Monthly Archives: March 2014

Tuscan Traveler Tales – 5 Questions for Dianne Hales

 Your day job was as a science and health journalist (I believe, An Invitation to Health is in its 16th Edition), but sometime in the last ten years your writing focus changed to Italy and its language, resulting in the bestselling book La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language. What happened?

Years ago I came to Switzerland to give a talk on sleep (I’d written a book on the subject) and, on an impulse, decided to take a train to Italy. The only Italian I knew was, “Mi dispiace. Non parlo l’italiano.” I was enchanted by everything I saw, but I really wanted to communicate with the Italians who were chattering all around me. So I decided to learn their language.

At the time I had a young child and a busy career, but I began studying Italian any way I could—with books, CDs, audiotapes, classes, tutors. My husband and I began coming to Italy every year on vacation, and we met more and more Italians. I liked them so much that I kept working harder to become fluent so we could become friends—and in many cases, we did.

La Bella Lingua, a memoir and a meditation on language
La Bella Lingua, a memoir and a meditation on language

Along the way, I fell in love with the language. Whenever people ask me why I have such a passion for Italian, I think of Gabriella Ganugi, a chef who heads a prestigious culinary academy in Florence. When she told me that she had originally studied law, I asked how she had acquired her passion for food.

Signora,” she said. “We do not choose our passions; they choose us.” That’s certainly been my experience. The more Italian I learned, the more I wanted to know about its history—which has everything a writer could want in a subject: drama, passion, comedy, beautiful women, gallant heroes, jealousy, rivalry, unscrupulous scoundrels—not to mention glorious music and fabulous food!

One of my favorite “hidden” places in Florence is L’Accademia della Crusca. What did your research at the Accademia entail and what was your overall impression of the environment of the Medici villa and gardens?

One of the most colorful chapters in Italian’s history revolves around a high-spirited group of Renaissance men in Florence, who dedicated themselves to “separating the wheat from the chaff” of the Italian language. They called their group  “L’Accademia della Crusca,” the Academy of the Bran, and went over the top with names and mottos based on the making and baking of bread. They had chairs fashioned from grain barrels and commissioned symbolic paintings on the wooden paddles used to remove loaves from an oven. They adored eating and drinking together at lavish banquets with all sorts of odes and entertainments based on the language.

A pale (shovel) of L'Accademia della Crusca
A pale (shovel) of  Accademia della Crusca

La Crusca’s original location is now, fittingly enough perhaps, an Irish pub in the heart of Florence, but the Academy’s headquarters are in a Medici villa, where—I’ve been told—Botticelli’s Primavera once hung. I approached it like an awestruck pilgrim. I felt as if I were indeed treading on hallowed ground.

I marveled at the great Sala delle Pale, where the baking shovels—Galileo’s among them—hang like shields on the walls. I also got to touch, very gingerly, a first edition of Il Vocabolario, the first true dictionary in the Western world. The elegant library, a veritable cathedral of Italian literature, filled me with reverence for the language that the “Crusconi” fashioned as painstakingly as any work of art.

The tranquil gardens—well worth a visit—strike me as the perfect complement to La Crusca’s mission. Its founders wanted to select the “most beautiful flowers” in the Italian language—and now we have actual flowers and their verbal equivalents in the same place.

Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarità Italiana
Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana

What have been the three most exciting things to happen in your life as a direct result of the publication of La Bella Lingua?

The most incredible was becoming an Italian knight.  In recognition of La Bella Lingua’s contributions to the Italian language, President Napolitano named me a Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana (Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity), awarded to foreigners who promote Italian culture. There was a lovely ceremony at the Consulate in San Francisco, where I received some very impressive medals in three sizes—for business, dressy, and formal occasions!

I also have had the opportunity to present La Bella Lingua in Florence, the cradle of the language. I did one reading in the exquisite hall in the Palazzo Tornabuoni where the very first opera was performed and another in the medieval cloister that now houses the Società Dante Alighieri. I felt that I was truly standing in the shadow of Italy’s greatest poets and artists and, more remarkably, speaking a language they would understand if they suddenly came back to life.

Dianne Hales receives Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarità Italiana
Dianne Hales receives Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana

The most touching experience has come from readers around the world who follow my blog [] or join my La Bella Lingua group on Facebook. Some say that my book kindled great pride in their Italian heritage or inspired them to study Italian or travel to Italy. It amazes and delights me that our shared love of Italian has created a real bond that unites us regardless of where we live or what our native tongues are.

