Read authors of the time period. Almost every article on writing historical fiction, offers this piece of advice. Emile Zola, one of the great French writers of the nineteenth century, is praised for his portrayals of life in France. I chose to read Au Bonheur des Dames – The Ladies Paradise – as part of researching the times of my next novel.
Very briefly, Au Bonheur des Dames “recounts the rise of the modern department store in late nineteenth-century Paris. The store is a symbol of capitalism, of the modern city, and of the bourgeois family: it is emblematic of changes in consumer culture and the changes in sexual attitudes and class relations taking place.”
Has reading it been useful? Well, I’ve certainly underlined a lot: bits about fashion, words and phrases in use at the time, attitudes, costs.
“tartan at nine sous, some strips of American vison (a species of mink) at a franc, and some mittens at five sous” – items for sale at the department store:
“silk stockings” good to know these existed in my time period
“large sash of Bruges lace” and more about lace varieties “Monition, Valenciennes, Brussels, and Venetian-point”
“opera cloaks in white cashmere and white silk trimmed with swansdown or chenille” – I foresee a scene at the opera in my next novel
“a woman always needs a man. If you had found an honest young fellow, you wouldn’t have dropped on to the Paris pavement, you and your brothers, like a family of gypsies.” – nineteenth century attitudes about women and gypsies
“an umbrella and walking stick shop” – the sort of shops people visited at the time
“amiable audacity of an adventurer” – words used at the time
“brought up in the old school, knowing how long it took to learn all the cunning and tricks of the trade. The art was not to sell a large quantity, but to sell dear.” – more attitudes of the day
“a stream of dirty water was running along the gutters, the pavement was thick with a sticky black mud; and through the beating rain she saw nothing but a confused stream of umbrellas” – an image of the streets of Paris
“Paris yielding herself with a kiss to the boldest” – a perspective on Parisian society
“stupid as a donkey” – interesting phrase
“a woman already thirty-five, although only acknowledging twenty-nine” – twas ever thus
“Two hundred francs for a plain ivory mount, with a monogram.” – this is about fans, a common accessory in the nineteenth century
“wearing a moustache and an imperial with the military correctness so much liked at the Tuileries” – description of a man
“small round table with a light copper mounting” – furniture of the period
“counter-jumper” – a derogatory term for shop assistant
And so on. Definitely a wealth of information to consider for my next novel.
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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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.