As The Paris Seamstress will be published next week, I thought it was a good time to take you behind the scenes and describe how I went about writing and researching the novel. Last week, I published a post about how I got the idea for the book, which you can read here. This week, I’m going to talk about why it’s so important for me to have a clear and vivid opening scene in my mind when I’m writing, and also how The Paris Seamstress evolved from a straight historical novel to a dual narrative that combines both contemporary and historical storylines.
The Importance of The Opening Scene: The Gold Dress
I have quite a selection of books on fashion history in my office, as it’s a particular interest of mine. Once I had the idea for The Paris Seamstress, that it would be a book about the birth of the ready to wear fashion industry in the 1940s, I began to look through some of these books. I also ordered some new ones – of course! One day, as I was flicking through a book on 1940s fashion, I came across an illustration of a gold silk dress.
Probably, to anyone else, this gold silk dress would simply be another dress. To me, it was a scene. I could immediately see my main character, Estella, making this dress and wearing it out to a jazz club in Paris. I could see her sitting in the atelier in Paris, sketching the dress, designing it, conjuring it up from the excitement she felt at first seeing the bolt of gold silk.
Immediately, I sat down to write this scene: Estella first sees the bolt of gold silk, she dances around the atelier draped in it, she imagines a dress, she draws the dress, and she goes home that night to make the dress. As I was writing the scene, I felt such genuine enthusiasm for the story.
In that one scene, I got such a sense of Estella’s character; I knew her almost instantly. I knew this would be the first scene of the book, that it would open the story, and that it would lure people into Estella’s world. It’s one of the most exciting parts of writing when that happens, and now it’s become a really important part of my writing process: to find the opening scene that encapsulates the character, that allows me to be in her mind, that makes me feel her as a person rather than words on a page.
If you’re interested, Hachette have put up a free sample of the first two chapters of The Paris Seamstress, which includes the first chapter with the gold dress. So if you’d like to actually read the scene, you can do so here.
Continuing to Write
It’s all very well to have an opening scene, but you also need another 100,000 words or so! Everything was going along just fine until I reached about 80,000 words. I had written myself into such a tangle that I had no idea how to unravel the knots. I put the book away and went to Europe to research, thinking I’d come back and the thinking time would solve the problem. It didn’t. The plot was as tangled up as ever. I had mysteries with no answers, or no possible way to get the answers into the story without a whole lot of explaining and info-dumping and taking the reader out of the world of the story. I also didn’t quite know all the answers myself!
Nevertheless, I sat down to redraft, thinking that as I neared the place where I had become stuck, the solution would present itself. It didn’t. I began to panic.
How a Documentary About Tiffany & Co Solved My Plot Problem
Then, in August 2016, I was flying to Adelaide and, over lunch, I watched the documentary Crazy About Tiffany’s, about the iconic Manhattan jewellery store. At the time I thought it was just an amusing diversion and had no idea that it would spark an entirely new direction for The Paris Seamstress. Up to that point, The Paris Seamstress was purely an historical novel, with all the action taking place in the past.
That night in my hotel room in Adelaide, I woke up with scenes literally writing themselves in my head, and those scenes were set in contemporary times – 2015 in fact. One of the characters in those scenes was a woman and she was the granddaughter of Estella, the main character in The Paris Seamstress. (No, Estella had not had a granddaughter at all until that moment). The other character was a man and his job was the Head of Design at Tiffany & Co, a character clearly brought to life by the documentary I’d watched on the plane.
It ended up being the most productive sleepless night that I’ve ever had. I got up and wrote everything down, thinking that I would look at it in the morning and either laugh aloud or still be excited by it. Fortunately it was the latter. Fortunately too, my publisher was in Adelaide with me and I had the chance to say to her the next day: what would you think if I turned The Paris Seamstress into a dual contemporary/historical narrative? Her answer was a resounding, yes please!
Most importantly, I realised I now had a way to solve my plot tangle – by making The Paris Seamstress into a dual narrative, I could use the contemporary narrative to unravel some of the answers to the mysteries without it becoming an info dump for the reader, which is the way it had been heading.
Weaving the Narratives Together
Bear in mind I had this dream in August, and was planning to hand the manuscript in to my agent at the end of November, That gave me less than three months to write an entire contemporary narrative and then weave it into the historical narrative, plus redraft the historical narrative so it would work with a new contemporary narrative! Luckily the contemporary storyline captured my complete attention and meeting that deadline turned out to be easy to do.
Next week, I’ll continue this peek behind the scenes at the writing of The Paris Seamstress where I’ll talk a little more about the research I did and the wonderful trips I went on to Paris and New York. Don’t forget you can find the first part of this blog series here, where I talk about where the original idea for the book came from, and why it was so hard to begin.