Leaving Paris

Paris had never looked more beautiful than on that last run through the city. I had forgotten the squalor and smells of the narrow streets now and saw only the grandeur of the rooftops against the sky. Gerard guided me out of Le Marais and along the broad boulevards near the Louvre Palace. We ran through arcades and before churches, past statues and under stone carvings. We passed the scaffolds and skeletons of the new Paris that was being built. We saw sudden vistas of the Seine and the hills above the city. I had no idea why I thought this city frightening when the carriage had first rolled through the city gates. Paris was my city now and I knew all its lanes and colonnades and bridges.

– Elise flees across 19th century Paris in ‘The Alchemist of Paris’

Having left her idyllic country home, Elise has found herself in a web of greed, betrayal and deceit – and magic. Can she escape in time?

Inspirations – Mystery and Travel: Death on the Nile novel (1937) and movie (1978)

This post is part of the Little Bits of Classics & Christina Wehner Agatha Christie Blogathon which celebrates the 126th anniversary of the birth of Agatha Christie. With 85 novels written and between 2 billion – 4 billion copies sold, Agatha Christie was one of the most successful and prolific writers of the twentieth century.

If you haven’t discovered Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile is a great book to start with.

AgathaChristie

Death on the Nile takes place in the setting Agatha Christie knew best – a world of high society which dined in the finest restaurants and vacationed abroad. The author had spent much time in the Middle East in the 1930s accompanying her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, on digs, and had holidayed in Egypt, giving authenticity to the novel’s descriptions of grand hotels, luxury steamers, moonlit riverbanks and ruined temples.

The novel begins in England, where beautiful American heiress Linnet Ridgeway has purchased a country home. Linnet’s penniless friend Jacqui de Bellefort visits, asking if Linnet can give Jacqui’s fiance a job on her estate.

When Hercule Poirot enters the story, he is not acting as a detective, but enjoying a meal in London. He observes the devoted Jacqui and Simon at a nearby table, just before they visit Linnet.

To the surprise of the social set, it’s Linnet who weds Simon a few months later. The beginnings of the murder mystery are set in motion.

Arriving in Egypt for a cruise, Hercule Poirot finds himself at the same hotel as the honeymoon couple. Strangely Jacqui is also there. Heartbroken by Simon’s desertion, Jacqui has decided to follow Linnet and Simon, casting a shadow on their happiness.

What happens next? There’s a cruise down the Nile, a close shave in an ancient temple, moody sunsets, embezzling lawyers, an international agitator on the run, an eccentric authoress of saucy romances, high society jewel thieves and no less than three murders.

Hercule Poirot at last discovers the unlikely murderer. Death on the Nile is a whodunit, but it’s also a love story, a tragedy and a reflection on wealth, power and envy – Agatha Christie at her best, transcending her genre.

Movie Poster for the 1978 Universal Studios film of Death on the Nile

Movie Poster for the 1978 Universal Studios film of Death on the Nile

The 1977 movie of Death on the Nile is a treat. Lois Chiles and Simon MacCorkindale are a stunningly beautiful Linnet and Simon. Mia Farrow broods as Jacqui. Peter Ustinov is an impressive Hercule Poirot, and the supporting cast (of potential suspects) includes Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, David Niven, Jane Birken and Olivia Hussey. There are some subtle changes from the book, with the omission of some characters and the combining of motivations, but these won’t affect your enjoyment of the film or the book.

A tense but stylish moment in the 1978 movie

A tense but stylish moment in the 1978 movie

Some other fun facts about the film:

  • The scenes were filmed on location in Egypt and at Pinewood Studios.
  • The haunting music was written by Nino Rota, a composer who had worked with the directors Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli, and wrote the score for Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films.
  • The tango scene in the luxury hotel was choreographed by Wayne Sleep.
  • The costume supervisor was Rosemary Burrows, who later worked on A Passage to India, Master and Commander and Harry Potter.
  • The costume maker was Germinal Rangel, who made the costumes in Sofia Coppola’s sumptuous Marie Antoinette.
  • Look out for Lois Chiles’ silver evening dress and her glittering shawl. You will covet Mia Farrow’s divinely slinky gowns and very glamorous daywear. And Simon MacCorkindale’s dressing gown is incredibly stylish!

“Most of the great love stories are tragedies,” muses Hercule Poirot on the last page of the novel. It could be said all of Agatha Christie’s great works are much more than whodunits.

