23 July 2007

Paris After the Liberation

As a writer of historical fiction, it's often difficult to settle on a specific time and date for a book's setting. For my last book of Warring Hearts, my WWII trilogy, I decided to set my story after the liberation of Paris. This of course led me to research. I checked out several books but relied on Paris - After the Liberation - 1944 to 1949 by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper for understanding the 'feel' and 'attitudes' of the Parisians. The quotes in this article are from this book.

My story is a historical romance fiction, so of course, the main storyline is about Richard Hart and Claire O'Neill's relationship. Yet, it's important for the writer to transport the reader 'back in time', to give the reader a sense of place. Paris in the spring of 1945 isn't the same Paris I visited this spring. So, how does a writer sprinkle in the historical atmosphere without giving the reader a history lesson? Observations from my character's POV is one way to set the mood.

What would an American in Paris witness during this time?

Foreigners returning received a slightly different impression, not one of external dilapidation, but of an internal decay while the exterior remained untouched. Isaiah Berlin wrote to a friend: "Paris seemed terrifying to me--cold and abnormally clean and empty and more beautiful than I have ever seen a city to be...but empty and hollow and dead, like an exquisite corpse; the metaphor is vile and commonplace, but I can think of nothing else." And Susan Mary Patten, the wife of an American diplomat, wrote that "it was like looking at a Canova death mask."
This is a paragraph from my WIP, from Claire's POV:

Tension formed tiny crinkles around his mouth, his eyes shaded by his sunglasses. Claire grasped his hand, needing to feel him. Hollow, this is how she viewed Paris. Cold, clean and empty. It's as if the Nazis ripped the very soul from the city and left a clean and beautiful vacant movie set.

Rationing remained in effect. A city of contrast, the black market thrived, and if a person had the money, they could live rather well.
"The Ritz," noted the British Ambassador, "looked exactly as it did prewar with Mrs. Corrigan sitting in one corner of it."
There champagne flowed freely and residents dined well. For everyone else, daily life for the lower classes contrasted sharply. They'd come to expect electrical outages, no telephone services, shortages of paper, soap, food and coal. Candles were in constant need, fake coffee called gazeux was served in cafes, shops were empty or closed down. There were no goods to sell. Parisians wore wooden soled shoes (no rubber available) that made a funny clamping sound on the streets, the women wore short dresses and outrageous hats. An early spring followed the harsh winter that year, and yet, faces remained bitter and closed down.

From my WIP: Claire observed the strollers taking in the spring day. The harsh winter brought in a early spring. The wisteria and lilacs bloomed, the chestnut trees blossomed. The air held a faint sweet scent. The women paraded in outrageous hats, made of bits of wire, bird nests, feather, every found object imaginable. Their only creative form of expression since rationing forced them into drab, short dresses, mended and patched.

There are many ways to sprinkle in the history and mood of the period in which you are writing. It's what I admire in great writers of fiction. It doesn't have to be a historical book, either. The Kite Runner transported me to Afghanistan, and gave me insight into their culture. I developed a better understanding of the country.

This is what I hope to do when I sit down to write a historical fiction. Give the reader not only a sense of place, but an understanding of the culture.

Happy Reading!

P.S: The photo is my mom and dad at a nightclub during the war! I know it doesn't have anything to do with Paris, but their picture represents the style of the time. *g*