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!

Your Novel Stinks! Including all the Senses in your Writing

The quickest way to immerse a reader in your character’s world is for the reader to experience that world through your character’s senses.

Most writers are familiar with the “show don’t tell” rule. The closer we are to the character’s actions and reactions, the more gripping the story becomes.

Sight and sound are easy to write. But what about including the other senses in your work – what does your character touch, taste and smell?

Scentsandsmells2

Here are three writing tips I have developed on how to include all the senses in my writing:

  • Use smells to build atmosphere. There’s positive smells (scents, perfume, aromas) and negative smells (stinks, odours and fumes). Layer the smells with what your characters see and hear to create a mood. A dark swamp becomes more sinister with the stench of rotting foliage. An apartment becomes more alluring with the sweet scent of fresh cut flowers.
  • Use smells to tell us something about the character. What is the character used to and what might they notice if they go somewhere different? Your character might be living in a medieval village next to a pigsty. Surrounded by these smells since birth, they probably never notice. But how would they feel if they went to a castle and breathed in the perfume of beeswax candles for the first time?
  • Think about scents and smells that you remember personally and the feelings they evoke. Do you remember the overpowering scent of fields in summer? Or the strong smell of seaweed on a beach in a heatwave? Work your memories and feelings into your character’s experiences.

© 2016 M. C. Dulac

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!

Flash Fiction: An exercise in POV

Earlier this week, I had a post about describing places in your character’s words.

Here is a mini-flash fiction from three POVs. The scenario, the summoning of three immortals, to a well-to-do house on a bay overlooking Sydney Harbour.

*  *  *  *

The door fell open as Alexander approached. He entered the hall, taking in the oil paintings, the fine polished sideboard and the delicate chandelier. The interior was a perfect reproduction of a long-departed English manor. They lived well these immortals, wherever they found themselves, although they always pined for the time and place in which they were born. As Alexander entered the dining room, he saw the long table set for dinner. He pulled back a chair and sat down.

*  *  *  *

Katie scowled as she climbed the steps to the big house on the cliff. The door creaked open. She was barely two months into this immortality thing, but there was no way she’d live in an old place like this. Glass walls and a swimming pool, and a Ferrari in the drive, that’s what she wanted. Not stuck-up old furniture and old paintings, like they were really dead. They even had a dinner table. How the hell would she know what fork to use? That creepy vampire Alexander was here, giving her a filthy look. Stuff him. They were all equal now.

 *  *  *  *

“A Constable on the wall and a Gainsborough above the fireplace,” Victor thought to himself as he entered the hall, “Some of us are doing well.” Four centuries of immortal life had given him a keen eye for objects. He followed the Aubosson rug through the hall into the dining room, where the table was set, Villeroy and Boch silver glinting. The vile Alexander was there, and that frightful street-kid Katie, who had somehow become a vampire. Victor pulled back the Louis XVI chair and sat down, “Anyone seen our host?”

© 2015 M. C. Dulac

Flash fiction logo

That’s not my point of view! Keeping characters in character

In “The Alchemist of Paris”, my current work in progress, our intrepid young heroine is summoned to work as a maid for a mysterious master in Paris in 1820. As she arrives at the darkened house, she is filled with amazement as she gazes upon the baroque facade, the carved lintel over the door and the ornate cornices in the rooms…

STOP!

I know a lot about architecture, but does my eighteen-year-old heroine? I realised I’d unwittingly broken an important rule of POV. The great literary agent Evan Marshall in his Writing Tip 12, said “describe people, places and things in the vernacular of the viewpoint character”.

I went back to the drawing board.

Where am I looking?

Where am I looking?

My heroine has been raised in a convent in rural France in the early 1800s. She is observant but she has never seen a well-to-do townhouse before. What would she notice?

  • the grandeur (but not the architectural period!)
  • the dazzling colours,
  • the fine rugs,
  • the warmth,
  • the vastness of the rooms,
  • framed paintings (but not the artist or the medium oil/pastel),
  • and the scent of the house.

The character’s vocabulary should be in line with her life experience. You don’t want a character spouting technical words out of the blue! If they do have special knowledge, explain how this came about and work it into the plot.

  • Our heroine has helped the nuns and monks to gather herbs and prepare medicines while she was growing up.
  • She’ll therefore be able to name plants and compounds.
  • Although she can read and write, her perspective nevertheless is still shaped by the sheltered, almost medieval world of the convent, and will collide with what she sees in 1820s Paris, so her personal reaction to what she sees is as important as the descriptions.

Do you ever find yourself slipping out of viewpoint character? Do you have any tips?

Paris in the 1820s: imagining a city in the past

Conciergerie and Pont Neuf - Landmarks of Old Paris

Conciergerie and Pont Neuf – Landmarks of Old Paris

Writing a story with an historical backdrop has all the challenges of fiction writing – plot, character arcs, settings – and also the challenge of creating an accurate and believable world. Setting an historical story in a place like Paris is an even greater challenge, as much of what we see today and consider to be quintessentially “Parisian” was created over a long period of time. Even a few years difference determine what the characters would have seen on their stroll through the city.

