Novels are made of tiny details

I often write the broad strokes of a story first with the basics of setting, the primary actions that occur and the dialogue that moves the story along while revealing each character’s emotions and motivations.

On another pass, I add emotional reactions, inner dialogue and telling details. Like any other genre, historical fiction readers appreciate small details of setting, clothing, facial expressions and so on and, in particular, those that transport them in time and place.

I added a few such details just last week during a final pass at Paris in Ruins before sending it off for a copy edit. Below are just a few to give you a sense of what I mean.

“Bertrand turned west onto rue Faubourg Saint Honore and they fell silent. Most of the small shops were shuttered for the night, but the cafés were lively with patrons sitting both inside and out sharing laughter and boisterous conversation, consuming beer and wine and cognac, smacking their lips and eating with gusto. Here and there a ragged child lingered at the edges of these groups, holding out a hand for a coin or a crust of bread.” 

I wanted to illustrate the inequalities in Parisian society so readers can begin to understand the factors leading to the Paris Commune.

~~~

Camille watched her father drop a dollop of jam on his croissant. He seemed just as calm as usual despite the mounting crisis unfolding around them. They were in the breakfast room, which was located across the hall from the main dining room and much less formal. The room’s pale green walls, floral drapes, and tall windows that opened outward to let in the morning air reminded her of summers by the sea.

Camille is one of two main characters in the story. These details help paint the scene and provide a little background of Camille’s upbringing that was wealthy enough to include summers by the sea.

~~~

After her eighteenth birthday, and with her mother’s encouragement, Mariele had redecorated her bedroom, stripping out all but a few childhood possessions, and replacing the décor with more adult choices including a canopied bed, a new dressing table, and a chaise for reading. Mariele picked up the book of Victor Hugo’s poems that lay on the chaise and added it to her bag.

Mariele is the other main character in Paris in Ruins. The furnishings and reference to Victor Hugo are to help situate the time period. I chose to reference his poems rather than famous works like The Hunchback of Notre Dame to give an insight into her personality. Serendipity led me to Victor Hugo’s poetry – I wrote about one of those poems last week .

~~~

By Unknown author – Le Monde illustré, 17 juin 1871 (Gallica), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65283878

The gates of Paris had closed. No one allowed in or out without permission and the proper documents. Fortified by a wall thirty feet high, a moat ten feet wide, and an outer ring of forts comprising a forty-mile circumference around the city, most Parisians were convinced of their impregnability. The Prussian army, however, had gradually surrounded Paris with a fifty-mile ring of troops and was now digging in, building their own fortifications while assembling the necessary tools of siege warfare: cannons, provisions, bridges, access to water, living quarters, fuel, medical facilities, and equipment. If assessments were accurate, the siege could be long and difficult. Some would not survive.

I wanted to know just how big those walls were and thought readers would too. Their massive size contributed to the cocky attitude of Parisians. On the map below you can see the walls as well as the forts beyond the walls.

Walls and outer forts of Paris 1870

~~~

He lowered the newspaper and peered at her. “Volunteered? At a hospital run by Sarah Bernhardt? What do you know about hospitals? Or about Madame Bernhardt, for that matter? And why would I allow my daughter to do such a thing?”

Camille bristled at his words but knew not to spark a quarrel. Her mother always cautioned with an old proverb: Le miel est doux, mais l’abeille pique. Honey is sweet, but the bee stings.

