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.

What is it about Paris?

I love Paris. What is it about this beautiful, historic city that pulls at the heart and the imagination? What is it that can make you want to explore time and again this world of iconic buildings, cafes, and museums, to listen to the language, admire Parisians’ flare for fashion, taste the wonderful food, enjoy the green spaces, statues, celebrate the artists and literary greats who lived there?

Lies Told in Silence opens and ends in Paris. Paris in Ruins – planned for fall publication – features the city in the midst of siege and rebellion. You Don’t Know Me – my first contemporary novel – includes several scenes in the city. I take great pleasure placing my characters in places that I’ve explored: Montmartre, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Pantheon, Shakespeare and Company’s famous bookstore, the narrow streets and wide boulevards.

Who knows, maybe the next novel will also feature Paris and I’ll have an excuse to visit once more. As Ernest Hemingway once said … There are only two places in the world where we can live happy: at home and in Paris.

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.

 

Paris in Ruins – the editing continues

During the Paris Commune many building were destroyed – some by fire, some by bombardment. The Vendome Column was destroyed by raw physical power — men with strong ropes pulling the statue to the ground. A symbol of Napoleon’s imperialism, the column was built in the early years of the 19th century of bronze taken from captured cannons from the Austrian and Russian armies. Writing in his memoir My Adventures in the Commune, Ernest Alfred Vizetelly says:

On the summit was set a statue by Chaudet representing Napoleon in classic garb, with a laurel crown round his head, and, in his hand, a small winged figure of Victory, standing on a globe.

Leaders of the Commune saw the column as a monument to war and tyranny and were determined to destroy it. Michael Hill, author of Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris, writes:

To prepare for the tremendous shock which would come from the fallen column, tons of manure and straw were piled at its base and ‘shop windows within half a mile were pasted over with strips of paper to prevent their being broken.’

I wrote a scene about this incident with Mariele, one of two main characters, and her mother attending the event. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it through this last round of editing.

~~~

“I’m going, Maman. I don’t care what Tante Isabelle thinks. These despicable people have already destroyed so much. I want to bear witness when the Vendôme Column falls.”

“But it won’t be safe.”

“Nothing is safe anymore. But I agreed, when you asked me to stop nursing last week, didn’t I? Papa would go if he were here.”

The Journal Officiel, the official newspaper of the Commune, announced that the Vendôme Column would fall that day at two p.m. Cast in bronze and with a statue of Napoleon at its peak, the column stood more than one hundred and forty feet high and was almost fourteen feet in diameter. Members of the Commune had prepared for weeks to destroy this symbol of Napoleon’s imperialism. A suggestion had even been made that in its place would be a statue honoring republicanism.

“If you insist on going, I will come with you,” her mother said.

“Come with me? Of course, Maman, but you haven’t been out for weeks.”

“I know, but my seclusion has achieved nothing. Robert [Mariele’s brother] would want me to go, and your father would want me to look after you. We can tell them about it when they return.” Her mother’s voice trailed off to a whisper, and Mariele squeezed her hand.

By the time Mariele and her mother arrived, the Rue de la Paix was a sea of bobbing heads straining for a glimpse of history. Every balcony was full and faces peeped out of every window overlooking Place Vendôme. Bands played and people sang. Leaders of the Commune arrived wearing gold-braided uniforms and colorful sashes. The people waited more than two hours until finally the massive column, the top lashed with thick ropes pulled by hundreds of men, began to tilt. The column moved slowly at first but then with more speed as it tumbled over and with a wrenching sound split into three pieces.

The ground trembled, buildings shook, windows rattled, women screamed in fright. Particles of manure and sand, put in place to cushion the blow, flew into the air like a thick cloud. “Vive la Commune!” people shouted as others waved red flags and still others rushed forward to touch the giant monument, and the bands played once again.

Mariele held Maman’s hand and blinked away her tears. That such a powerful symbol of France’s place in the world could be demolished shocked her to the core and stirred a passion she hadn’t known she possessed for her country and her city. If I were a man, I would take up arms against these people who have destroyed so much and seem determined to destroy so much more.

~~~

Last week while doing the last bits of tuning, I decided that this scene didn’t really advance the story, even though the event fascinated me on a personal level.

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.