The Daunting Work of Researching a Historical Novel in Paris

My novel Chasing Sylvia Beach shares the story of a young woman captivated by another era and what happens when she unexpectedly gets the chance to visit Paris, 1937, a place she’d only dreamed of. (Yes, very much like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris!)

From the interior courtyard at Gertrude Stein's former apartment in Paris

But even romantic dreamers need facts to breathe life into a story. I had to do solid research to take my readers all the way to Paris approaching the end of its heyday. I needed more details about bookseller Sylvia Beach’s world.

Many writers love research, but I’m no scholar. I didn’t know where to start searching. While I am able to delve in once I find a source, unearthing new material isn’t my forte.

Worse, in 1999 when I first began writing this book, research was a whole mostly analog. To contextualize this long-ago era, I didn’t yet have a personal computer or an email account. There was no Google and no abundant jungle of information to tap at a click.

Saving me with its vast abundance of information, the Internet blossomed as a treasure trove for researchers. Over the twelve years it took to write Chasing Sylvia Beach, I developed a multi-pronged approach in order to depict a historical period accurately.

If you’re writing a historical novel, you may consider some of the seven methods I used to show Paris, 1937, in all her fading glory.

In-person research

I took many trips to Paris, visiting Odéania, the name Sylvia and Adrienne gave their Left Bank neighborhood. I walked the streets, ducked down alleys and sniffed around second-hand bookshops. I’d squint to edit out the contemporary noise and hubbub, inspired by Leonard Pitt’s Walks in Lost Paris, which showed before and after pictures of the city.

Films

Paris is proud of its past and French nostalgia made it easy to find Paris-related media. Forum des Images, located in the center of Paris, is an archive of the films featuring the city of Paris.

On several visits, I viewed archived footage from this era and saw clips like this. Seeing animated images helped me to relate more immediately to the people in this era.

Stock photos

The city of Paris also hosts an extensive archive of Paris photos that I accessed online. From thousands of images, I generated my own gallery depciting people at the time (1937) and in the places (the Sorbonne, the Luxembourg Garden, the Latin Quarter and St Germain).

Staring at these images and writing immediately after inspecting them helped me hone my observation and description skills. Paris en Images has a huge database of photos of the city of Paris.

Conversations with masters

It never hurts to look at good examples of historical fiction for inspiration. You may be able to strike up conversations with the authors, as I did.

I had the good fortune to correspond with spy novelist Alan Furst about how he accessed Paris in the past. Interviews and conversations with Noel Riley Fitch, John Baxter and a Parisisan named Alexandre who survived the Nazi Occupation of Paris all helped me delve deeper into this city’s past.

The author, by interview subject Alexandre, Paris 2010

Paris booksellers were often willing to talk about the era and pointed me toward other books or resources that helped my quest.

Archived material

If the subject of your historical novel was a real person, there may be museums or archives devoted to that person. Because of a generous grant from the Alliance française of Denver, I was able to spend a week in Sylvia Beach’s archives.

I used every penny of the $1,000 to travel to Princeton, New Jersey, where Sylvia’s archives are held in the Special Collections of Princeton University Library. I managed to slip this experience into my novel, so you can read about it in detail there.

Touching Sylvia’s things and visiting her grave was a profound experience that deeply impacted the story and added a layer of emotion I couldn’t have accessed otherwise.

Books

Of course it was a book that got me into Sylvia Beach in the first place. Here’s the bibliography that helped me write my novel.

Cultural immersion

My friend, journalist Lys Anzia invited me to consider the gestalt of the era. She urged me to listen to music of the era, read up on the political climate, investigate social and cultural mores of the period. I also found myself inspecting fashion, transportation and writing tools (fountain pens and typewriters) to ensure accuracy.

Crossing the Seine in Paris

Trying to access another era calls for persistence and thoroughness. You’re attempting the impossible and know that you’ll never fully get there.

But you do the best you can, fueled by your intense desire to see, feel and know what it was like to inhabit another era.

I gave Lily Heller, my character, this chance to visit Paris, 1937. And she thanks me for it, as well as for what it leads her to.

What helps you do historical research? Was research easy for you or a challenge? 

Join us for the Chasing Sylvia Beach launch party

It was a great party, with much joy and celebration. Enjoy this slideshow of the event.

 

Friday, June 22nd 6 – 8, with presentation at 6:30 pm

Buy your signed copy of Chasing Sylvia Beach, raise a toast, and enjoy the company of other bookish friends. Prizes, scintillating conversation, exhibitions, and more!

