Write On: Beautiful Secret’s Dana Faletti on Globe-Trotting Writing Done Right

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Today for Write On we’ve asked our friend and fellow Pandamoon author, Dana Faletti, for her insight and expertise on transporting readers to another place with our writing. Dana is author of THE WHISPER TRILOGY, a young adult paranormal romance series, and her debut women’s fiction novel, BEAUTIFUL SECRET, is a sweeping drama of family secrets and forbidden love set in both France and Italy, coming October 11 from Pandamoon Publishing (Can’t wait for it? Pre-order it now here).


1) As an author who often draws from your Italian heritage in your own work, what do you find is essential for taking a reader to a particular place and culture?

For me, creating a sense of place it really about appealing to the senses. What is the character seeing, specifically, in that place? What types of foliage? Colors?  What does the place smell like? When you’re talking about Italy, smells and tastes are enough to go on for pages of setting up place. In Beautiful Secret, Italy is almost like a character rather than a setting, because the reader connects so strongly with it. I think this is mainly a sensual thing and partly because Italy is a sensual place.

 

2) That said, what do you feel are some common mistakes or cliches you encounter when reading or watching stories that represent Italian culture in Italy or here in the US?

So many TV shows and movies and even funny vemes portray the typical Italian mafioso or the typical Italian-American mama in her house dress, pinching her kids’ and grandkids’ cheeks and making sauce. Italy is also glorified in the media and in American culture as being one of the most romantic places in the world, as Italians are known for their tempers and their romanticism. We are that but we are so much more as well. We embrace our baseness as part of our humanity and don’t try to cover it up but  we also don’t apologize for our sophistications. Italians are a people as diverse as any and Italy is a country that’s full of contradictions. You can’t really nail Italy or Italians down as being one thing or another. Beppe Severgnini, one of my favorite writers on Italy says it so well-

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages, such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine, and raven-haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It’s alluring, but complicated. It’s the kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or in the course of ten minutes. Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis.

3) How can authors avoid these common pitfalls? What have you found works best for you?

Personally, I only write what I know, what’s in me. My best writing happens when  people and experiences have moved me. Beautiful Secret bled right out of me. For a long time I wanted to write the story of what happened to my grandmother when she was unwed and pregnant as a young woman in Italy. After going there several times and visiting and falling in love with the people and the land, I had story after story to share. Beautiful Secret is the culmination of my stories, based on the people and places I love.

For others, I think the best way to avoid stereotyping is to only write what you know. If you research something, don’t just research it on google or on paper. You have to go to the source to really know something. In my editing process, it was interesting to answer questions about Italian culture. From the perspective of someone who has never been there, something in the text may seem unrealistic. My editor and I had many a laugh talking about truths of Southern Italy that are way stranger than fiction.

Also, only write what you’re passionate about. The love you have for whatever it is – whether it’s a historical time period or crime solving – will make you enthusiastic and authentic in your research and this will  echo in your writing.

Enjoying time at Saline Beach, which is featured in Beautiful Secret.

4) What led you to set portions of your upcoming novel, Beautiful Secret, in Italy? What about the country spoke to you as a writer?

Ahhh, everything about Italy speaks to me! Endlessly.  The moment you step foot into Italy, everything seems to be amplified. The food tastes fresher and brighter. People speak with unapologetic emotion. One of the most moving moments of my life occurred when I first landed in Reggio, Calabria.  I’ve written about it before.

I was 20 years old, on my first-ever European vacation with my parents. We had just flown from France, where we’d visited my great uncle and his family, to Reggio, Calabria, where my dad was born. On arrival into Titto Minitti airport, which is a tiny one or two terminal structure, we walked down the jetway and into the gate to find a gathering of forty-some people who were waiting. For us. For my father. These were great aunts, uncles, and distant cousins who remembered the tumultuous time when my father was born and perhaps hadn’t laid eyes on him since he was a baby. These strangers who were my family, filled the small space completely, their faces tear-streaked, their arms opened wide in anticipation of my parents and me. An overwhelming sense of love and acceptance and belonging slammed into my heart at that moment. Here were these strangers, crying out my name, pulling me to their bosoms and holding me as their tears washed over my skin, kissing my cheeks repeatedly. They’d never even met me, and yet they cared deeply for me. Why? Because I was family. And that was enough.

This aspect of Italian culture is probably what speaks most loudly to me. Even as I am sucked up into this memory, I’m crying.

5) You create a real lushness of setting and culture in Beautiful Secret. What was your research process like in preparation for your novel?

Most of the places I describe in Beautiful Secret are places I’ve seen and experienced. Bibba, a dance club that is the setting for a pivotal scene in the story, is based on a disco my own cousins took me to. Zio Nino’s French and Italian homes are real places, where I’ve spent weeks of my life. Valanidi is Guiseppe’s hometown and Trunca is the mountain town where my grandmother, Maria grew up. Trunca truly does seem as if it’s plucked out of time, existing entirely in its own personalized era.

