It’s always about the money

one of the octroi collection points
one of the octroi collection points (source Paris 75011)

Do you know what octroi refers to? Well, before investigating the history of Paris, I had no idea. Apparently it’s a local tax levied on goods coming into a city and can sometimes refer to the place where that tax is collected and the people collecting it. The Romans had such a tax but didn’t call it octroi. In the middle ages, French cities flexed their muscles and demanded the right to collect taxes – demanded is probably too strong a word as the reigning sovereign had to approve such matters and wasn’t above taking a share for his own coffers. Paris was one of the cities to apply an octroi to goods coming into the city.

Fast forward to the 19th century. By 1850 long lines of vendors formed everyday at customs pavilions designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux to pay the tax. But the city had grown beyond these collection points and according the Stephane Kirkland in his book Paris Reborn, “The octroi collection points posed a real problem of convenience. Each time one wanted to reenter the city, one had to stop, queue for a time routinely as much as half an hour, and state whether or not you had anything to declare … fashionable people on their promenades constantly had to cross through the Etoile checkpoint, which was one of the busiest.”

Beware inconveniencing fashionable people.

By the mid to late 1850s, Haussmann had an idea. Expand the city limits of Paris. In that way, the collection points for the octroi would encompass more goods and transactions and hence more funds, and the inconvenience factor would disappear. Eminently sensible particularly at a time when the rebuilding of Paris required a lot more money.

Haussmann was good at manoeuvring. He made clever arguments to the right people including Napoleon III and by January 1, 1860 the city boundaries had expanded. Kirkland sums it up like this: “Overnight, the city grew from thirteen to thirty-three square miles and gained 400,000 new inhabitants, taking its population from 1.1 million to 1.5 millions.” Paris now incorporated towns like Belleville, Montmartre, Passy, Auteuil and others. And a new arrondissement structure came into effect.

Octrois in Paris and throughout France were finally abolished in 1948.

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.