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?

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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.

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! 

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?

* * * * *

‘The Alchemist of Paris’ is released July 14!

P.S Happy July 4 to all US readers!

Cover Reveal – The Alchemist of Paris

 

Cover design by adipixdesign.com

Cover design by adipixdesign.com

I am very excited to reveal the cover design of ‘The Alchemist of Paris’, created by the wonderful Adriana Hanganu of adipixdesign.com.

‘The Alchemist of Paris’ is a gothic mystery set in modern day and 1820s Paris.

A young woman searches for a forgotten mansion in the heart of modern Paris. The only clue to its location lies in an extraordinary nineteenth century diary, which reveals a tale of deceit, magic, betrayal and immortal love.

More to come in the coming weeks!

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!