My favorite chapter was the one on Italian’s parolacce (bad language).  What makes it different from any other language’s swear words?  Did you add any to your vocabulary?

In Italy I’ve always heard parolacce (naughty words) swirling around, but I didn’t realize what a rich history they had. I interviewed a scholar of torpiloquio (which, I learned, is the formal term for foul language), who told me that Italians curse differently: Unlike French, German or English speakers, they express powerful emotions like anger, disgust, surprise, and horror with sexual obscenities rather  than scatalogical ones. There are literally hundreds of suggestive words, euphemisms and vulgarities for everything related to sex.

In my research, I also came across a Dizionario storico del lessico erotico italiano (Historic Dictionary of the Erotic Italian Lexicon), which lists 3,500 parolacce—a truly impressive number. A friend describes them as verbal spices that add zest to everyday Italian.

But even though Italians swear with gusto and creativity, I don’t advise foreigners to try the same. I never swear in Italy, at least not deliberately. However, I have mispronounced words in ways that sound vulgar—but I’m in good company. Pope Francesco did the same while speaking at the Vatican. I think we should both stick with “Mamma mia!”

What’s your next writing project?

When I was in Florence researching La Bella Lingua, I read newspaper reports about the discovery of archival documents from the family of Lisa Gherardini, the real woman in La Gioconda (the Mona Lisa).  Through a family friend, I met the researcher, Giuseppe Pallanti, who gave me a map of the city and marked with X’s the places where Lisa had lived.

When I went to the street where she was born—the rather sad and smelly Via Sguazza—I was struck by the fact that, while everyone knows Mona Lisa’s face (at least as Leonardo portrayed it), no one knows her story.

Dianne Hales signingcopies of La Bella Lingua
Dianne Hales signing copies of La Bella Lingua

I began thinking like a journalist and asking the questions of my trade—who, what, where, when, how and why. I rented apartments in Lisa’s neighborhoods in Florence. I came across a 500-year-old history of her family in the state archives. I walked her streets, visited her churches, found the chapel where she should have been buried—and the abandoned convent where she actually was interred. As I immersed myself in every aspect of daily life in Renaissance Florence, Leonardo’s Lisa began to come alive in my imagination.

The culmination of my quest, MONA LISA: A Life Discovered, will be published this August by Simon and Schuster. I’m very excited about the chance to introduce the real Mona Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo—a fiorentina, a daughter of the Renaissance, a teenage bride, a merchant’s wife, a mother of six and, in her husband’s words, a “noble spirit”—to the world. I plan to come to Florence in the fall to celebrate the city’s most famous daughter in her hometown. I’m hoping to meet you and some of the followers of Tuscan Traveler then. A presto!

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Brainstorming at the Spa in Matera for Writers

Time to get out of Florence (or wherever you might be) and go to Matera in the south of Italy near the heel of the boot. Tuscan Traveler has written about Matera, its bread, and the Women’s Fiction Festival, one of the best conferences for writers worldwide.

Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from
Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from

One of the geniuses behind the WFF is Elizabeth Jennings. About five years ago she came up with another great idea: Brainstorming at the Spa. This is an intensive weekend for writers that focusses on their individual writing projects. We asked Elizabeth a few questions about what she had in mind when she came up with the inspiration. (Details about joining the group from April 4 to 7, 2014, can be found below.)

The idea for Brainstorming at the Spa in Matera, Italy, came from the highly successful Women’s Fiction Festival held in Matera every September. Please describe the background of Brainstorming at the Spa and how the process works.

In the United States, it is not unusual for writers to hole up in a retreat and brainstorm their current books. Writing is a lonely business and a professional writer, under deadline and working hard, often needs help. The nicer the retreat, the better the work that comes out. There is just something about meeting with your tribe (fellow writers) and talking through your book, in a nice place, that helps you progress. Particularly if there is excellent food and wine to hand.

The process: you might have a couple of books to brainstorm, the current one and future ones or you might have just one book to brainstorm. We all operate on the basis that you are writing professionally, whether published or not. Everyone is very serious about their projects.

