I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about stories; where they come from, how they grow from tiny bits of inspiration—a fleeting glimpse, a certain slant of light, an expressive face, the tinkling of chimes—into something structured and meaningful, compelling and spellbinding.
I just spent a week in Venice, and while wandering the ancient labyrinth of narrow streets, crossing the myriad of bridges connecting the 118 islands—once no more than mounds of swampy sledge scooped into clumps, built upon to create the stunning city of Venice—these ponderings found a useful metaphor. Like Venice that grew out of a reedy lagoon into a city of grandeur and center of world power, stories begin with the humblest materials, mere clumps of sledge shaped into a foundation to be built upon; how elaborate or bold or whimsical or complex depends on the intention, the commitment, determination, practiced skills and vision of the architect, the artist. The writer.
Like a good story, Venice is a fantastic place to get lost. Wandering the endless maze of streets, I was mesmerized with the mystery of finding a given destination, (thinking I knew exactly where I was going) then surprised to end up someplace completely different; instead of the Profumo-Farmaceutica that carries the same herbal remedies that have been made by monks since the sixteenth century, I would slip out into a new campo, (square) and stare open-mouthed at an astounding piece of architecture, be lured into another charming cafe, or discover yet another bridge where I had to stop and admire the mysterious play of light down one of the canals. I can understand why so many mysteries and love stories have been set in Venice; I don't think a quiet, ponderous story would work well here. The lushly romantic atmospheric setting whispers intrigue, begs wonder and asks you to expect the unexpected; that things are quite often not what they seem to be.
Venice, of course, has been the setting for many stories, but the one I have enjoyed the most is Cornelia Funke's THE THIEF LORD. The adventurous escapades of Prosper and Bo and the gang of orphaned thieves living under the protection of the young Thief Lord, Scipio, (who turns out not to be who he says he is) the juxtaposition of old and new, youth and age, and the element of magic, matches the landscape perfectly. For me, it has held up over several readings and I have been delighted to put it into the hands of many young readers who have returned it weeks later with an expression of admiration and true book-love in their faces. And the desire to visit Venice some day.
And if all that isn't enough, here's another reason to love Venice; look at this official sign posted at one of the Vaporetto ( water bus) stops:
(For Christmas, give a book)