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.

A Year of Reading – Part 2

On Tuesday, I posted books read between January and June 2014. Today I’ve included those from the balance of the year using the same rating scheme: GR = good read, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type; LR = light, enjoyable read.

Jul The Miniaturist Jessie Burton OR Atmospheric, set in 17th century Amsterdam; review for Washington Independent Review of Books
The Invention of Wings Sue Monk Kidd ER Begins in 19th century Charleston when Sarah Grimke is given Hetty to be her handmaid
The Shadow of War Stewart Binns GR HNS article on WWI novels; confused by too many story threads
Aug A Cool & Lonely Courage Susan Ottaway GR HNS review; non-fiction; too linear, too many extraneous details
The Queen’s Exiles Barbara Kyle LR Drama set in Tudor times; part of Thornleigh stories
Certainty Victor Bevine ER HNS review; great character study and court drama
Voyage of Strangers Elizabeth Zevlin GR HNS review; set during Columbus’s time; too slow
Sep Devil’s Cave Martin Walker LR Detective Bruno mystery set in France
GI Brides Duncan Barrett & Nuala Calvi GR HNS review; non-fiction
Oct The Divine Sarah Arthur Gold & Robert Fizdale ER Biography of Sarah Bernhardt
The Yellow Birds Kevin Powers GR Book club; soldier returned from Iraq; fragmented non-linear structure
An Invisible Thread Laura Schoff NMT Book club; Too sappy for me
The Summer Queen Elizabeth Chadwick OR Superb; first in a series on Eleanor of Aquitaine
The Lewis Man Peter May ER High suspense mystery
Gray Mountain John Grisham GR Disappointing for a Grisham novel; a rant on the coal industry
Never Forget Angela Petch GR WWII & present day; set in Italy
Nov The Husband’s Secret Liane Moriarty ER Book club; Slow start followed by great build up to surprising climax
The Course of Honour Lindsey Davis ER Set in ancient Rome
Dec Arctic Summer Damon Galgut GR HNS review; fictional biography of E.M. Forster
Stormbird Conn Iggulden ER First in series on the Wars of the Roses
Me Before You Jojo Moyes LR Book club; A bit too sappy and predictable
Wild Cheryl Strayed ER Non-fiction; occasional slow bits but a page-turner

Good news, I received two books for Christmas: Penelope Fitzgerald – a biography of this writer by Hermione Lee and Firebird by Susanna Kearsley. And the mail just delivered Sisters of Heart and Snow by Margaret Dilloway to be reviewed for the Historical Novel Society. Hopefully 2015 will also be a year full of books.

What were your favourites from 2014? Any idea of how many you read last year?

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 in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

The Divine Sarah

source: pictify.com
source: pictify.com

Several months ago, as we were moving from house to condo and clearing accumulated junk was the order of the day, I came across a book that has graced my shelves for a long, long time. A book I had never read – The Divine Sarah by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale.

The cover features a picture of Sarah Bernhardt lounging seductively on a red divan, feathered fan in one hand, a dog curled at her feet. My hand hovered. Should this biography be placed in the donation pile or should I continue to keep it in the hope of one day reading about this woman who captivated theatre goers around the world?

A sudden thought. Perhaps, this could be the subject of my next novel. Decision made, I kept the book and finally began reading The Divine Sarah three weeks ago. Notepad and pen in hand, possibilities beckoned.

Born October 23, 1844 to Julie Bernard, a courtesan who spent most of her time and effort on the men in her life, Sarah was sent to Brittany as a little girl to be raised by a peasant nurse and later to boarding school and finally a convent school. Convinced of her destiny as a nun, Sarah rejects her mother’s attempts to find a suitable husband, however, one of Julie’s lovers suggests an acting career and after seeing a production at the Comedie Francaise, Sarah is hooked.

Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale do an admirable job of documenting Sarah’s life, weaving narrative with letters, diaries and written accounts of others close to the actress, but in the end Sarah Bernhardt emerges as a woman with countless lovers, an insatiable thirst for the stage and an endless series of acting roles and lavish productions. And 330 pages later, I am left with a feeling of ‘ho hum’. Not that Bernhardt wasn’t a woman of grit with an indomitable spirit and a fierce commitment to her art, but I wasn’t as captivated as I had expected to be and certainly not enough to spend at least two years creating a novel around her life.

Ah well, c’est la vie.

An update as of October 2016 … Sarah has made her way into my current WIP as a minor character during the siege of Paris. Turns out there was a little fuel in this book after all.

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, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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.