara. Your reply has encouraged me to do some self-promotion. I hope you don't mind. Book info... The Sweater Curse by Leanne Dyck released by Decadent Publishing
It's a thriller with touches of romance.
I love your blog and I will be back.

Sue Palmer Fineman said...

Good idea, Cara. I often use family names and descriptions.

Sandy said...

I have thought about writing an inspirational about Quakers, which is a part of my earlier heritage. My ancesters were German/Dutch, but so far I can't seem to get enthused about it.

jean hart stewart said...

I've drawn on my British heritage heavily, but ignored the rest of the alphabet soup. Wonder what a psychistrist would make of that? Jean

Aileen said...

I admit to the Irish name thingie (or Irish/Scottish/English) but that's because it's part of my heritage. But I also have some Native Americans running around in there. Mostly I pick b what suits the story.

Aileen said...

I admit to the Irish name thingie (or Irish/Scottish/English) but that's because it's part of my heritage. But I also have some Native Americans running around in there. Mostly I pick b what suits the story.

Cara Marsi said...

No problem, Sweater Curse. Thanks, Sue, Jean, Sandy and Aileen. My very first book (never pubbed) featured a Native American hero, but I gave him an English name. I want to rewrite that book but this time I'll give him an Indian last name. It's fun to draw on your heritage and on things you know, which is why I set most of my stories in Delaware, PA or NJ.

Paris said...

Loved your post, Cara:) I've used my Italian/Polish heritage in a couple of my stories and looking back have to admit they were the most fun to write!

LaVerne Clark said...

Excellent post Cara.

I've a WIP shelved until I finish my current project. The heroine's name is Aroha - Maori for Love. Hard to believe from the look of this incredibly pale-skinned girl : ), but I have Maori ancestors and they fascinate me. I'm actually itching to tell Aroha's story!

Cara Marsi said...

Paris, thanks for posting. My husband is Italian/Ukranian. My first boyfriend was Polish. It is fun to write about people whose backgrounds you know so well.

Laverne, cool about your Maori ancestors. Please write Aroha's story. I want to read it.

Clare Austin said...

Hi Cara, I'm glad you brought up this idea. I frequently use the Irish...language and culture, as I did in my books Butterfly and Angel's Share. I also used both Italian and Irish characters in my novel Hot Flash. It was great fun to mix it up!
Cheers,
Clare Austin

Cara Marsi said...

Clare, thanks for posting. It is fun to mix it up. Since so many of my cousins are Italian/Irish, I liked having an Italian/Irish heroine.

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