When Research Includes a Trip to Paris

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Ah, yes, for how many years have I longed to write that title. I have always been a big researcher. I honed my research skills through undergrad, professional and graduate degrees. I love me a good research book.

For the Kate Lange legal thriller series, I conducted extensive research into various subject matters: police procedure, biomedical issues, forensic anthropology, forensic pathology, and tattoos, amongst other things. But I didn’t have to go very far to conduct research on the setting, because my series is set in my hometown, Halifax, Nova Scotia. I enjoy writing about Halifax, because it forces me to view my old, familiar haunting grounds through a new lens: that of a reader.

But the truism, “a change is as good as a rest” holds true for me creatively, and I wanted to return to a historical period for a new, standalone novel. The period is post-Terror France, the protagonist is a female spy, and the scope of the novel is grand. The research required to outline the novel has been extensive. Fortunately, Halifax with its four universities, has excellent library holdings. I spent over a year researching the time period and drafting five versions of an outline. (I felt as if I was a forty-something undergrad). The internet has also been a great resource, as I scour sites for digital memoirs that I cannot access locally, or for images of rare street maps. I find that memoirs and accounts written from that period give me the best insight into life during those times: the social mores, the intrigues, the politics, the tidbits of daily life that make a scene real.

But I needed to get my feet on the cobblestone streets of Paris and experience the light, the air, and the geography of the district. Many of the historic sites from the period in which I am writing had been destroyed or demolished (the Bastille, the former Palais de Justice, the Temple prison), but I wanted to walk the streets so I could talk the talk in my work in progress.

Speaking of talking the talk, I also spent eight months prior to our departure enrolled in bi-weekly semi-private French tutoring at Alliance Française with my eldest daughter, who was preparing for a French oral examination. Not only did I want to brush off my French for our planned trip, but I also needed a refresher on grammar so that I could improve my understanding of primary documents (ie. letters) written during that period that had not been translated into English.

Over the course of last winter, the “research trip” evolved into planning for a family trip included not only a visit to Paris, but also to Berlin and Munich (where I have family), and then to Venice (because… well… it’s Venice!). The entire trip would be taken by train, so we could see the landscape of the countries as much as possible.

Planning the itinerary for Paris required a fair amount of research, in and of itself. I booked a hotel that was close to the Luxembourg Gardens, on the cusp of the Saint-Germain-de-Près and the Latin Quarter. I deliberately chose a hotel that was built in the 18th century, the period in which I was writing, so that I could experience the scale of the rooms, the architecture of the street, and the view from the windows. Every day, we walked past a medieval monastery and over the Pont Neuf through the Ile de la Cité, key areas for the setting of my book.

After we arrived in Paris, and had taken our girls to several major sites, I had an itinerary to follow. First stop on the research trip: Hôtel Carnavalet. One of the few remaining instances of Renaissance architecture in Paris, it was converted into a museum, and now houses a full floor of Revolutionary aritfacts, artwork depicting the period, and some wonderful architectural recreations of buildings that no longer existed. I used my phone to photograph every picture, and every display of interpretive information. Fortunately, the French refresher I took enabled me to understand the descriptions. My family, jet-lagged and footsore, ran out of steam after our third hour there. I found them collapsed in a stairwell…

Then, we set off on a walking tour of one of the oldest areas of Paris: the Marais district, which was originally founded by the Knights Templar. Based on my research, I knew that there was a painted outline on a street in Paris that marked the original foundations of the Temple prison, which housed Louis XVI, his wife Queen Marie Antoinette, as well as other famous political prisoners of the Revolution. This is a depiction of Louis XVI during one of his daily walks outside the Temple:

 

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The building no longer exists, so it was like a treasure hunt, searching for the historic landmarks that would identify the original sites of these settings. We eventually found the outline of the foundations of the temple, on this street by the Marais Hôtel de Ville:

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And then… the unexpected thrill of walking out of the Square du Temple (an enclosed garden on the site of the original Temple quarter) and discovering a plaque on the gate with a map detailing the original map of the quarter:

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Of course, as a writer, I like to find the small details to make the scene breathe for my readers. Open doorways are always irresistible:

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We also visited many other important landmarks, and took our girls to a flea market in Porte de Vanves where we all had fun doing a different kind of treasure hunt.

Finally, here is the requisite author photo. On the right side of the photo is one of my favourite landmarks in Paris: the medieval Conciergerie (where Marie Antoinette was moved prior to her execution), part of the original Palais de la Cité on the Ile de la Cité.

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There is some debate amongst writers about whether it is better to research a place before one writes the first draft or after, but for me, I need to feel in command of the setting before I write. I’m hoping/planning another trip before this book is published, to finalize details.

A few other observations about Paris that I brought home with me: meal time is a dedicated social time for Parisians. I never witnessed anyone, in any café, on a phone. Even if they were eating by themselves. And I also never saw anyone walking on the streets with a takeout coffee cup. Finally, independent bookstores abounded. Something to think about in our fast-paced, on-the-go society.