My novel Chasing Sylvia Beach shares the story of a young woman captivated by another era and what happens when she unexpectedly gets the chance to visit Paris, 1937, a place she’d only dreamed of. (Yes, very much like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris!)
But even romantic dreamers need facts to breathe life into a story. I had to do solid research to take my readers all the way to Paris approaching the end of its heyday. I needed more details about bookseller Sylvia Beach’s world.
Many writers love research, but I’m no scholar. I didn’t know where to start searching. While I am able to delve in once I find a source, unearthing new material isn’t my forte.
Worse, in 1999 when I first began writing this book, research was a whole mostly analog. To contextualize this long-ago era, I didn’t yet have a personal computer or an email account. There was no Google and no abundant jungle of information to tap at a click.
Saving me with its vast abundance of information, the Internet blossomed as a treasure trove for researchers. Over the twelve years it took to write Chasing Sylvia Beach, I developed a multi-pronged approach in order to depict a historical period accurately.
If you’re writing a historical novel, you may consider some of the seven methods I used to show Paris, 1937, in all her fading glory.
I took many trips to Paris, visiting Odéania, the name Sylvia and Adrienne gave their Left Bank neighborhood. I walked the streets, ducked down alleys and sniffed around second-hand bookshops. I’d squint to edit out the contemporary noise and hubbub, inspired by Leonard Pitt’s Walks in Lost Paris, which showed before and after pictures of the city.
Paris is proud of its past and French nostalgia made it easy to find Paris-related media. Forum des Images, located in the center of Paris, is an archive of the films featuring the city of Paris.
On several visits, I viewed archived footage from this era and saw clips like this. Seeing animated images helped me to relate more immediately to the people in this era.
The city of Paris also hosts an extensive archive of Paris photos that I accessed online. From thousands of images, I generated my own gallery depciting people at the time (1937) and in the places (the Sorbonne, the Luxembourg Garden, the Latin Quarter and St Germain).
Staring at these images and writing immediately after inspecting them helped me hone my observation and description skills. Paris en Images has a huge database of photos of the city of Paris.
Conversations with masters
It never hurts to look at good examples of historical fiction for inspiration. You may be able to strike up conversations with the authors, as I did.
I had the good fortune to correspond with spy novelist Alan Furst about how he accessed Paris in the past. Interviews and conversations with Noel Riley Fitch, John Baxter and a Parisisan named Alexandre who survived the Nazi Occupation of Paris all helped me delve deeper into this city’s past.
Paris booksellers were often willing to talk about the era and pointed me toward other books or resources that helped my quest.
If the subject of your historical novel was a real person, there may be museums or archives devoted to that person. Because of a generous grant from the Alliance française of Denver, I was able to spend a week in Sylvia Beach’s archives.
I used every penny of the $1,000 to travel to Princeton, New Jersey, where Sylvia’s archives are held in the Special Collections of Princeton University Library. I managed to slip this experience into my novel, so you can read about it in detail there.
Touching Sylvia’s things and visiting her grave was a profound experience that deeply impacted the story and added a layer of emotion I couldn’t have accessed otherwise.
Of course it was a book that got me into Sylvia Beach in the first place. Here’s the bibliography that helped me write my novel.
My friend, journalist Lys Anzia invited me to consider the gestalt of the era. She urged me to listen to music of the era, read up on the political climate, investigate social and cultural mores of the period. I also found myself inspecting fashion, transportation and writing tools (fountain pens and typewriters) to ensure accuracy.
Trying to access another era calls for persistence and thoroughness. You’re attempting the impossible and know that you’ll never fully get there.
But you do the best you can, fueled by your intense desire to see, feel and know what it was like to inhabit another era.
I gave Lily Heller, my character, this chance to visit Paris, 1937. And she thanks me for it, as well as for what it leads her to.
What helps you do historical research? Was research easy for you or a challenge?