Leaving home

At twilight I slipped out of the convent and into the herb garden. Unlocking the gate, I strolled under the old stone arch to the fields beyond. The sky was blue violet, and a golden moon was rising over the hills. The air was sweet with the scent of the rustling grasses. Wildflowers, some blooming only for a day, shivered in the evening breeze. I walked through the fields, until the monastery and convent were only a dim silhouette behind me. I breathed in over and over, wanting to savour the scent and the taste of the countryside. The forest on the hillside was dim and silent and the tree branches were like lace against the setting sun. The meadows rolled out to the horizon, where the river glittered through banks of poplar trees. I tried to capture each part of the landscape in my mind, so that I could imagine it, wherever I might go.

– Story Excerpt “The Alchemist of Paris”

 

Like the character Elise, I grew up in the country before moving to the city. (Strange fact – I grew up next door to a convent!)

Are there places that you have left behind in your life? Do you think of them often? If you are a writer, do you incorporate those memories into your writing?

Grab a coffee, ‘The Alchemist of Paris’ is here!

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It’s been a long journey, but ‘The Alchemist of Paris’ is finally here!

Escape to Paris this summer, without having to leave home!

A big thank you to all my friends and readers for their support and encouragement, from those early days of listening to me talk through the plot, to asking those questions that made me think about the characters’ motivations, to joining me on my research trips, through to the editing and polishing of the final draft.  And for keeping me motivated!

On Amazon now.

Alchemy, Magic and the Origins of Modern Science

I remembered a word I had heard the monks say, a word spoken with disapproval, a word as bad as a deadly sin. A word that was rich and alluring, a word describing something I knew to be wrong, but which I knew was exactly what lay in the pages before me. Alchemy.

– Elise starts to suspect something strange is going on in the

‘The Alchemist of Paris’

Alchemy is a word as alluring today as it was in the Middle Ages. But what exactly is alchemy?

Basic alchemy is about transforming natural elements into something new. The creation of bronze from mixing copper and tin must have seemed magical in ancient times.

Alchemy

The practice of alchemy dates back at least to Ancient Greece (the word derives from the ancient Greek (chumeia) meaning the casting of metals). Another great centre of alchemical learning was Alexandria. Alchemy was also practised in China, India and the Arab world, where the term ‘al-Kimiya’ derived from the Greek, gives us the word ‘alchemy’.

Did alchemist build the Cathedrals of Paris? Some believe so, including the mysterious scientist, Albert Price in ‘The Alchemist of Paris’

Did alchemists build the Cathedrals of Paris? Some believe so, including the characters in ‘The Alchemist of Paris’

As soon as people learned they could transform basic metals, the quest to create precious metals began. The rumour that alchemists had discovered the formula for gold, added to the mystique of alchemy in the Middle Ages. There was also a belief in the existence of the mysterious ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, a substance that could transform any metal to gold.

The study of alchemy led to many real discoveries and laid the foundation for modern chemistry and medicine. By burning, distilling, melting and condensing substances, scientists discovered phosphorous and nitric acid. Sir Isaac Newton and Phillipus Paracelsus were two scientists who studied alchemy and made many scientific breakthroughs.

Paris was said to be a centre of alchemical practice

Paris was said to be a centre of alchemical practice

In addition to metals, many alchemists also explored the medicinal possibilities of alchemy. One of the most potent rumours was the existence of aqua regia, the elixir of life, a drink that could convey not only eternal youth, but even immortality on the drinker….

However the writings of the ancient alchemists contained many warnings on the limits of the science. The dragon symbol often appeared in alchemical texts, representing the metaphorical ‘monster’ which could appear at any time during an experiment. Many alchemical experiments involved highly volatile mercury. Modern scientists wonder if the ancient alchemists were warning of the dangers of splitting the atom.

Alchemy lay the foundations for modern chemistry and medicine. But with its promise of gold, immortality and defying death, it has never ceased to capture the imagination.

If you want to read more about the history of science and alchemy, some great books I came across in my research are:

‘The Book of Alchemy’ by Francis Melville, 2002

‘The Elements: A Very Short Introduction’ by Philip Ball, 2004

Plotting my Way across the City (from a Writer’s Perspective)

One of the most evocative books I have ever read is “The Vampire Lestat”. Anne Rice made me want to run down the Paris boulevards with Lestat and Nicholas, sit in the smoky theatres and opera houses, and descend into the catacombs with Armand. Frankly, it even made me want to be a vampire, had the occasion presented itself.

The Conciergerie today

The Conciergerie today

The lush late eighteenth-century Paris described in “The Vampire Lestat” is before the modernisation plans of Haussmann, when many of the landmarks of modern Paris was built. The Paris of today is not quite the same Paris that Lestat and Armand roamed, but through Anne Rice’s brilliant descriptions and emotional writing, the city came alive.