Where: Denver Woman’s Press Club

1325 Logan Street, Denver

Parking in the lot north of the building.


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If Sylvia Beach Blogged

I was talking with a friend the other day about blogging. She asked, What would Sylvia Beach blog?

Would Sylvia blog from the local café like I do?

I laughed. Then I thought about it. Even though I have studied Sylvia for a long time – 15 years, holy cow! – I can’t comfortably say I know exactly what she would think, say or do in any given situation.

But it is fun to imagine, isn’t it? And that’s what I had to do to make a historical figure a character in my novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach.

So let’s play and imagine what Sylvia would blog about. I bet Sylvia would put up a blog because she thought she should, but perhaps it would be spottily populated.

Maybe she’d delegate the blog to one of her assistants, perhaps the character in my novel, Lily Heller, who gets a job working alongside Sylvia.

Here’s my best guess about her subject matter:

Sylvia’s mission was to bring Anglophone literature to readers in France. She would make short posts to feature new books that had come into the bookstore.

She’d blog about the literary magazines such as Transition literary magazine that she carried in her shop Shakespeare and Company.

If we read Sylvia’s blog, we might also see reports of readings she held in her shop, like the one in 1937 with novelist Ernest Hemingway and poet Stephen Spender. (This is a scene in my novel that I have fictionalized.)

Sylvia might dish on the books she was reading, and would probably love sharing her opinions on them.

Sylvia would never blog about:

Herself or her private life. Sylvia was an intensely private person, and I imagine that she’d think any kind of personal blogging would be ridiculous.

She’d never gossip or spread news about her friends and their private lives.

She would never blog a novel because she would never write a novel.

It’s fun to imagine what someone in 1930s Paris would blog about, isn’t it?

What do you think Sylvia Beach would have blogged about? What do you think makes for a good bookstore blog?

If you’re blogging reluctantly too, make blogging more sane with my upcoming Blog Triage class. For artists or writers who have a blog that’s limping along, this is the way to blog health. Join us online April 25th – May 25th.

Borrowing Tenacity from Sylvia Beach

In the mid-1930s Paris, the Golden Age of the City of Lights was waning. The Great Depression was in full effect and Hitler’s power was on the rise.

Americans were ditching the once-carefree lifestyle of Paris and fleeing for home. But Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare and Company bookstore, stayed.

This determination to stay in Paris at any cost was one of the main things that attracted me to Sylvia. Why did she stay when everyone else was headed for safety? How did she do it?

Sylvia’s tenacity inspired my own

Façade of Sylvia's former shop on rue de l'Odéon in Paris

Sylvia’s model of tenacity rooted in my imagination. Through this obsession with her, I developed my own tenacity. I have been researching and writing about Sylvia since 1997. In 1999, the stories I was crafting about her veered toward a novel. Now, nearly thirteen years later, the novel Chasing Sylvia Beach (June, 2012, Original Impulse) is nearly ready to be published.

I never considered myself to be the tenacious sort. Because I have a lot of interests, I shift gears often. (You, too?) Certainly I’ve never had Sylvia’s courage to move to Paris and stay – to immerse myself in the city beyond its romantic stereotypes, to wend my way through French bureaucracy in order to establish a business there, to deepen and nourish relationships beyond superficial connections.

But I persisted with the novel, guided by Sylvia’s example of dedication. I immersed myself in her world, witnessing from afar the decisions she made. The kind of person she showed herself to be impacted my own character.

I appreciate her willingness to work without financial reward but at great personal and creative gain. I resonate with her desire to connect and converse with other book lovers. First a bookseller like Sylvia, then a businesswoman, I found a better version of myself in writing this book.

Why was she so tenacious? From my research, I can infer that Sylvia was one of those no-nonsense people not easily deterred by obstacles. She was more interested in being of service to others than concerned about her own comfort. She lived in an apartment above her bookshop with no running water.

Stay with it

Sylvia didn’t go back to the comforts of home in the US because after more than a decade on the rue de l’Odéon on the Left Bank, Paris had become her home. This model of giving and commitment helped me set aside fears enough to get Sylvia’s story – and mine – into book form.

My parents’ tenacity showed me up-close how to stick with it despite challenges. My dad was a businessman who worked every day to build a beautiful life for his family. Whenever I cried, “I can’t!” he’d reply, “Can’t died in the cornfield!” I still don’t know exactly what that means but I know its essence is ‘Don’t give up.’

