Almost French?


I’m dripping in France at the moment. As I wrote several posts ago, I’m writing a novel set in France, spanning the first fifty or so years of the twentieth century. That’s two World Wars, the rise of Modernism and a hell of a lot of history to get to grips with. For months I’ve been reading biographies, memoirs, non-fiction, you name it, scrabbling around in the darkest recesses of my shelves to find books I knew I bought for a reason decades ago. I’ve been listening to French music of the period – Trenet, Piaf, Chevalier, Auric – and watching French films and even going back over old diaries of French holidays, immersing myself in French culture in the hope of writing credibly about the period. Writing historical novels is all about detail.

Next week I am going to Paris. The moment the idea of the novel came to me last year I wanted to be there, to check out the places that would feature in it, but I’m glad I didn’t go then. Now that I have come to the end of the first draft, this feels like the perfect time to go. So Europe here I come.

I am planning to do some other work in Paris, such as record a radio interview about Le Corbusier for By Design, but the thing I am looking forward to most of all is simply soaking up the atmosphere. It reminded me of that talk I’ve mentioned before, with Marcus Zusak, who said he went off to Germany and Austria after he had written the first draft of The Book Thief. He wanted to make sure that the apples a character mentioned were indeed the apples that grew in that region. I’m the same. For instance, when one of my characters mentions the towers of Saint-Sulpice as she walks down a particular street in Saint-Germain, I want to check I’m right, that you can indeed see the towers there. After all, it’s off-putting when you find mistakes in a novel you’re reading. And as a writer, I know that readers are always quick to point them out.

Writing history is a minefield. Writing about the history of another country is worse. I have a fairly reasonable understanding of British history because I grew up surrounded by it. My childhood was spent in a Welsh border town that had Roman remains and a medieval castle and I sang in the choir of its Norman church. So the history of the Welsh wars with England and stories about the coal mining over the hills were all familiar. Then I moved to a Victorian spa town, and then on to London. Well, you just absorb information from looking around you. Perhaps that’s why I have always been a little shy of writing Australian fiction – one of the most reflective characters in my novel Not Always To Plan is Ruth, an English woman who married an Australian. I’ve noticed that before, British writers in Australia adding British characters.

I didn’t ever imagine that I would be writing about a real French figure. I’m not much of a researcher, as I told a friend. And yet it has been a glorious experience. Of course the années folles of 1920s Paris are well documented, most famously by Hemingway, but I hadn’t counted on the German occupation in the Second World War being as interesting as it was. The slicing-up of the country into different zones and the whole politics of who was siding with whom is fascinating. And then there’s the deep vein of anti-Semitism with the oddness of a Jewish prime minister only years before the Occupation and the horror of the round-ups in Paris. And through all this, normal people tried to live normal lives. Finding their stories has been the biggest task.

It’s been a long road to travel, and I am still on it. But it’s also been so rewarding. I’m looking forward to new discoveries in France and ready for information that may change my novel. I’m not much of a researcher perhaps but decades after studying at university, I’m finally beginning to understand what a pleasure it can be.

(And by the way, no, I’m not writing about Jacques Tati but don’t his films just sum up a certain Frenchness!)


Categories: Travel, WritingTags: , , , ,


  1. Lucky you, to be dripping in all of that history. I’d love to bury myself, immerse my mind into a single historical period what a wonderful experience. I admire historical novelists so much and the likes of Hilary Mantel getting so much recognition. Kudos to you.

    • It’s been quite revelation to me, too! To my mind historical fiction always sounded so heavy and yet I’ve loved finding out about ordinary life in France less than a hundred years ago. Thanks for your lovely comment!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

The Earful Tower

Podcast: Figuring out France with Oliver Gee

The Australian Ugliness?

Maybe ugly, maybe not? Continuing Robin Boyd's conversation about the character of Australia's built envrionment

Savidge Reads

The Chronicles of a Book Addict

Barnabas Calder

Raw Concrete: the Beauty of Brutalism

Ticket to Adventures

Travel blog from around the world, near and far.

Write or Wrong

Uninspiration for the uninspired


architecture for travellers

Grasping Architecture

A student finding his way in the built environment



...Irishpisky.... an oldish chap sees the world...

Internal Wudang Martial Arts

Official Wudang Sanfeng Blog


An Architectural Perspective

The worlds biggest fridge magnet

The simple musings of a Post Bariatric Surgery, self confessed fat bloke

Half Baked In Paradise

Searching, settling, sauteeing and spritzing

Paris here and there

An insider's guide to Paris

The Wine Wankers

G’day, you’re at the best wine blog ever! We're all about wine; without the wankery.

Colin Bisset

writer, traveller, broadcaster

Bite The Book

Book Reviews and Views

Long Haul Lumière

Exploring our planet through neon-clad noise

Poshbird with Passion

restoring and saving 'stuff'


Some kind of journey.

Elder Pipe

Just you - and the world.


Adventures in renovation & restoration of an old French village house

Forty, c'est Fantastique !

La vie est belle !


She turns coffee into books so she can afford to buy more coffee. And more books.

cate st hill

a blog sharing simple design that uplifts the everyday

Mel Healy

crime fiction (& the kitchen)


A blog full of humorous and poignant observations.

Architectural Visits

by Helena Ariza

SUGIH forever

Prince Dreamer constructs all his dreams!

The Ignited Mind !

"If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself, the thing is more than half done already" - Abraham Lincoln.

Publishing Insights

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose / The more things change, the more they stay the same


fairytales of architecture

Virginia Duran Blog

Art · Architecture · Graphic Design

My Book Strings

Those Who Say "You Only Live Once" Have Never Read a Book. ~John Hughes

andrew james writer

Unusual things to see and do in Paris


Camp but stylish Car Reviews and News

The Modern House Blog

Modern Residential Architecture

victoria blake


Time Tells

Vince Michael on history, preservation, planning and more

Alastair Gordon

Wall to Wall

Standing Ovation, Seated


silver painted river




%d bloggers like this: