Friday, February 5, 2010

Under the boardwalk...down by the sea

My grandfather emigrated to the United States from Italy when he was eleven-years-old. After a circuitous route (including a six-month stint in the hoosegow for operating a speakeasy), he found himself a legitimate bar owner in Wilmington, Del. and in want of an Italian wife.

In 1925, he went back to Pettorano, a small village in the Abruzzi, and picked out my grandmother from among the ladies in the piazza. Luckily, it had always been her dream to marry a man with clean socks who would take her to America.

Skipping ahead to the 1950s, like many families in the tri-state area, the Monacos vacationed at the Jersey Shore. Wildwood was a boomtown during that era with a wide, beautiful beach, a two-mile boardwalk lined with amusement rides, games, restaurants, and even sideshows, and clubs that attracted entertainment like Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell.

My grandmother saw there was money to be made and asked my grandfather for $5000 to buy a hotel. One led to another and they ended up owning five. When my grandparents were ready to retire to Florida, their eight children were given the opportunity to purchase the properties. My father joined four of his siblings as part of a corporation that would run several of the businesses, including a new parking lot and a commercial property on the boardwalk.

I spent every summer in Wildwood until I turned 21. It's a place of magic, adventure, and, truth be told, testing boundaries. I always thought that if I made the jump to fiction, I'd like to use Wildwood as a backdrop. I just needed a hook, and I think I've found one in my pirate adventure story.

My biggest challenge with using a place so familiar has been scene setting. I forget that people might not know that the boardwalk is raised, or that the amusement rides sit on piers that stretch out onto the beach. It's a good thing no one in my writers' group has been to Wildwood, and so they tell me when more detail is needed. Who knows? Maybe my redone descriptions will give them the urge to go down the shore.

(If you couldn't tell, I also find my family history fascinating on both my paternal and maternal sides. Perhaps if I ever finish this first novel...)

Photos: My dad is in the front right. He is on Wildwood beach with his brothers-in-law. The boardwalk building on the left is what their commercial property used to look like. Next to it is the boardwalk chapel.

My grandmother and three aunts are in the other picture. I think the building behind them is one of the old dance halls.


  1. Hoosegow!! That is a really cool background to the setting we know in your story. My Italian great-grandfather "emigrated" when he was 4 and brother was 2--sans parents! They ended up on the famous orphan trains, which brought them to the midwest. Their last name was made up by the folks at Ellis Island because the kids were too young to properly say their true name. (That is the side of the family on which twin girls run.) Now what will you draw from when the story moves to Ireland?

  2. So interesting Monta. It's sweet that you took a place that is special to you and set is as a backdrop for your novel. I know settings are one of the things I struggle with when writting novels, so you are not alone. But, I do think you've done a pretty good job with your setting so far. There were only a few minor details that I missed while critiquing your work, and you've mentioned those above.

  3. I could see why you choose Wildwood for the setting. How immigrants were able to make a life in America is fascinating. I think family history is always a great inspiration. Love the photos!

  4. Those pics are awesome! It is confirmed authors do put part of themselves into their writing. When can we go to Wildwood?

  5. Thanks guys. I appreciate your comments so much, as Wildwood is such a part of who I am that I found it a little bit challenging to convey this in a short blog entry.