This weekend marks the outbreak of World War I, 105 years ago in 1914. On 2nd August the French government issued the general mobilisation order. The following day, Germany declared war on France. On 4th August, Britain in turn declared war on Germany. The stage was set for one of the bloodiest – and most futile – conflicts in history. To mark the occasion, I’m publishing below an excerpt from near the end of my latest novel, Overture, when the main characters hear the tocsin alerting the villagers to the general mobilisation.
I love all the research that goes with writing historical novels, because you find out so many fascinating things. The small details are often crucial in conveying the period feel. But a lot of this research has to be discarded and can’t be used in the book, so I like to give a little flavour of it in these posts.
We all know that “un pneu” means a tyre in French. Did you know that it also came to be used to mean a telegram sent along tubes by pneumatic means?
This is the third and final part of a series of posts that looks at the principal places in France in Overture, Book 1 in the Alouette Trilogy. The main character, Marie-Thérèse, has ambitions to be an opera singer. The story moves mainly between rural Aveyron in Southwest France and Paris, but Marie-Thérèse also spends a spell in Bordeaux, one of France’s most elegant and prosperous cities.
This is the second part of a series of posts looking at some of the settings that Marie-Thérèse, my main character in Overture, would have known. How do you cover Paris in one blog post? I’m not even going to try. Instead, I’ll focus on a few of the places that are mentioned in the book.
Although I have invented some of the villages in Aveyron, where the story partly takes place, I have used only real places in Paris. You don’t mess with Parisian street names!
Today, I want to take you to some of the settings that Marie-Thérèse, my main character in Overture, would have known. In this first post, I’ll focus on Aveyron, which is one of the most rural départements (counties) of France. I live just over the border in an adjoining département, but I’m very attached to the landscapes and villages of Aveyron, which is named after the river that flows through it.
At the turn of the 20th century, the world of agricultural labour in France was a patchwork of different métiers and social positions. Wherever you were on the social hierarchy, your life was governed by the tasks associated with the different seasons.
Research sometimes leads one in strange directions and comes up with surprising results. For my latest novel, I had to research the main methods of transport in France between 1897 and 1914. And I discovered something that had never occurred to me.
The odd-sounding combination of coal merchant and bistro owner was quite common in Paris during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These establishments were usually the métier of immigrants from the Auvergne and northern Aveyron, where the poor soil made farming a thankless task.
Have you heard of Emma Calvé? I hadn’t, until I read about her in a French novel. However, she was one of the brightest stars of her time in the singing world and had a highly-acclaimed international career. Hers is a fascinating rags-to-riches-to-rags story, which has inspired my latest novel, Overture.
A sense of place in fiction is very important to me, both in my own work and in the novels I read. Some of my favourite authors, such as Hannah Kent, Helen Dunmore and Tracy Chevalier, excel at weaving the setting seamlessly into the story. Novels are about people, of course, but they are the product of their environment and culture, so the setting is an indispensable part of the story.
But should you write about real places or make them up? There is no right answer. Both of those alternatives have pros and cons.