Researching Paris and/or another early poem


Image source: Wikimedia Commons

I’m researching Paris in the 1870s and don’t quite know where to start. What part of Paris would a young Australian girl live in during that time? Paris is the early part of a Grand Tour of Europe that Lena Dubois is enjoying when her mother dies suddenly. She is alone in a strange city with only a smattering of French. What arrondissement does she end up living in and as an artist what buildings and landscapes would she chose to sketch? Fast forward to 1924 and ten of these sketches are now hanging up on the wall of her bedroom. But what are the sketches of? Now that’s the question and I’m having a lot of fun working on it.

To kick my research off, I’m currently reading a marvellous book called Paris: a journey through time by Leonard Pitt. Looking through the old photographs of Paris – Maubert and Saint-Severin, Boulevard Saint-Germain and Montagne Saint-Genevieve, From Odeon to Saint Germain-des-Pres, Rue Beaubourg and Nearby Streets, Rue Etienne-Marcel, Avenue de l’Opera and Les Halles reminded me of one of the most famous photographs of Paris – Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1838. I was so intrigued by the photograph the first time I saw it that I wrote the poem below.


In the pages of a book I find
a shoeshiner and his customer
in the deserted street and where
are the doves? Cooing from the
windowsill near the photographer
now a long way from camera obscura
with this picture of a quiet
Paris street. What next? A view
of the Great Pyramid in albumen
and wet plates at the goldfields;
dead blue and grey soldiers
in black and white and now
moving pictures flicker past
until we have battlefields
in our living rooms: our square
argus-eyed friend always on
the spot. Yet I’d rather
discover beauty unadorned, know
the cameramen, the crew have all
gone home and left me to contemplate
how time has slipped away
from a quiet Paris street.

*First published in Muse 

How to get distracted writing historical fiction and/or the girl on the beach

Source: ( Photo by Branger/Roger Viollet/Getty Images )

Girl on the beach 1925

Yes, it’s a serious problem for historical fiction writers when doing research – staying on track. In the 1980s I went through all the photography books (and there was a lot) at Dee Why Library. Of course I didn’t need to look at all the photos – most didn’t have anything to do with the manuscript I was writing but what the heck! Now with the net the problem is magnified 100 times over. The number of photos that are available is staggering. Google images, Instagram, Flickr, Trove – all waiting quietly (Hey, don’t mind me!) to lead you away from words on a screen/page.

In this instance Pinterest was the culprit. I had been googling 1920s clothes and pinning them on my board Research for my next novel. Pinterest, being very helpful, kindly said “You might like this!” and there was a board on the 1920s that I decided to follow. Some boards are small of course and only take a few minutes to glance over but occasionally I would find myself drifting away from my writing. You know how it is! I love that dress of Audrey Hepburn’s! And really, Warren Beatty was pretty good looking when he was young. Wow, I want to go to that French village right now. This sort of thing happens frequently when I’m on the net but no harm here! This board was on topic – the 1920s. I scrolled down through the images and there she was! Simply a girl on a beach, looking sad yet sort of posed at the same time. I was done for! My writing and research lost for the rest of the evening.

I found myself really studying the photo. Gosh, it does look posed. A publicity shot for a now unknown actress? A photographer friend suggested it was actress Edna Purviance, Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady in many of his films. I googled images of her and decided no, it wasn’t her. I then did a Tin Eye reverse image search. The one that was pinned on Pinterest had no name or details. Maybe another image might have more information. Tin Eye came up with 24 results and it appears the original photograph is a Getty image taken by the French photographer Roger Viollet with a title of “Swimmer on the beach of Deauville (Calvados), about 1925”. A location but no name!

I searched her face again. She really was very pretty! Maybe it was a lucky snap that became a bit of a hit and the damsel was pinned up wherever males congregate. I’m guessing she might have been extremely popular with the French Foreign Legion when the state of her chest was noticed! She is actually striking a pose similar to Farrah Fawcett in that that red swimming costume back in the seventies!

None of this helped me identify her of course and why is she sitting by herself? Is she waiting for someone?I believe she wasn’t an actress because I’m sure if she was, she would have been identified by now. I mean, how many photos do we view a day? Even when we aren’t researching, people put up posts asking please identify. Photos are multiplied over and over in vastly different locations. Gradually the dots are joined but not for the moment for my girl at the beach.

Three hours later after originally viewing her picture, my manuscript is pushed to the back of my mind. I have lost valuable time and asked unanswerable questions, such as: Who was she? Was she a model? What did she do with her life? She’s about the same age as my character. I wish I could chart her life through known facts so that I can have a few signposts for my girl; be made aware of what it was like to be young and beautiful in the 1920s.

She has led me on a merry dance but then I stop and look at her once more. Actually she hasn’t. I’ve only just realised why she caught my attention in the first place. She has abundantly thick and wavy hair – auburn, I’m guessing, just like my main character Sarah Montague’s. I haven’t lost time. Here is a real life sister for an imaginary young woman that I need to return to.

My twitter community and why they are so important to me.

I went to the #NewyTwistmas party at Honeysuckle Thursday night attended by 60 plus and had a wonderful time meeting fellow peeps, most for the first time. I chatted to so many interesting people, including @CCLETS a dedicated potter, @whereismymuse a poet and @kimcoo and her husband who are relationship counsellors. It is a community that know me as a writer. That’s who I am – @lakelady2282, BookCrosser, author, amateur photographer. I tweet photos and the progress of my WWI novel The Grey Silk Purse. I also tweet/retweet about books, writing and history. That’s me!

To my friends and family, I am something else. With my family I’m mum and grandma. With my girlfriends I’m just a single woman in my fifties complaining about the lack of interesting men. (I have this theory that 75% of the single male population in their forties and fifties have been beamed to another planet and nobody’s noticed. But that’s another story.) My friends know I write but I don’t think they are aware of how much my writing means to me and in that sense they don’t know me.

My twitter people do. My wonderful Crossing Paths publisher @SkiveMagazine knows how important writing is to me and I love tweeting about his mag. The latest edition is an erotica collection so peeps get out there and buy it. Also @drdrdr09 knows. He became aware of how much I was agonising over finding an historically accurate way to get my main character from Le Havre to Salonika, late 1917 (avoiding submarines and nasty Germans). I tweeted in frustration to my twitter community and he stepped into the breach (WWI speak) and we had a fun time tweeting back and forth.

In my “normal” life, I mentioned to my friends the other day that I was having trouble with my epilogue. There was dead silence and then a change of conversation. In all fairness what can most non-writers say to such a statement? Some people would suggest a writing group. After all you get to sit down with “real” people and discuss writing problems but I’ve tried a few groups and they weren’t for me. (I once joined a screenplay writing group and one of the participants said, “I hate writing dialogue. Do you think that will be a problem for me?” She was serious). I didn’t go back.

For me twitter is my writing group, my photography group, my friends group, my “did you hear they found the cave from Island of the Blue Dolphins?” group. It is my arts world in a way that Facebook (that funny other social media with all the thumbs up things) has never been. It is where I’m lakelady2282 and it’s where on Friday morning I tweeted I had lost my job. I didn’t message my friends. I still – as of writing this article – haven’t posted it to Facebook. Without thinking I just tweeted. It was the community that I wanted to tell.