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 NowNovel.com. 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.

Timelines

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.

2015 A Year of Reading – Part 2

Books read 2015On January 6th, I posted 24 of the 40 books read during 2015. So today I’m including the balance using the same rating system: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type.

In the process of writing this post, I’ve discovered two additional books read this year. You’ll see them listed at the end.

June The Dream Lover Elizabeth Berg GR Novel about George Sand; back and forth timeline was confusing; events felt repetitive
Mademoiselle Chanel C.W. Gortner ER Coco Chanel in all her glories and contradictions; not quite as compelling as The Queen’s Vow or The Last Queen
Will Poole’s Island Tim Weed ER In 17th century New England, a young man meets a visionary native; Excellent historical fiction
July Death of a Century Daniel Robinson NMT Read for an HNS feature; poorly written
Aug The Ashford Affair Lauren Willig ER A woman uncovers a family mystery; well written page turner
Claude & Camille Stephanie Cowell ER Claude Monet and his first wife Camille; great historical detail of impressionist era
Children of War Martin Walker LR Mystery set in Dordogne; lots of twists and turns; read as audiobook
The Children Act Ian McEwan ER McEwan is a superb writer; this is a poignant tale that is hard to put down
Sept H is For Hawk Helen MacDonald NMT Book club read; memoir; way too much detail on goshawks
Elizabeth I Margaret George OR Elizabeth I in her later years; superb characters and history; the second half is particularly compelling
Oct The Muralist B.A. Shapiro GR Art and intrigue at the beginnings of WWII; distracting dual time structure and multiple voices
Nov Mr. Churchill’s Secretary Susan Elia MacNeal LR Whodunit set in WWI England
Power Play Danielle Steele NMT I’m sure there are fans of Danielle Steele but I’m not one of them; trite and simplistic
The Golden Child Penelope Fitzgerald DNF Quirky people employed at a British museum
Dec Circling the Sun Paula McLain ER Based on the life of Beryl Clutterbuck the first woman to fly across the Atlantic; well written; rich characters & setting
The Secret Chord Geraldine Brooks OR The life of the biblical King David as told by his prophet Natan; historically captivating
Oops– forgot these Purity Jonathan Franzen DNF Annoying characters and thin plot; guess I’m not a Franzen fan
The Lover’s Path Kris Waldherr LR Novella told like a fable

2016 is off to the races with Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay, At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Blakewell which I began in late November, and Paris Reborn by Stephane Kirkland.

Wishing everyone a great year of reading.

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.