Monday, November 18, 2013

Doing Research in Paris by Guest Author Yves Fey

Setting is a critical element of many books, and when settings are real places, accuracy of both fact and feel is vital. After all, many of our readers have been there, wherever "there" is. Today we continue the "place & time" theme" with author Yves Fey and her approach to research in The City of Lights. ~ Sheila

Doing Research in Paris

by Yves Fey

I’ve been to Paris to research my mystery, and I don’t believe I could have written it as vividly if I hadn’t walked the streets of the Ile St. Louis, the Left Bank, and climbed the Butte Montmartre.   I visited the cathedrals and the cemeteries.  Gathering a certain amount of courage, I also descended into the catacombs, now much cleaned up for tourists since the days when they wandered through by lamplight.  I feared being depressed more than frightened, and while it was a bit glum it was interesting as well.  I visited many homes of authors and artists that were still in their original buildings.  The Rodin museum is particularly impressive, the house and garden filled with his sculptures by Rodin, and many by Camille Claudel, who I hope will appear as a character in my series.  Specialty museums, like the Museé Montmartre and the Police Museum both informed me about my particular book and offered future inspiration.  Once I was lucky enough to discover a movie set in my era being filmed near where I was staying.

Most deliciously, there are many wonderful restaurants that keep their Belle Époque exteriors.  Some have the original décor and furnishings to suggest the period.  Maxim’s is not all that welcoming to the camera toting tourist, so I’ll have to pay for a meal or content myself with scenes from Gigi or Midnight in Paris.  They do now have an adjacent museum, an apartment displaying the furnishing of a famous courtesan. One of my favorites places for a meal or a snack is Ladurée.  It’s open most of the day and can be visited for a (very pricey) cup of tea and macaron, or pudding-thick pot of hot chocolate.  The prices are worth the perfect atmosphere, for Paris’ first tea shop still has the ceiling designed by Jules Chéret, who did many of the night club posters in a more sprightly mode than Toulouse-Lautrec’s bold new wave of advertising. There are even more dramatic fin de siècle cafés and restaurants to visit.  The exquisite tile work of La Fermette Marbouf was hidden under renovations for decades before it was rediscovered and restored.

The sequel to Floats the Dark Shadow is mostly set in January of 1898.  I’ve been pining to return, telling myself that I can’t truly capture a snow covered Paris without having seen it.  Part of me truly believes this, since I can only imagine the softening silence of snow on the city, and part just wants the excuse to fly away and freeze my toes there.    Since my vision of winter Paris will probably have to be funded by my imagination rather than my pocketbook, I remind myself that my first visit was in May, which was terribly cold and rainy, mimicking a Northern California February.  I have a scene set in the Bois de Boulogne, and I never managed to get there, so I know that my research books and my online image finds will be enough of an overlay on my knowledge of the city to bring it to life. I have seen Les Parc des Buttes Chaumont, which will be the scene of a murder in my next book.  With the help of old photos, the leafy greenness I saw will transform to bare trees and icy pathways. I like to take my photographs or public domain works and fiddle them in Paintshop Pro to give them a more impressionist feel.  Day can become night, fall can become winter.

I do read many, many books, because even basic histories often have different tidbits.  Different authors have different takes on the events and the people involved.  Googling has been invaluable.  I’ve found more information on books I might want to purchase, online copies of the text of old books, articles, and even copies of original sources.  In the middle of a dramatic scene in the first mystery, bodies were being brought to the empty Palais de l’Industrie and I realized that the walls should have been covered floor to ceiling with paintings from the yearly Salon.  Searching my books confirmed that the paintings should be there.  Fruitless searching finally led me ten pages into Google, where I miraculously found a letter from a visiting American lady writing back home to say that the Salon would be held a month earlier that year, in anticipation of dismantling the building that year.

Luckily, there are numerous photographs, paintings, and prints of my era, as well as illustrated books and newspapers.  Even for decades after my series is set, much of Paris remained unchanged.  The city had already been through its most extreme renovations in the mid-nineteenth century, when Napoleon III commissioned Baron Haussman to tear apart the crowded medieval streets and turn Paris the showplace of Europe, with the broad boulevards like the Champs Élysées.  When I visited England while writing an earlier historical romance, everywhere I went were signs around ruined shells stating that the building had stood until the reign of Henry VIII.  If I hadn’t loathed him already, that historical carnage would have been enough.  Some writers and artists of the day felt that the renovation of Paris was just such carnage, those most welcomed the change from the dark and unsanitary street.  The demolished buildings were all replaced by buildings charming to modern eyes too often tormented by strip malls.

If you have the chance to visit your setting but haven’t finished your novel, list every actual place that you need to see, in order of importance.  Research the museums because there are likely to be little gems tucked away.  I found the Police Museum mentioned on line by a visitor.  If you are thinking of sequels, consider what other buildings, museums, areas you might want to visit. If you have time, compare your city with a town or vice versa.  The big cities have amazing museums, but even smaller towns often favored by tourists now have some sort of little museum to lure them—their most famous artist, their local crafts, or a collection of nasty torture implements.  Give yourself time to wander and just absorb the atmosphere as your characters would, so you can feel what it was like to actually live there.  Many writers like the comfort and control of writing about the familiar present, but those of us who pen historicals are overjoyed at the blissful necessity of research.

Floats the Dark Shadow is Yves Fey's first historical mystery, set in the dynamic and decadent world of Belle Époque Paris.  Yves has an MFA in Creative Writing from Eugene Oregon, and a BA in Pictorial Arts from UCLA. She has read, written, and created art from childhood. A chocolate connoisseur, she's won prizes for her desserts. Her current fascination is creating perfumes. She's traveled to many countries in Europe and lived for two years in Indonesia. She currently lives in the San Francisco area with      her husband and three cats.

Yves Fey
Floats the Dark Shadow
Paris is a mystery…


  1. I am a research freak - both in my writing and in my work as a researcher. Nothing bothers me more than a poorly researched book - I still have trouble with one by Lee Child where his characters drive in what used to be 'my back yard' and it made no sense! *laughs* It's fiction I know but still if you are writing at a certain level, have your research match. Love how you do just that. Great guest post, thanks Sheila!

  2. Waving hello to Mystic Mom. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. Researching a setting is always enjoyable for me, too, Yves. I just came back from San Antonio where I visited several places that will appear in my next mystery, the Alamo being one. My mystery is set in the early 1950s, so a trip to the library was in order. One of my most valuable discoveries was a city street map from 1953 which showed all the businesses operating at that time.
    Floats the Dark Shadow sounds wonderful. Best of luck to you.

  4. Ten pages into a google search, Yyves. That's perseverance and a sign that you do, indeed, take your research seriously. Thanks for the thoughtful look at writing historicals and sharing your insights with us. I gleaned a few useful tips from it even though I'm writing in more contemporary times.