Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Musings on setting, Part 2

So, a couple of weeks ago I posted about how there’s no need to limit yourself to using only real parts of real settings in your book. If your story requires a church or a street or cinema or a train station or whatever, and nothing in your real setting cuts the mustard, then invent away!

But … to pull off this fakery, you first need to have immersed yourself in your real life setting, so you know where you can successfully fake it and where you simply can’t.

I don’t doubt there are a million different ways to go about this, but here’s what I’ve done to marinate my brain in nineteenth century Paris and hopefully ensure my made up bits seem as authentic as the real city:-

(N.B. And just a word of advice – NEVER throw away study materials. I studied nineteenth century French History at university. You’d have thought that when I began to write my book, I would have had ample material at my fingertips to ensure my setting - and my invented parts of Paris - were as accurate as possible. Erm, no. Ten years ago, and before I ever contemplated writing a novel, I threw out my university books and notes in a massive cleaning frenzy - every single one of them. Idiot!)

Novels: To gain a real feel for the general layout and everyday life in Paris, as well as glimpses of its sights, smells and customs, I’ve read many books by nineteenth century French novelists - Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, George Sand, Eugene Sue, to name a few. They’ve given me insights that straight histories of Paris just don’t include.

Journals and diaries: My university library, and online, Project Gutenberg, have been fabulous for tracking down hard-to-come-by contemporary travel guides of Paris, as well as journals recording British tourists’ experiences of the city. The latter have been particularly invaluable in helping me to understand how my main character, an Englishwoman, may have viewed and experienced Paris in 1864.

Art work: Paintings of Paris by artists of the day are another great way to get a feel for the city. I have a good collection of Monets, Manets, Degas, Renoirs – erm, books containing prints of these artists’ works, I should point out, NOT the originals; otherwise I’d be typing this aboard my luxury yacht moored off the Bahamas. (g) And web sites such as Bridgeman Art have tons of fine art images, too, and are searchable by subject matter as well as artist.

Blogs: Much of the architecture and lay out of nineteenth century Paris still exists, so I subscribe to quite a few blogs by foreigners living in Paris in order to catch a glimpse of the older sections of the city in the photos they post. Paris Parfait, O Chateau, Secrets of Paris, The Paris Blog, Invisible Paris are but a few of these blogs … but the best of the lot is “Peter’s Paris”. This blog is maintained by “Peter” (obviously), a retired Swedish photographer whose first language is very much NOT English (g)). He lives in Paris, and the lucky gentleman gets to wander its streets taking and posting stacks of brilliant photographs of many of the older parts of the city… and, from the point of view of a writer who has to know exactly where things are in a setting, the very best thing about this blog is that Peter shows the precise location of all his subjects on arrow-marked maps. No more guess work - brilliant!

And of course, in my quest to know Paris from afar,Wikepedia and Google have been my very dear friends. Aren’t they yours, too? (g)

So, what do you do to immerse yourself in your settings? And is there a different approach with contemporary settings? I’m curious!

And a short addendum …

I lost my writing buddy last weekend. Tex, our cat, died on Saturday after succumbing to irreversible kidney failure. It’s a sad time in our house … but lightened ever so slightly by the imminent purchase of two new kittens: two new playmates for the kids, and two new writing buddies to lounge in my study and offer telepathic support as I write (once the tail-chasing, kitten hyperactivity abates!)

Vale, Tex. Writing was a much less solitary pursuit because of you.


  1. So sorry to hear about Tex *hugs*

    My WIP is set in modern-day Melbourne, and mostly I've used real places. That said, I did invent a convenient cafe (in the cafe district in Fitzroy) because I needed the male MC to know the owner :-)

  2. *hugs* Sorry to hear about Tex. I wish I could write at home more often and be distracted by my cats... Chirpy's (the inspiration for Kedi) nosing me as we speak...
    That's probably why I'm so paranoid about getting rid of books - I keep 'em all, just in case I need them someday. Also, out of sight out of mind; if I didn't keep them I'd probably borrow/buy the same books all the time, not realising by the title that I'd already read 'em.

    I try not to let Google sucker me in when I first start a book - if I leapt onto the internet for every question I'd never get any words down. I've started my library research now that I'm about halfway through the draft. It's interesting when you write stuff and then find that you got things right without even knowing. Other times, I find I was waaay off.

  3. Helen and Deniz - thanks for the virtual hugs. Much needed.

    And Helen, it must be great to actually be able to wander around your setting, to live and breathe it. How inspiring that would be!

    Deniz - a good approach to the research. I personally need to do enough research to get me going (and so I am aware of how much I don't know, and need to look up later) and then set it aside and hop into the writing. Otherwise I'd be in the library forever. (g)