City of Signs – Historical Fiction Tips

“My master, Monsieur Price, has asked me to go to the sign of the Three Hands again, although I dislike the place. He buys powders for his experiments there.”

– Elise reflects on her strange instructions in ‘The Alchemist of Paris’

In an age when many people were illiterate, the most common way to navigate a city was by signs.

The Musée Carnavalet in Le Marais in Paris, France, which I was lucky enough to visit last year, has a wonderful collection of signs that graced the shops and inns of Paris from the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries.

One of my favourites - The Sign of the Three Mice

One of my favourites – The Sign of the Three Mice

Signs were either painted or made from wrought iron.

Keys might be the sign of an innkeeper. The sign of the pig might lead the way to a charcuterie. A hat maker might hang the sign of a wig over his door. Corn or wheat was often the sign of a baker.

Some signs clearly indicate what the shop sold, while others were more fanciful and intriguing.

Signs in the Musée Carnavalet's collection

Signs in the Musée Carnavalet’s collection

The signs are not just beautiful but evoke a wonderful sense of mystery.

Weaving these signs into the storyline is another way to immerse the reader in the historical world of the characters.

Turn left at the Sign of the Three Mice, then right at the Beckoning Hand, then left at the Laughing Imp. Who knows what you’ll find!

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