Writing Wednesday: French Rabbit Holes

Sometimes revisions require research, and mine has tumbled me down a few rabbit holes recently.  Trying to research different areas of France doesn’t sound complicated, does it?  I just wanted to place the village Meg is from, an almost throw-away line in a scene where she’s on the train heading to Leclair.  It got complicated.

I knew the village was in the south of France because…it just is, always has been.  Some things just are, in stories.  I read a somewhat horrifying novel about the Nazi occupation of France a while back and decided on the spot that I was going to make sure Meg’s village was not in the worst of the occupied zone–not that it really matters, since my story is set 60 years before World War II.  But it could matter to my characters’ children.  Anyway, call that a whim, and it was easy to find out where those borders were.  Conveniently it was the northern half that was occupied the longest–so far, so good.

I also knew it was an agricultural economy in the village, which might have happened because I read so many L. M. Montgomery books about farming villages.  So I figured, a little research on what bits of southern France are dominated by agriculture.  So I did some Googling, I found a map that suggested the area around Toulouse was probably about right.  So now I just want to find some information on that area.  District.  Province.  State.  Whatever it’s called.  And…rabbit hole.

France has 96 departments.  Those are subdivisions of 13 regions, but before 2014 there were 22 regions.  I think Leclair is in Occitanie, but that region used to be multiple other regions and figuring out which one was where at what time period…  Suffice to say, I never did manage to really find what I wanted, some kind of retrospective, “here’s what this area of France was like over the past few centuries.”  I finally put a remark in the book that Leclair was slightly north of Toulouse and let the whole thing go.

And then a few days later I fell down another rabbit hole exploring the structure of the Paris police.  I have Mifroid, a policeman, as a major foil in the story, especially in the second book of the trilogy, and I needed to figure out what kind of authority he’d actually have.  Well…the historic details I needed proved somewhat elusive, but after falling through a series of websites with a variety of information, I pulled out some useful insights and one very cool detail.

The head of the Paris police is the prefect, and I think Mifroid is well below that rank.  I haven’t quite nailed it down, but I think he’s probably an Inspecteur principal or a Commandant, which ought to give him enough authority to order some other policemen around when I need him to.  But I realized it’s a much more interesting story if he has superiors who can interfere with him.  You see, Mifroid has something of a vendetta on against the Phantom, and the more obstacles in his way, the more intense he has to be to continue.

And that’s where I found a very interesting detail–in actual history, the Prefect of the Paris Police changed in July of 1881.  My inciting incident, the death of Philippe de Chagny, which sends Mifroid after the Phantom, is in February 0f 1881.  So for a few months, Mifroid has plenty of authority to carry on with–and then his boss changes.  And all of a sudden, maybe this case isn’t a priority any more.  Giving me more conflict, in a historically-accurate circumstance.

So there we go–the weird twists and turns that happen when writing historical fiction.  Sometimes there’s cool things at the bottom of rabbit holes!

2 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday: French Rabbit Holes

  1. KAREN BLAKELY

    Love this! I’m glad history helped with Miford. And that nothing stopped you from choosing an area that will work for Meg’s home village. (And that they had trains to that area.)

  2. I enjoy historical fiction and I sometimes wonder how accurate the background details are in what I’m reading. It’s so interesting to hear how you do the research to make sure your details are as accurate as possible. Gives me an insight into what authors of that genre do. BTW, was the “horrifying novel” about the Nazi occupation of France “The Nightingale,” by Kristen Hannah, by any chance? It was pretty grim in spots, but I thought it was the best novel I read in the year I read it. I found it very compelling.

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