Creating historical fiction is always a feat of imagination, with some research thrown in. The settings must fit the plot and be filled out from the imagination of the author. Sometimes an understanding of the lives and times of people of the era is enough. Other times, more detailed knowledge of geography is needed.

When my character Elise arrives in Paris in 1820 to work as a maid for the secretive Albert Price, in “The Alchemist of Paris”, she soon finds herself being sent all over Paris on mysterious errands to obtain items for Price’s experiments.

Price’s house is in Le Marais. As the plot progressed, I began to wonder, was it actually possible for Elise to go to all the places I wanted her to go?

The beginnings of my research

The beginnings of my research

I soon learned that people did not often travel between districts in Paris in the past, as we are accustomed to now. But as Elise is a servant, she would have been one of the many maids and workers walking unnoticed through the streets. As I planned out the story, Elise’s errands took her to:

  • A strange shop on the Île de la Cité
  • The house of a scientist and collector of Egyptian antiquities in Saint-Germain des Prés
  • A fancy store near the Pont au Change.
  • The side streets of Le Marais.
  • A forge by the river.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to spend a few days in Paris. I began to build up Elise’s world, making sure she could go on foot to the places she was meant to be.

I started each day from Le Marais walking: through the Place des Vosges toward the Seine; then across the Île St-Louis and the Île de la Cité; then on to Saint-Germain des Prés. Looping back to Le Marais each time, the geography of the story became possible.

Each walk revealed more locations and inspired more ideas. The older buildings could be included in the descriptions. The house in Saint-Germain des Prés was soon based on the Delacroix Museum.

When the plot took the characters further afield to the Tulieries Gardens or a cemetery on the edge of the city, I made sure they had a carriage at their disposal.

She might have been tired, but Elise could do what I made her do. After all, working for an alchemist isn’t easy.

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Do you use maps when you plot your stories? Have you ever placed your characters in an impossible location?

“The Alchemist of Paris” is released on July 14, 2016. There are some Advanced Review Copies (PDF or .mobi) available through Choosy Bookworm along with some other great historical fiction reads! 

Finding Inspiration: Secret Gardens

In “The Alchemist of Paris” the heroine, Elise, has special knowledge of herbs and medicines, which leads to her being sent to Paris, to be a maid in the house of the mysterious scientist, Albert Price.

Although a small part of the story, I wanted all the descriptions of the medicine gardens to be as authentic as possible. What would a medicine garden look like in 1820? How would it feel to wander through the garden? What sort of plants were in use in those days?

Although I found much of this information in books, I also wanted to experience being in a real historic medicine garden.

The first herbarium I was aware of when I was growing up, was the Victorian-era Herbarium in the Botanic Gardens of Sydney, Australia (established 1853). (Side-point: “Herbarium” is one of those words which is so intriguing I knew I wanted to work it into a story one day!)

Herbarium

Last year, when I was traveling, I went to two historic gardens.

The Chelsea Physic Garden, in the heart of Chelsea, London, UK, was created as an Apothecaries’ Garden in 1673. It’s the second oldest botanical garden in Britain, after Oxford. Today, there’s a fabulous ‘Garden of Medicinal Plants’ and a ‘Garden of Edible and Useful Plants’. Surrounded by high walls, with meandering paths and old greenhouses to discover, the Chelsea Physic Garden, although small, is a wonderful place to explore.

The Chelsea Physic Garden, overlooked by the tall townhouses of Chelsea

The Chelsea Physic Garden, overlooked by the tall townhouses of Chelsea

Next I visited the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, which was founded in 1626 as a medicinal herb garden for Louis XIII. Today this is a botanic garden open to the public and a great place to stroll and escape the city (and right next door to the Paris Zoo, which was founded in 1795 from animals of the royal menagerie at Versailles!).

Garden beds of the Jardin des Plantes glimpsed through an avenue of trees

Garden beds of the Jardin des Plantes glimpsed through an avenue of trees

In “The Alchemist of Paris”, I imagine 1820s Paris as a place of mystery and intrigue. Albert Price sends Elise to collect herbs from a wealthy recluse on the Left Bank, who has a secret garden behind his house. I based this garden on the Musée Delacroix – in addition to research, there’s also scope for imagination!

The private garden behind the Delacroix Museum, Left Bank, Paris

The private garden behind the Delacroix Museum, Left Bank, Paris

When you are writing, do you visit historical locations to soak in the atmosphere? Where is the most interesting place you’ve been?

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‘The Alchemist of Paris’ is released July 14!

P.S Happy July 4 to all US readers!