Whether it’s the angle of light as it strikes the rose window of a cathedral, or the soft echo of a gondolier’s voice as he poles through a canal, Venice is a beautiful, evocative place—even if you’ve only seen it on the screen. But there’s no substitute for being there, as author Melissa Rea discovered when she wrote her new novel Conjuring Casanova.
For Rea, what started out as an innocent Google search led to a much bigger research project. While working on another project, she typed the terms “women’s underwear in the 18th century” into the search engine. (Hey, details matter!) The article she clicked on said, “Nowhere else can the intimate details of eighteenth century life be found than in the Memoir of Giacomo.”
Intrigued, she found a copy of the 3,700-page memoir, bought it, and devoured the whole thing. There was more to Casanova than just ladies’ underwear. There was a story, too, and Rea began to write it. As she learned more about Casanova, the famous libertine who was as devoted to the sport of romance as some men are to football, Rea fell in love with her subject. She saw that there was more to him than just his reputation as a womanizer.
“He was was instrumental in starting the French lottery, wrote books on subjects as diverse as geometry and Polish history, and even helped Mozart write and aria,” Rea said. “The thing I found most fascinating is that his technique for winning his lady’s affection is so simple: love. He professed to love almost everyone. After I read the memoir, I believe him.”
In Casanova’s Footsteps
A visit to Europe seemed like the next logical step, so she took it.
In Paris, at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Rea came face to face with Casanova’s handwritten memoir, Histoire de Ma Vie. It had been acquired by the library and was on display for the first time in more than two hundred years. She visited the manuscript every day for three days. Although she wasn’t able to handle the work, Rea was so moved that tears came to her eyes.
She wanted to experience more of Casanova, so she went to Venice—one of the places where Casanova had lived and loved. “I was struck by the beauty of the very ancient city,” she said. “Once as I looked out a window in the hotel, It occurred to me, that except for the satellite dishes and electrical wires, Casanova would have had the same delicious view.”
Although Conjuring Casanova is a modern romance, which transports the famous duke from 1774 to 2016, Rea wanted to dig deeply into her character’s roots. Ca’ Bragadin, the house Casanova called home (when he wasn’t in exile) is now a hotel; Rea slept, ate, and walked through the rooms where her hero once lived and breathed.
“I found so much inspiration in those rooms and on those lovely streets and bridges,” Rea said. “Who says research has to be tedious?” By directly experiencing some of the culture, food, landscape, and architecture that was part of Casanova’s everyday life, Rea was able to collect information about him that she might not have been able to access otherwise. Second hand accounts, letters, and images were all helpful, but for Rea, there was no substitute for actually being there.
Bringing a Character to Life
Additionally, Rea said, her trip was a blast. (“How I suffered for my art,” she quipped.) Her research took her to some beautiful places, and she’s hopeful that her enjoyment during the experience comes through in her novel.
What if you travel by daydream, and not by air? The imagination can go anywhere, with a little help. Research, helpful librarians, and visual aids can help a writer conjure up the faraway landscape of their book. Rea’s trip to the place Casanova called home helped her bring Venice to life. Whether you do research by gathering first hand experience, or swiping your library card, getting lost in another land is a great way to find a thrilling new story.