Writing Wednesday: Research in Novels

In doing research for my Phantom trilogy, I’ve gone down some interesting trails trying to get information on a specific detail, like whether a Paris police officer would have a six-shot gun (yes), whether the catacombs are actually under the Opera Garnier (no, but I’m putting them there anyway) and where Meg’s home village ought to be (near Toulouse).  Bigger topics require more intensive research though, and I’ve read entire books on classical music, on 19th-century Parisians’ attitudes towards darkness and towards eccentricity, and on ballet.

The single most helpful book, however, has actually been a novel.   It’s been remarkably difficult to find substantive information about the ballet program at the Opera Garnier in the 1880s.  A lot of my information about the Opera Garnier itself has come from forwards in different copies of the Phantom of the Opera!

But I did have one wonderful find with regard to what life might actually have been like for Meg: Marie, Dancing by Carolyn Meyer, about the model for Degas’ famous statue, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.”  Marie was a dancer at the Opera Garnier at exactly the same time as Meg, and the novel paints a more vivid and more substantive picture than any book or essay I’ve managed to find.  I read it some six years ago, then read it again just in the last year, and it was incredibly helpful.  Along with a general picture, she has details like how much money the dancers earned, which nights performances were held on, and the schedule for practice and rehearsals.  Also, it’s just a good book!

So I was deeply intrigued when some internet clicking trail turned up information about a second novel about Marie: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan.  But unfortunately, I had quite a different experience.  There was something a bit uncanny in reading about the same people–the same names, some of the same details–but have them portrayed very, very differently.  In both books Marie’s mother drank too much absinthe, but in Meyer Marie loved to dance and in Buchanan she was bookish and reluctant to enter the Opera.  In both books she had a younger sister named Charlotte, but in Meyer Charlotte was a darling, and in Buchanan she was grasping and unkind.

And that points up the problem.  In Meyer the life of the ballet girls was hard, but in Buchanan it was ugly.  Things that were nice or mildly risque in Meyer were made horrible in Buchanan.  In Meyer, older sister Antoinette was a flirt out to find a wealthy man; in Buchanan, she was involved with an unpleasant young man who was clearly exploiting her.  I’m pretty sure things got worse as the book went on, but I don’t know for certain because I stopped reading after 100 or so pages.  I don’t mind sad books, or books where the characters face challenges, but I don’t like ugly ones.  And with another, similar book to compare to, it seemed especially clear that Buchanan made some dark choices.

And more to the point for research, I wasn’t learning much.  Buchanan was going places I knew I wouldn’t take my novel, and I wasn’t getting new information that would be useful for the overall setting.  And I didn’t really want to know what would happen to Antoinette, so I stopped!

I haven’t written Marie or her sisters into my novel, although I suppose they’re there, somewhere in the background, on a different story thread!

One thought on “Writing Wednesday: Research in Novels

  1. That’s really interesting that a novel gives you more of the information you need than a non-fiction book on the topic. I wonder where Meyer got her information for the details she put in? And I agree that I’d stop reading Buchanan’s book, too, for the reason you cite. I have limited time to read and there are so many good books. Why waste time on one you are not enjoying?

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