In the first incarnation of my novel (now happily binned), my main character was a Canadian art history student. Unfortunately, no matter what I did to make her more interesting (including more of her back story, giving her more interests, etc.), she just wasn’t compelling enough to carry the narrative. My writing was struggling as a result, and I could not make it believable that a cosmopolitan Parisian would be intrigued enough to pursue a relationship.
So, Sophie lost her main protagonist status, and has been relegated to a secondary spot. The novel has done well since then and I don’t even mind having to start over. She still has a role to play in the new draft, but she is not required to provide her point of view. I’ve left that up to two other more compelling characters.
I’ve been fascinated with Paris for a long time. I’m not sure what first interested me, but once I started working on my BFA, Paris was always there. It helps that the city has been a centre for the arts for centuries. One of my larger essays for my Canadian art history 300-level class was about Canadian artists that traveled to Paris to learn (and then usually came home again.) Conveniently, my character Sophie has a similar focus for her art history thesis.
I’ve traveled to Paris, just the once. If I had the money I’d go back regularly. There’s something about having all these fantastic museums in the same city, just waiting there for your visit. It’s also one of the most walkable cities. When I was there I walked from the Arc de Triomphe and avenue Wagram down to the Ile de la Cite and back. I don’t know about where you live, but it’s tough to cover that sort of ground in most cities without being detoured by freeways or other pedestrian-unfriendly areas.
But that doesn’t answer the question, Why Paris?
There was no way that I was going to be using my hometown for a setting in my novel. I just don’t think that there’s enough about it that is interesting. If I lived in a larger centre, that might be a different story altogether. I could see setting something in Vancouver, or maybe Toronto or Montreal… but not here. Some authors seem to do really well with novels set in their hometowns. Laurell K Hamilton comes to mind, with St. Louis. And Anne Rice with San Francisco and New Orleans.
It was the club and cafe culture that drew me to using Paris as the setting in my novel. The artsy culture that, (mostly) unlike my hometown, thrives and is right out there with everything else. It’s visible, it’s accepted, it’s part of life. It’s not tucked away in some hidden little cranny for only those ‘in the know’ to enjoy. And, most importantly, how many different types of people can you have encounter each other in a jazz club? The possibilities are endless.
I do some sort of study for the majority of my characters. But for the little bits and bobs for those peripheral characters, the ones that are passing through, or even just those people who might catch your eye as they’re walking on past, I rely upon my people-watching addiction. Whenever I’m out of the house, waiting for the bus, walking downtown, going to the grocery store, or traveling (my favourite), I’m always watching.
You know how your mother told you to keep your shirt tucked in and ironed because someone might notice? That someone is most likely me. I won’t say anything, and I don’t bother making value judgements about what you’re wearing, but it might get noted down on a scrap of paper and filed for further reference.
Two quick descriptions from while I was waiting for the bus:
A professorial type, late 40s, trying to look hip with his carefully chosen jeans – not too worn, but still trendy – and violet sweater vest over a lavender shirt and matching tie. What makes the look are the square glasses and the tweed jacket with elbow patches. And just a bit of stubble with his salt-and-pepper hair.
A tall, stooped older man, scuffing his shoes on the sidewalk. He’s plainly dressed, but his clothes are ill-fitting. He’s holding a paper cup of coffee and at first glance it appears that he is muttering to it. Give him a robe and some rosary beads and he’d be a monk instead of just a bit crazy.