I hope you’ve been enjoying this series of blog posts about The French Photographer / The Paris Orphan. If you’ve missed any of them, you can find the post about the inspiration behind the book here, and a post about the Lee Miller connection here.
Now, onto research! Next to writing, research is my true love. Here’s what I got up to while researching The French Photographer / The Paris Orphan.
The Hotel Scribe, Paris
I began in Paris – where else?! – at the Hotel Scribe specifically. The hotel was used by the US Army as the Press Office during WWII so of course the main character in the book, Jessica May, spends a lot of time at the hotel, as did Lee Miller, the woman who inspired my main character.
The hotel’s exterior is largely unchanged from that time so it was wonderful to be able to describe that authentically in my book. It also allowed me see where Miller’s room was, and the view from her balcony; the hotel is very proud of its association with Miller.
A Chateau in the Champagne Region
From there I had the very difficult(!) job of researching at a chateau just outside Reims in France’s Champagne region. The contemporary storyline in The French Photographer / The Paris Orphan is set in a chateau in a forest in Verzy so, to be authentic, I stayed in a chateau in the forest too! How I suffer for my art!
I gleaned so many details from this stay, all of which made their way into the book. D’Arcy Hallworth is the main character in this storyline and the extraordinarily bright pumpkins she sees from her window in the chateau are the pumpkins I saw from my room, as is the canal, and the maze, and the plane trees, and the potager – or vegetable garden – and the butterflies.
Inside the chateau was a room called the salon de grisailles – the room of the grey paintings – and the walls of the room were lined with boiserie, paintings on the panelling of the wood, all done in shades of grey. They were spectacular and quite haunting and you’ll find, if you read the book, that the salon and the paintings form an integral part of the storyline.
Crazy Trees – Les Faux de Verzy
I had heard about Les Faux de Verzy, a group of dwarf, twisted beech trees in a forest, before I left for France. I was determined to see them as they captured my imagination. When I told my kids we were going to spend the afternoon walking through a forest in search of crazy trees, they looked at me as if I were the one who was crazy!
But we had the perfect day for it; a little overcast and dark, mystical, magical even. We found the trees and they were like something from myth; we all felt as if we were walking through an enchanted forest. As we left, my kids all said to me that doing weird research things with Mummy always ended up being really fun! There was no way I could leave those spectacular trees out of the book.
I then travelled to Normandy, which was a sobering experience. Standing on Omaha Beach, as Jess does in the book, deeply affected me, as it does her. The beach is so very wide and I could see the difficulty that any soldier would have had, jumping out of a vessel on the water, traversing through waves to the ocean’s edge, and then having to forge a way across that vast stretch of sand to safety. Almost impossible.
I visited the American Cemetery, and then drove to Saint-Mere Église, where there is a museum dedicated to the paratroopers because one of the other main characters in the book, Dan Hallworth, is a paratrooper with the US Army in WWII. As someone who learns best by seeing, and who previously knew little about the intricacies of battles and battalions, seeing a model dressed in a paratrooper’s uniform, plus all of the 80 kilograms of equipment they carried, and studying the maps of their campaigns and victories, was hugely helpful in allowing me to better understand Dan Hallworth and what he might have faced.
In the museums of Normandy I saw a lot of the equipment used by the soldiers and the personal items carried by them, which helped me to recreate life as it could have been: everything from US Army jeeps and tanks, to long-tom guns, and packs of Lucky Strikes, and ration chocolate, and Scott Paper, and tins of Marathon Foot Powder, all of which appear in the book.
Next week, I’ll introduce you to some of the other characters in the book, focussing especially on my contemporary heroine, D’Arcy Hallworth.