Much of my research involved asking my cousins a gazillion questions. I have never personally driven from Revin, France to Valanidi, in Reggio, Calabria, but my cousin from France does it every year. He mapped out his route for me and gave me details about the stops along the way. One funny tidbit is this-  during editing phase, my copyeditor questioned me about Michel, one of the main characters, stopping for “delicious coffee” at a gas station across the Italian border. She asked how gas station coffee could be delicious when most people view it as disgusting. I giggled when I read this, knowing that terrible coffee is probably impossible to find in Italy. They don’t do terrible coffee. The minute you cross the border, the taste of the coffee changes. On swallowing the first sip, you know you are in Italy. My cousin detailed to me where he always stops for his first Italian coffee after he crosses the border on his long drive.

San Nicola Church, another important location for Beautiful Secret. How so? You’ll have to read the book to see. . .

 

6) What other advice would you give writers who want to enfold a unique cultural heritage into their writing?

Again – writing what you know, where you’ve been, the cultures you are passionate about. Immerse yourself in the place, the people. For me, that’s really the only way to know a culture well enough to set a book in its country.

7) One final question: If you had to choose one aspect of Italy that constantly draws you back to its place and culture, what would it be?  

That’s easy. My family. The place where my father was born. Most people who plan a trip to Italy imagine all of the things and places they will see. Rome, The Vatican, Pisa, perhaps. Me? I’ve been to Rome, and I enjoyed the history there. I would like to travel through other parts of Italy, but Calabria, specifically Valanidi, always beckons me back. It’s like there is a magnet on that mountain, and I’m drawn to it with an inexplicable force. And when I get there, it’s like I can finally breathe. Like I’m home.

Dana with her extended family, enjoying some quality time after what was certainly a fabulous dinner.

Chocolate Cake (is for) Lovers

Chocolate Cake Recipe

 

Cake

Cake Instructions Pink

Ingredients

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For the Cake:

  • 1 cup (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa
  • 1 cup hot, strong coffee
  • 2 cups All-Purpose Flour
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk or plain yogurt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the Frosting:

  • 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup Dutch-process cocoa
  • 6 tablespoons buttermilk or plain yogurt
  • 4 cups confectioners’ sugar

 Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 9″ x 13″ pan.
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I use a lasagna pan for this cake, to ensure that the edges of the pan are high enough to hold in the delicious frosting.

To Make the Cake:

2. Melt the butter; stir in the cocoa and hot water. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, sugar, soda, and salt.

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It might take a little whisking, but the cocoa will mix beautifully into the coffee/butter mixture. If you want to avoid the extra effort (and don’t mind a few additional dishes) try sifting the cocoa into the saucepan to break up any clumps.
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Coffee makes everything better. . . especially chocolate flavors!
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It might seem unnecessary, but whisking the dry ingredients ensures that the baking soda and salt are distributed evenly throughout the flour and sugar, making the cake rise more evenly.

3. Pour the cocoa mixture over the dry ingredients, stirring to blend. Beat in the buttermilk or yogurt, eggs, and vanilla. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

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I like to make a well in the center of the flour/sugar mixture for pouring the cocoa mixture. This helps with whisking the two together evenly.
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Oohhh–vanilla! Mix everything until just combined. You don’t want extra air pockets in your cake from over-mixing.
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I love this part! And, yes, I lick the spoon when no one’s watching. I know I shouldn’t, but it’s just so delicious!

4. Bake the cake for 30 minutes, or until it tests done. You’ll smell the chocolate aroma, and the cake will begin to pull away from the edge of the pan. Remove the cake from the oven and cool it on a rack.

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We always want what we can’t have. Right, Jasper?
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Just waiting for its frosting now . . . make sure it cools completely before you start making the frosting.

 

To Make the Frosting:

1. Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan. Stir in the cocoa and buttermilk or yogurt.

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I use the same saucepan that I used for the cake’s cocoa mixture. I don’t even wash it out (no need to)! This pic shows how the solids and liquids will separate at first as you make the frosting. Don’t worry–keep beating it and it will all come together.

2. Bring the mixture to a boil, then remove it from the heat and mix in the confectioners’ sugar, beating until smooth.

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It takes a little time . . .
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. . . but eventually it’ll be creamy and gorgeous. Just keep whisking until all of the clumps of sugar are broken up (or use a sifter at the beginning to break up the clumps).

3. Pour the frosting over the cake while the frosting is still warm. Serve the cake right from the pan.

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I like to use an off-set spatula for spreading the frosting, but a normal spatula works fine too.
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If you want to get a little fancy, use a wax-paper stencil to sift cocoa over the cake in any shape you like. Enjoy with your sweetie and a glass of cold milk or vanilla ice cream.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The foundation of this recipe comes from King Arthur Flour, who are the gurus of all things flour, sugar, and chocolate!