The Art of Esoterica – or Historical Fiction Research

Paris Coat of ArmsYou may have read some of my blathering posts about the guts of historical fiction. So, now I’m putting my ‘money where my mouth is’ as I begin a new novel set in 19th century France. Researching an era must be both wide and deep — and I’ve written about it on this blog and over at While I’m not being as disciplined as I would like, let me share some of the esoterica (did you read that as erotica?) I’ve found and a few thoughts on the process.

Character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict and world building – seven ingredients every author must pay attention to and historical fiction authors must explore in depth in order to immerse readers in their chosen time and place.

Since I’m in the early stages – bare bones of the story sketched out – research has a random feeling to it but my intention is to develop a solid foundation for how my characters would have lived in that time and place.

Books Read

  • PARIS REBORN by Stephane Kirkland provides a detailed and fascinating look at the rebuilding of Paris during the reign of Napoleon III. Camille and Mariele, my main characters, are born in 1849 and 1851 respectively (at least, that’s my starting premise), they would have experienced the city’s upheaval as children, their parents as adults.
  • THE HOUSE I LOVED by Tatiana de Rosnay concerns a woman whose house is ultimately demolished to make way for one of the wide boulevards built at that time.
  • As a novel, PARIS by Edward Rutherfurd captures the culture and attitudes of French society. I’m particularly interested in the section focused on building the Eiffel Tower.
  • THE DIVINE SARAH by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale brings to life this famous actress along with the richness of theatre in the time period.
  • CLAUDE & CAMILLE by Stephanie Cowell and LUNCHEON OF THE BOATING PARTY by Susan Vreeland are helping me to appreciate the lives of Impressionist painters.

Books on order

  • Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France by Susan Hiner – gotta have a book on fashion
  • Paris: Les Boulevards by Pamela Golbin and Charles Franck offers illustrations of the most gorgeous Parisian boulevards – a picture is worth a thousand words
  • France Since 1870: Culture, Society and the Making of the Republic by Charles Sowerwine – who could resist that title?
  • Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Katie Hickman is recommended for a look at this aspect of French culture. Who knows what inspiration I’ll find?
  • Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau by Mary McAuliffe also looks promising.


Stories reflect the arc of history, hence understanding the main events that shaped French life, economy, attitudes, culture and world reputation is critical. I’ve found timelines with a political cast as well as those concerned with military activities, cultural events and even the world of art. I will investigate many of these events and the people involved further, of course, to understand the impact they might have had on my characters, their families and friends.

Topics I’ve explored

Using the Internet I’ve explored many topics. When I search I often jump to the fourth or fifth pages Google recommends as I find earlier pages full of simplistic stuff and sites that bombard you with ads. I also look for more academic articles. Check these titles out – compelling reading for sure 🙂

Reflections of Desire: Masculinity and Fantasy in the Fin-de-Siècle Luxury Brothel

Women’s Rights in France

Early Nineteenth Century French Family Law and Customs

Women Artists in Nineteenth Century France

The Siege of Paris During the Franco-Prussian War

Long Depression – a depression that began in 1873

Topics to explore

French industrialization and wealthy industrialists, the Third Republic, pretenders to the throne, cultural developments, etiquette, fairy tales, colonial expansion, education, demimonde, French Christmas traditions, lingerie, children’s clothing and many more.

Further activities

I also plan to read English translations of a few authors like Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Flaubert, examine paintings of famous artists of the time, and search out weather records, old cookbooks, and financial records. With some luck, there could even be a trip to Paris.

The plan is to begin writing in February. Better get busy.

PS – my desk is a mess

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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33 Responses

  1. As a French citizen, a fan of Paris and of the 19th century, I definitely look forward to reading your next novel 🙂
    I recently re-read Zola’s “Au Bonheur des dames” (Ladies’ Paradise) and I think it remains a fascinating account of the impact of the urban transformations made by Haussmann in the 1860s.
    For original sources like cookbooks, weather records etc., you can find lots of digitised records in the Gallica database maintained by the French National Library (BNF):
    It’s a really good site and they are constantly improving it.

  2. Love that you’re sharing your process.

    Re: “PS – my desk is a mess”…
    My house is a mess! 🙂

  3. I agree with Carol. I can get caught up in the fascination of finding information and hidden details of history. A new door opens and you just have to walk through to explore what’s on the other side. Before you know it, you are lost in the labyrinth of history. It’s a nice place to find yourself. It’s preferable to the daunting task of writing the first chapter of the next novel. But, like you, that’s where I am today-page one. “It was a dark and stormy night…” Nah, maybe I should research the history of the Texas Rangers instead. That’s worth a few days reading.

  4. I love reading posts like this one because my documentation process is similar! It always helps knowing there’s somebody else out there struggling to understand past ways of life. I’m looking forward to know how this book evolves!

    1. Hi Dorothy … thanks for stopping by. I’ll post every now and then on progress. For now, I’m in that stage of being wary of plunging in. However, I’ve done so much research, it’s probably time to get wet!

    1. Might be a little while in coming, Kalgoorliegirl. I’m still at the beginning stages … however I have another novel that should be out late August or early September 🙂

  5. Likewise Mary…the research process is wonderful but the application of that information to the story…ah…that’s the rub and where the art is I think. Once July comes I will be able to get back to the novel and start the third draft…my desk is a mess but I look forward to your posts which allow me to feel that I am part of a wider world outside of my study window:)

  6. Chere Marie, It is very exciting to see you begin a book on Paris 19th century. Last year, I was lucky to go and at the Petit Palais museum they had an exhibit about the Belle Epoque/ 1900s. But here I go with the erotica bit: they had a very beautiful chaise longue with tall legs. It used to reside at the Prince of Wales’s suite in Paris. It looked more like a very comfortable ob- gyn doctor’s exam chair. Apparently the Prince, who was quite round, needed to be standing up… The rest I leave to your imagination!

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