Flash Fiction: The Poet and the Forest

Here’s a little flash fiction for Friday about the importance of nourishing your imagination.

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There was once a poet, who came upon an enchanted forest. The poet wandered beneath the towering trees, discovering hidden paths and flowing streams. The poet learned all the songs of the birds and the scents of the wildflowers. The forest crept into the poet’s heart, and when the poet sat down to write, words poured onto the page like summer rains.

But there was no living to be made in the forest, nor was there much to eat, so the poet went to find work in the desert, where the wind chafed the poet’s hands and stung her eyes. The heat of the sun burned away all smells and the landscape was too barren for birds. The people in the desert were harsh too. “Who are you?” they asked by way of greeting, “Are you rich yet?” They walked on and stared at the desert with despairing eyes.

At last the poet had earned enough to return to poetry. But as she tried to write by a flickering fire in the desert, she had lost all words. The desert had entered her soul, and her imagination had withered.

So the poet returned to the forest. As the branches closed overhead, her creativity returned. She had learned that imagination must be nourished, just as the body must be fed. One day she would return to the mines of the desert, but for now, she let the forest embrace her.

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 were 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!