I’m working on a story called “The Alchemist of Paris” which is set both in present day Paris and in the 1820s (you’ll be hearing more about “The Alchemist of Paris” in the coming weeks!).

The 1820s was the period after the French revolution and Napoleon, and during the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. It was the time when Paris was beginning to assume its role as the world scientific and cultural capital of the 19th century.

While the plot of “The Alchemist of Paris” is swirling faster than mercury in an alchemist’s bowl, making sure the historical setting was accurate, required some research.

I found it useful to create a list of landmarks.

What our heroine in 1820 would have seen:

  • Place de la Concorde (built 1755) (known as Place Louis XV until the French revolution, then Place de la Revolution during the revolutionary years, then Place de la Concorde in 1795, changing back to Place Louis XV in 1814. In 1830 the square became Place de la Concorde again)
  • Louvre Palace and the Tulieries Gardens
The distinctive buildings of the Louvre palace complex were built prior to the French revolution

The distinctive buildings of the Louvre palace complex were built prior to the French revolution

  • Place Vendôme (1702) and column (1810)
  • Pont Neuf (1607)
  • Notre-Dame (but not in the wide square where it currently stands. The old Notre-Dame church was surrounded by buildings on the medieval Île de la Cité)
  • Conciergerie (built 13th century)
  • Bird Market in the Île de la Cité
  • Père-Lachaise Cemetery (1804)
  • Bièvre River (Paris’ second major river after the Seine. The Bièvre was Paris’ main sewer and was eventually covered over as part of the sanitation measures in the 19th century).
  • Place des Vosges (1612)
Place des Vosges built 1612. Victor Hugo lived in one of the houses - which you can visit today as a museum!

Place des Vosges built 1612. Victor Hugo lived in one of the houses – which you can visit today as a museum!

What our heroine in 1820 would not have seen:

  • The shops and houses on the Pont au Change (due to frequent collapses, all structures on this famous bridge were ordered to be destroyed in 1786)
  • Arc de Triomphe (built between 1833 and 1836) [Although the foundation stones were laid between 1806 and 1811]
  • Champs-Elysées in its current form (although the grand avenue was laid out in the 1700s, the avenue was substantially redesigned in 1834)
  • Opéra House on the Boulevard des Capucines (1874)
  • Madeleine Church (the current neo-classical building was built in the 1830s)
Many of the distinctive grey-roof buildings of Paris were built in the later part of the 19th century

Many of the distinctive grey-roof buildings of Paris were built in the later part of the 19th century

  • Sacré-Coeur Church in Montmartre (built between 1875 and 1914)
  • The Grand Railway stations (there were no trains in 1820!)
  • The Eiffel Tower (1889) (obvious, I know but…)

Have you written a story with an historical setting? Do you have any tips? Share below!

How to avoid a saggy middle and other advice for writers

Book Review: “Structuring Your Novel – Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story” and “Structuring Your Novel Workbook” by K. M. Weiland

I couldn’t help smiling when I read the expression “eliminating saggy middles” in K.M. Weiland’s book, because I know exactly the feeling: for me, it’s when I’ve started reading a novel and been sucked in by a great first act, but soon realise I’m sinking into a swamp. After 100 pages of swamp-wading, I start peering at the end of the book or checking the “minutes left” on my Kindle, wondering if the story will ever get exciting again.

If I’m writing, it’s worse. Suddenly my prose is like quicksand, and I’m writing on autopilot. I know a good bit is coming up, but I just have to get through this part. Not only me, but I fear my potential readers, begin to wonder if I should abandon the story altogether.

Weiland’s secret to banishing saggy middles forever is set out in “Structuring Your Novel – Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story” and accompanying Workbook. This is frankly the best book on story structure that I’ve ever read. It’s both analytical and practical, with specific questions and common pitfalls listed at the end of each chapter.

There’s advice on how to create the hook and inciting event, where to place the major plot points, the power of foreshadowing, the effective use of settings, exercises to develop characters, an explanation of pinchpoints and advice on building up to the climax and resolution.

Delving further into structure, there’s analysis of scenes and sequels, the “mighty little pistons [that] power the entirety of your story”. Think of it that way and all those dull paragraphs fall away, transformed into working parts of the story engine. Breaking story down to sentence level, Weiland then explains MRUs – motivation-reaction units. People react to an event in a particular order (it’s true) and by following this order, sentences and paragraphs flow. If part of your book is sounding flat, there is a reason (and a solution) for it!

I used this book to breathe life into a story that has been staring at me for the last year. By applying the overarching structure, I realised that the basic plot points were in the right place (I was proud of that 🙂 ). Then, where the story started to sink or wander, I added appropriate pinchpoints and looked closely at each scene, tying it back to the major story arc. I was able to re-invigorate every character by following the step-by-step questions. I’m still editing, but this book has made the process so much easier. It’s like having a writing coach in the room!

I’ll be referring to this book for a long time, for existing and new projects. I have no hesitation giving it 5 stars and recommending it to any author.

Find the book here and workbook here. Paperback is also available.