My mom was a dynamic saleswoman, and then her own businesswoman, building high-end custom homes. They married super young and are still married after 51 years. I owe much of my grit to them.

Grow your tenacity

While writing your book or creating your next great thing, you will have doubts. Your friends, family and peers may try to dissuade you. The economic climate and your own internal radar of safety will collude to assure you that it’s best to just give up and do something safe.

But now more than ever we need people to dedicate themselves to what they know to be true and right, despite the odds, despite the ‘norm’ and despite what seems ‘logical.

What helps you grow your tenacity? What books or heroines help you persist despite all odds? Share your stories in a comment below.

Borrowing Tenacity from Sylvia Beach

In the mid-1930s Paris, the Golden Age of the City of Light was waning. The Great Depression was in full effect and Hitler’s power was on the rise.

Americans were ditching the once-carefree lifestyle of Paris and fleeing for home. But Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare and Company bookstore, stayed.

This determination to stay in Paris at any cost was one of the main things that attracted me to Sylvia. Why did she stay when everyone else was headed for safety? How did she do it?

Sylvia’s tenacity inspired my own

Façade of Sylvia's former shop on rue de l'Odéon in Paris

Sylvia’s model of tenacity rooted in my imagination. Through this obsession with her, I developed my own tenacity. I have been researching and writing about Sylvia since 1997. In 1999, the stories I was crafting about her veered toward a novel. Now, nearly thirteen years later, the novel Chasing Sylvia Beach (June, 2012, Original Impulse) is nearly ready to be published.

I never considered myself to be the tenacious sort. Because I have a lot of interests, I shift gears often. (You, too?) Certainly I’ve never had Sylvia’s courage to move to Paris and stay – to immerse myself in the city beyond its romantic stereotypes, to wend my way through French bureaucracy in order to establish a business there, to deepen and nourish relationships beyond superficial connections.

But I persisted with the novel, guided by Sylvia’s example of dedication. I immersed myself in her world, witnessing from afar the decisions she made. The kind of person she showed herself to be impacted my own character.

I appreciate her willingness to work without financial reward but at great personal and creative gain. I resonate with her desire to connect and converse with other book lovers. First a bookseller like Sylvia, then a businesswoman, I found a better version of myself in writing this book.

Why was she so tenacious? From my research, I can infer that Sylvia was one of those no-nonsense people not easily deterred by obstacles. She was more interested in being of service to others than concerned about her own comfort. She lived in an apartment above her bookshop with no running water.

Stay with it

Sylvia didn’t go back to the comforts of home in the US because after more than a decade on the rue de l’Odéon on the Left Bank, Paris had become her home. This model of giving and commitment helped me set aside fears enough to get Sylvia’s story – and mine – into book form.

My parents’ tenacity showed me up-close how to stick with it despite challenges. My dad was a businessman who worked every day to build a beautiful life for his family. Whenever I cried, “I can’t!” he’d reply, “Can’t died in the cornfield!” I still don’t know exactly what that means but I know its essence is ‘Don’t give up.’

My mom was a dynamic saleswoman, and then her own businesswoman, building high-end custom homes. They married super young and are still married after 51 years. I owe much of my grit to them.

Grow your tenacity

While writing your book or creating your next great thing, you will have doubts. Your friends, family and peers may try to dissuade you. The economic climate and your own internal radar of safety will collude to assure you that it’s best to just give up and do something safe.

But now more than ever we need people to dedicate themselves to what they know to be true and right, despite the odds, despite the ‘norm’ and despite what seems ‘logical.

What helps you grow your tenacity? What books or heroines help you persist despite all odds? Share your stories in a comment below.

Dear Sylvia Beach: I’m So Glad You Were Born

Sylvia Beach: March 14, 1887 – October 5, 1962

Dear Sylvia,

I’m so glad you were born one hundred twenty-five years ago. I’m writing this letter to honor your life and to express gratitude for the brave choices you’ve made. It’s the choices we make that make us, and so many of your choices have inspired my own actions.

Thank you for being willing to dream outside the prescribed ways of your culture. Thank you for being a woman willing to find her own true path instead of following what others expected.

Thank you for being more curious about the unknown than invested in the known. Thank you for becoming a visionary publisher and bringing Ulysses to the world.

Thank you for being a foolish dreamer and opening a business in a time and place where few women started businesses.