An early reader recommended that I show the way young women were confined in 19th century Paris by their parents and by society’s rules. The proverb tells us something about Camille and her mother. 

~~~

“You don’t have to do this,” he [André ] said. “It could be dangerous work and I certainly wouldn’t think less of you if you declined.”

Camille squared her shoulders. “I’m doing it for Paris, for my family and friends, for France. It’s important and I want to do something important. I’m privileged, monsieur. Privileged to be part of an educated, wealthy class. With privilege comes responsibility.” Her lips formed a rueful smile. “That’s what my sister would have said, if she were still alive.”

André has asked Camille to collect information about the Montmartre Vigilance Committee, a radical group of women calling for revolution and led by Louise Michel (a real person) and report her findings to him. I wanted to add depth to her motivations for doing so.

I hope you enjoyed these few snippets. As you can imagine, there are many more!

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Victor Hugo’s Sur Une Barricade

Sometimes I come across a unique bit of history while researching for one of my novels. As I’ve mentioned before, Paris in Ruins, the novel I plan to self-publish relatively soon, is set in 1870 and 1871, a time when Paris went through the horror of a destructive, deadly siege by the Prussian Army and an uprising that pitted citizen against citizen.

Victor Hugo created a poem about that uprising. Sur Une Barricade. I found it in translation on The French Desk, a blog created by Michael Partridge.

Barricades were everywhere during the siege, demolished after France capitulated to Prussia and then re-emerged when the Commune took over. Made of wood, sandbags, overturned carts, bricks and other material, such barricades blocked the forward movement of troops, while providing protection to those men and women – yes, women – who defended them.

According to Michael Partridge, “Hugo was dismayed at the wrongdoings of both the Communards and the government, writing in a diary entry, “this Commune is as idiotic as the National Assembly is ferocious. From both sides, folly.”

We’ve all heard of Hugo’s famous works such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, but he was also a renowned poet of the romantic movement.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Dangerous Pleasures of Research

Iva Polansky has a wonderful blog called Victorian Paris. I came across it when looking for inspiration for an 1870 Christmas scene for Paris in Ruins, the novel I’m currently finalizing.

The Dangerous Pleasures of Research by Iva Polansky

Like it or not, if you write about something outside your personal experience, you need to research. What do you feel when you hear the word “research”? Ah, you’d rather dye your hair in rainbow hues than going that way. And why would you research, if you can write a fantasy story instead? Your world, your rules, no annoying searching. A bliss.

Research is not as hard as you think. Not anymore. Twelve years ago, when I began to write my first novel Fame and Infamy, set in the 1870s Paris, I was new at the game and I learned the hard way. I made a trip to Paris to scout for the locations of my story and to shop for books published in the 19th century. The physical effort of getting the books on the flight home also needs be mentioned along with the cost of overweight luggage. More old, out-of-print books kept coming via the mail. The expenses grew and my husband began to grumble. I don’t blame him.

Today, I could do the same research from home without spending a red cent. For locations, I’d use Google Maps where I can indulge in a virtual visit of Paris, ambling along this street and that one, looking for details that could be there in the 1870s. The e-copies of books I paid hard-earned money for are available free at the Gallica (French National Library) website. Not that I did not enjoy my Paris trip. The tastes, smells, and sounds of the city are sadly missing in electronic searching. What I’m saying here is that research needs not to eat your time and money.

In my current work, I’m visiting the late nineteenth century Paris again—and why not since I had made all that effort to get there?—and I need to create a new character: a world-famous hypnotist. Let me show you how it is done in a fast and easy way.

I decided, for reasons I need not explain here, that the hypnotist will be an Austrian. He is a large man who needs a substantial name. Googling German names, I came up with Beckenheimer. My celebrated hypnotist will be professionally known as the Great Beckenheimer.

Next, I need to learn hypnosis. My only experience happened years ago when I saw an entertaining show in which a hypnotist made buffoons of a dozen volunteers. They remained hypnotized during the intermission when they mingled with the rest of the audience. What impressed me then was their genuine confusion when asked questions about their stage experience and I’ll never forget the peculiar glassy expression in their eyes. Since then, I’ve held hypnosis in awe.

On we go in search of a course in hypnosis. The American School of Hypnosis website offers a 446-page hypnosis manual as a free download. I snap it up (not that I will read all of it now). Better yet, YouTube provides free live courses in hypnosis, including a technique called the instant induction. The instant induction is exactly what I need and it takes only ten minutes to learn. Perfect.

The Great Beckenheimer needs a home. He is comfortably retired in a Paris suburb called Marnes-la-Coquette. I selected this location because I like the coquettish name. I go to Google maps and key Marnes-la-Coquetteto choose a 19th-century villa to describe. This can take some time as I enjoy looking at the local architecture that favors the Norman style: mostly stone with a brick and white wood trimming. There is a quaint railway station too.

As a hobby, Beckenheimer grows orchids in his small hothouse (I google orchids for gardening tips). Career nostalgia fills the old man’s living room. Here, I google 19th-century hypnosis and go directly to the images. The 19th-century advertising language is loud and shameless. I pick up several posters and click the links to the corresponding webpages. They lead to interesting articles and more images. At one time, I end up on a Russian website. No problem there. I click on the little black and white icon that appears close to the bookmark star and the text is instantly translated into English. I’m glad for the Russian detour as I find a very interesting tidbit there about the hypnotic attacks crime. (Wow, what a trick to have up my sleeve for a future story!)  If an image has no link to a website, I right-click on it and choose Search Google with this image in the drop-down menu. This will show me every website where this image is located. You can imagine the possibilities.

With this minor effort, my knowledge grows. I’m getting ideas about how to improve the story in several ways and they are ideas born from learning. The story begins to plot itself. Here, one can reach the dangerous point of addiction. I admit I’m a research junkie. After the publication of Fame and Infamy, I was left with a mountain of material, most of it unused. Saddened about all that waste, an idea came to me to offer this wealth of information to the public. After nine years in existence, four universities are now linked to my Victorian Paris blogLast year, I published a collection of the blog posts in a 343-page ebook under the title Life in 19th Century ParisThere is no such thing as a useless knowledge and acquiring it can be entertaining. Give it a try.

Iva shares a few of her blog posts … you can find many more at Victorian Paris.

The Noon Girl: La Midinette  – After the grisette and thegigolette, here is another typical Parisian girl.

Life in the Age of Decay – Abandon all romantic thoughts about horse transport!

La Castiglione: The Too Much Countess – Italy sends a spy to seduce the French Emperor.

Fame and Infamy by Iva Polansky ~~ Is it hard to be famous in 1870’s Paris? Ask the sharp-shooting contest winner Miss Nelly McKay, formerly of Butte, Montana. She is already walking the thin line between fame and infamy when she is noticed by Chancellor Bismarck and the German Secret Service. Yet all she ever wanted was to marry a gentleman!

Fame and Infamy is an entertaining blend of comedy, mystery, romance and hard facts. Sarah Bernhardt and Victor Hugo are among the celebrities who share the scene with gritty characters emerging from the bohemian Latin Quarter. Paris, mopping up after the twin calamities of war and revolution, provides a background for this hearty clash of French and American cultures.