The bulk of the work is in the morning from around nine thirty to lunch and a couple of hours after lunch. We divide up the time over the four days so everyone has an equal slot. You describe your book, taking care to establish the genre and the emotional overtones you wish the book to have so that the other Brainstormers understand what you are trying to achieve. You give what elements you have at the moment. Some people bring a fully thought-out synopsis and brainstorm specific plot points. Some people bring a general outline and we work on fleshing it out together.

The writers write across a full range of genres and it is an international group (though we work exclusively in English) and the suggestions and plot points and insights forthcoming are extraordinarily helpful.

The Underground Spa at the Locanda San Martino
The Underground Spa at the Locanda San Martino

We work hard and then in the late afternoon we go to the spa and relax. Where we meet, the Locanda di San Martino has an underground spa guaranteed to relax you after a full day’s work.

We are guided through the brainstorming process by talented agent Christine Witthohn, who has Plot and Story at her fingertips. This year she will be joined by another well known agent, Marlene Stringer. Christine and Marlene also know the book marketplace inside out and their advice is priceless.

Fellow writers help you flesh out and plot your book and our agent coaches help us think in terms of marketability and promotion.

The four days are incredibly helpful. You know how you calculate things in dog years? One year equals seven? Well the Brainstorming at the Spa program operates on Brainstorming time. One day equals several months of agonizing over your book in isolation.

Have any published books had their genesis at Brainstorming at the Spa?

Lisa Marie Rice brainstormed a trilogy published by Avon: HEART OF DANGER, I DREAM OF DANGER and the upcoming BREAKING DANGER. Shannon McKenna brainstormed FATAL STRIKE and IN FOR THE KILL, published by Kensington. Kim Golden solved her plot problems for SNOWBOUND, which she indie-published in November 2013, and MAYBE BABY, which is under consideration with Kensington. S.G. Redling did some world building for DAMOCLES, out now from 47North.  Ann Reavis puzzled out the details of ITALIAN FOOD RULES, MURDER AT MOUNTAIN VISTA and SHADOW OF THE TOWER. Elizabeth Edmondson brainstormed VOYAGE OF INNOCENCE and a forthcoming mystery/thriller set in the 1950s. Elizabeth Aston plotted VALENTINE’S DAY published by Amazon StoryFront. Rosemary Laurey brainstormed a dragon series for Samhain publishing. Nancy Barone brainstormed THE HUSBAND DIET, published by Bookouture. Beate Boeker worked out the details of her TEMPTATION IN FLORENCE mystery trilogy and a stand alone novel MISCHIEF IN ITALY. Claude Nougat added nuance to FOREVER YOUNG. Beatrix Kramlovsky put the final polish on her MEMOIRS OF A VAGABOND.

Brainstormers at Work in Matera (photo by Claude Nougat)
Brainstormers at Work in Matera (photo by Claude Nougat)

Why is the process so productive?

They say that productivity is the speed with which you eliminate wrong answers. The Brainstorming process just speeds up the creative process. Writers do not write in a straight line. We create our books in circles, looping around again and again, trying to make the book fit the images in our heads. The Brainstorming process helps this enormously. Articulating your problems and challenges with other writers, who get it, in a way that others cannot, helps you develop your book. A little like the old fashioned form of film development where the photograph slowly becomes clear.

Let us not forget that the pleasure principle is also at play here. Matera offers world-class food and wine. We work hard and well, we eat and drink well and we relax well in the spa. We meet in a beautiful venue. All these elements stimulate the senses and foment our creativity.

Is Brainstorming at the Spa only for creating ideas for an author’s future books? Are there sessions devoted to other subjects?

The Brainstorming at the Spa program is for professional writers and writers who are serious about their craft. So besides discussing our specific projects we also discuss markets, promotion, how to stay healthy while writing eight hours a day, how to brand ourselves, how to plan a career. All that good stuff.

Why is Matera the perfect place for Brainstorming at the Spa?

Matera is an extraordinarily beautiful city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is, per Italian statistics (ISTAT) the safest city in Italy. The Sassi district, where we meet, is an ancient city carved out of the face of the rock. A stone garden. It is quiet, with no traffic, the only noise the kestrels gathering at dusk. It is an enchanted city, out of time.. The  perfect place to dream your way to a new book.

Come to Brainstorming at the Spa 2014

If you would like to join the group this year, the date s are set for April 4 to 7, at Locanda di San Martino in Matera, Italy. Information and an enrollment form can be found here. If you have any question, please leave a comment on this post or contact me at tuscantrav (at)