Thank you for the many selfless hours you devoted to that business, putting your commitment to literature and readers ahead of your own needs.

Thank you for being a cultural ambassador. Thank you for sharing literature across continents in a time when communicating meant postal letters or telegrams.

Thank you for your love of language, word play and story. Thank you for your respect for books and their authors.

Thank you for toughing it out when you wanted to give up, and for knowing when it was right to close the shutters for good on your bookshop.

Thank you for being an inspirational role model for so many women whose lives take unconventional paths.

I’m so glad you were born, and that you had the courage and the moxie to follow your original impulse.

With fondness and respect,

Cynthia

Who inspires you?

It’s by paying attention to our inspirateurs that we discover their qualities in ourselves. With their models of living, we find our own expression.

Who inspires you? What specific thanks would you offer to your heroine? Write a letter expressing your gratitude. Tell us about it in a comment, and if you post it publicly, share a link. 

Famous Authors Dish: Who’s in the Novel Chasing Sylvia Beach

Who’s in the novel Chasing Sylvia Beach? Some famous authors are miffed to have been left out:

Chasing Sylvia Beach launch: June 22nd, 2012.

How a 90-year-old Business Model Can Guide Author-preneurs Now

While Paris in the 20s and 30s was a groundbreaking place and time for the arts, this golden era was also a challenging time for a bookish businesswoman. The Great Depression that started in the United States affected those in Europe, too.

Times were tough for Sylvia Beach as they are for us now. The steady stream of American customers to her bookshop Shakespeare and Company dried up in the 30s. She relied on her wits, her friendships, and her commitment to a cause to keep her shop alive.

It’s hard to imagine now, but mass-market paperbacks were only introduced globally in 1935 by Penguin Books. Sylvia, like us with our electronic books, was forced to stay on top of the changing reading landscape so she could offer her customers the latest in reading innovation.

As formerly secure paths wither away, like Sylvia, we’re forced to become more innovative entrepreneurs in order to succeed.

Despite the startling technological differences between Sylvia’s era and ours, we can find value in seeing how some approaches endure across the eras.

I’ve identified four ways that Sylvia’s business model can inspire our own entrepreneurial endeavors.

1) Carve out a niche within a niche

Shakespeare and Company was Paris’s first English language lending library. Sylvia’s customers were expatriates and French students who needed to read in English.

There have always been plenty of bookshops in Paris, but Sylvia’s was unique in what it offered and how she both sold and lent books.

The bookshop’s stock came from the US and the UK. Sylvia shipped books across Europe to her traveling library members.

How are you unique in your field?

2) Offer membership and access

Today, information and access to authors is free and easy.  To rise above the fray, one must be innovative and willing to take a different direction than the herd.

Like Sylvia, we must find strategic and creative ways to sell books. Sylvia charged a fee to be a member of her lending library. In the late ‘30s, she created another level of membership, offering insider access to author readings and other perks.

Now, membership sites are magnets for people who want to share work and life with like-minded people. Membership and access can generate not only income but also greater intimacy between authors and readers.

How can you create special access for select insiders?

3) Spark buzz with quality and scarcity

With no Twitter, Facebook or StumbleUpon, how did a bookseller generate interest? Sylvia mastered the art of the hand-written missive and planned ahead to make sure her audience knew about upcoming events.

She believed that the book she was publishing, James Joyce’s Ulysses, was an extraordinary novel, even though traditional publishers deemed it offensive and convoluted.

Sylvia offered pre-sales both to spark a sense of insider access and to generate money to pay the printers.

She limited this first edition to 100 copies, printed on Dutch handmade paper. A copy of this book went for a record-breaking $440,000 at auction in 2009. Quality and scarcity can be powerful incentives in our era of free and ubiquitous access 24/7.

How can you use ‘limited’ and ‘special’ to promote your work? 

4) Be a useful community hub

Shakespeare and Company quickly became a meeting place for writers and artists passing through Paris. In an era without the speed of digital communication, Sylvia often received their mail and messages.

Sylvia devoted herself to helping writers, selling their work, hosting readings at her store, and connecting people when they came to Paris to live the writer’s life. Her shop served as an impromptu salon for book lovers. Her friend Ernest Hemingway said that she had ‘a God-given gift for friendship’.

Today we see these global connections fostered online in forums and on blogs (link to goodreads) where booklovers gather to share favorite titles and to gossip about authors.

How are you useful to your readers and where do you inspire them to gather?

