Donna Leon is one of my favourite writers. I was introduced to her by my wife, an inveterate reader of detective novels.
For that small number of people who do not know Donna Leon, her books star Guido Brunetti, a somewhat world-weary and cynical Venetian detective who yet manages to do his job amidst the seamy side of Venetian life.
While the plots are good, the thing that I most like about the books is their focus on the texture of life in Venice, the way they bring the city alive, as well as the life of Brunetti himself. Leon does this in part by referencing to actual scenes, more by the inclusion of small details.
This is a very urban life style, although not perhaps urban in the way Australians would think. There are no cars unless Brunetti has to travel outside the city. Transport is by foot, sometimes police boat or the ever present Vaporetto, the ferry service that links Venice.
In some of my writing, I have tried to bring texture alive. It is remarkably difficult to do properly. Often, people try to do it through descriptive pieces. The problem here is that those pieces then stand out, sitting on the textual carpet almost as pop-ups. By contrast, in Leon's writing, life in Venice as well as Brunetti's own life are there as a constant back-story; the books can be read at several levels at once, drawing the reader beyond the main plot into the back-story. This story becomes more familiar with every book.
I have never attempted to write fiction beyond a few desultory attempts in the 1980s when the idea of becoming a writer first attracted me in a serious way. Then, for a period, I kept a writer's diary jotting down descriptions, ideas, conversations. Sadly, these were lost in a move.
Canberra at that period, maybe it still does, actually lent itself to this type of approach in a rather special way. Like Venice, it was a self-contained world. However, it was also a world in which very different circles lapped and overlapped, joined at particular points by common geography, but otherwise distinct.
The majority of my writing now is historical in one way or another. Here I still wrestle with the same technical issues that Leon addresses so well: how best can I bring alive the story so that it's not just history, but also a well written story; how much detail should I include and what?
I don't find this easy, for history addresses two very different needs. There are the needs of the ordinary reader, and then the person directly interested in the history, for whom the evidence is critical. The balance between the two depends upon the intent: writing for a professional audience is not the same as writing for a general readership.
Regular readers of my blogs will know that I spend a fair bit of time thinking about these types of issues. Quite a bit of my writing directly deals with the problems involved. Other writing is experimental, testing approaches.
Like fiction, history involves imagination. Unlike fiction, history is always applied imagination based on and conditioned by the evidence.
Donna Leon's books cannot tell me how to do the historical research. However, they do provide clues as to how I might write once the research is done so as to best present my story.