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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Using Your Ethnic Heritage in Your Writing

            This past St. Patrick’s Day got me thinking about my own ethnic heritage. They say everyone is Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. When we were young, my husband and I did our share of partying on that day, although neither of us has a drop of Irish blood.

Last year, my husband and I had our DNA tested. There were no surprises. Our DNA results were close, both of us overwhelmingly Mediterranean with some West Asia (Turkey, etc) thrown in. My husband also has some Eastern European DNA, not surprising since his father’s family is from the Ukraine.

Some years ago I wrote an article about using your ethnic heritage in your writing. I decided to dig it out and update it.

You’ve all heard the old adage, “Write what you know.” We writers do research to learn about places we’ve never visited, or we make up our own worlds, which is sometimes easier. Regardless of what worlds we write about, we put a little bit of ourselves into all of our stories.

            I hadn’t thought of using my ethnic heritage in my books until my third one. 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 (Redemption Book 1). 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. Some of my cousins make wedding soup together every year.

            I used my ethnic heritage again in my romantic suspense novel, Murder, Mi Amore, which 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 Franco’s Fortune (Redemption Book 2), the hero is Doriana’s brother, and of course Italian/Irish. The heroine is a redhead with a French last name. In Luke’s Temptation (Redemption Book 3), the heroine is Doriana’s cousin, and is all Italian. The hero is Hispanic. Although I’m not Hispanic, I’ve written several heroes who are of Hispanic or mixed Hispanic/Native American heritage. As you can see I’ve gotten away from my ethnic roots at times, yet the characters I write about have ethnic backgrounds that I enjoyed researching.

In my novella, Capri Nights, included in the Entice Me: Luscious Love Stories Boxed Set, my hero, Alex, is from the Isle of Capri, Italy. I’m currently writing a story that will be included in a box set of international stories. My hero is, you’ve got it, Italian, from the town of Ravello on the Amalfi Coast. I’ve visited Capri twice, and I’ve visited Ravello also.

            I’ve sold a dozen short romance stories to national women’s magazines, and I’ve used Italian and Polish names for many of my short story characters. However, a few of the magazine editors have changed my characters’ names to something more “vanilla.”

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.

Writing my Italian characters is like writing about my family, people I’ve known all my life. 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. Try it when you write your stories. Spice up your characters a little flavor of yourself and your heritage. 

           Visit my website at for excerpts and information about all my books.
Logan's Redemption:

Franco's Fortune:

Luke's Temptation:

The Redemption Series Box Set:

Murder, Mi Amore:

Entice Me: Luscious Love Stories


Tina Donahue said...

I like ethnic characters, especially those with interesting cultural backgrounds.

Judy Baker said...

Great idea. I've been thinking about doing a DNA test, I think it would be so interesting. Thanks for sharing.

vicki batman said...

My family has long been established in the US, some to the Revolution. For me to reach back like you can--just not there. My state is large and there are interesting cultural differences right here. Some speak like Southerners, some sound Mid-West, and out West??? They talk rather tight-lipped to keep the bugs out of there teeth. Italians did immigrate to my town. Because of the affordable economy, many people have moved here over the last 30 years.

jean hart stewart said...

Lots of interesting stuff in this column....My backgound is like Vicki's so I get my character's names from research into name dictionaries, etc. Currently struggling with my hero's name. It's gotta be changed, but to what?

Melissa Keir said...

What fun to have your DNA tested. I get my characters' names from my students. They certainly make a difference in my life.

Cara Marsi said...

Thanks, everyone. It was fun having our DNA tested. I'd hoped we'd find some surprises but there weren't many. We were both surprised to have that West Asia DNA though. Not all my characters have ethnic names. Sometimes they just don't fit with the story or the character.

Paris said...

Great blog, Cara! I usually throw in a little bit of my family heritage when I'm writing. Little Italian/Polish ladies are always showing up and sometimes I combine the two, which can make for interesting name choices, lol:)

Cara Marsi said...

Thanks, Paris. I know all about those little Italian/Polish ladies.

Diane Burton said...

My family came from The Netherlands starting in the 1600s. Another branch much later. So I decided to set my PI mystery series in West Michigan, a stronghold of Dutch heritage. It's been fun using family surnames as characters.

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