Sylvia’s strategies and passion for books are of great interest to me. I explore some of these themes in my novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach, which will be published in June, 2012.

To get the first scoop about publication details and special treats for readers, please subscribe to my newsletter Impulses.

American Bookseller in Paris as Literary Pioneer

Sylvia Beach was the kind of woman I want to know: curious, brave, and above all, devoted to books and people who write them. Her life’s work was to share a love of books with others. She brought readers and writers together in her small Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, which she ran from 1919 – 1942.

In Paris Sylvia made a life for herself among like-minded people. This is something many of us crave: a life full of friendships that evolve from a shared interest in the arts.

My main motivation for writing my novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach, is to share stories about this literary pioneer so she can inspire you, too. Here is a brief introduction to this bookish American.

How a prim daughter created an extraordinary life for herself

Sylvia grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, the daughter of a minister. Her father was stationed in Paris for a year when Sylvia was 14, and that cemented a love in young Sylvia for France.

Fast forward to 1919. After World War I, Sylvia was at a loss for what to do. During the war, she’d volunteered in France and was eager to find a way to stay. A young, unmarried woman at this time was meant to get married and establish a household.

But travels in Europe and friendships with pioneering women like Carlotta Briggs and others showed Sylvia that living a staid life in Princeton wasn’t her only choice.

Options included starting an import/export business. This would allow her to live in the US but travel to Europe often. But a visit to the 6th arrondissement in Paris, where she met Adrienne Monnier, a bookseller on the rue de l’Odéon, sealed her fate. This new friend encouraged her to open a bookshop and lending library like hers, but for English language books.

With a $3,000 check from her mother, Sylvia plunged in. (That’s $45,000 today!) Despite her lack of business experience, with help from Adrienne and a deep passion for books, Sylvia thrived.

Becoming a rogue publisher

Sylvia’s faith in writers extended beyond bookselling when she met James Joyce. When no one else would to publish his groundbreaking novel, Ulysses, Sylvia undertook the huge project at great personal cost. But with this, the bookseller proved to be more than a peddler of books, showing herself as a visionary.

Joyce’s book went on to be hugely popular and continues to be regarded as the classic modern novel, topping must-read lists to this day.

Stubborn or committed?

It wasn’t easy for Sylvia to keep her tiny bookshop afloat, especially during the Great Depression, when fewer Americans frolicked abroad.

It became even worse as World War II approached. Unlike many other Americans who had made Paris their home, Sylvia did not return to the safety of the US. Instead, she stayed in Paris with her shop.

Sylvia survived the Nazi occupation of Paris, and spent 6 months in an interment camp during the war. She shuttered the shop in 1942, closing the business she’d struggled to keep alive for twenty years.

Her commitment can show us how to persist despite obstacles. How a life lived according to one’s passions and interests is a rich one despite meager earnings.

What does Sylvia inspire in you?

Noel Riley Fitch’s book Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation introduced me to Sylvia when I was a young bookseller at Capitol Hill Books in Denver. Through this book I became enthralled with Sylvia. I wanted to know what fueled the brave decisions she made to live and work in France, to stay in Paris during the war and to selflessly devote herself to books and authors.

Keri Walsh recently published The Letters of Sylvia Beach. I read these letters in the archives at Princeton, and they are a great way to hear Sylvia’s voice and see her ever-optimistic spirit.

My novel Chasing Sylvia Beach is a fictionalized account that allows us to travel to Paris, 1937 to meet Sylvia and discover up close what this literary heroine has to offer us now. The book will be published in June, 2012.

Whether you read these books or not, my hope is that Sylvia’s life will inspire something in you. In my next post about Sylvia, I’ll be sharing how Sylvia’s actions nearly 100 years ago are relevant to us today.

What does Sylvia Beach inspire in you? Who is your Sylvia Beach and what does that person inspire in your work today? 

Avoid Sloppy Self-Publishing

One of the biggest complaints I hear about self-published books is not that they’re poorly written. Or that the cover design is lacking. The biggest beef is that the books are rife with typos.

When I hear that, I cock my head like a confused dog. I ask myself, “Didn’t the author hire an editor and/or a proofreader?”

Lots of pens a good work make...

It’s shocking to me that anyone would publish a book without having someone – a professional someone – inspect it to ensure that it’s the best book it can be. But it seems true that errors make their way past the publication line, despite our best efforts.

It takes a village

Continue reading Avoid Sloppy Self-Publishing