Writing a story with an historical backdrop has all the challenges of fiction writing – plot, character arcs, settings – and also the challenge of creating an accurate and believable world. Setting an historical story in a place like Paris is an even greater challenge, as much of what we see today and consider to be quintessentially “Parisian” was created over a long period of time. Even a few years difference determine what the characters would have seen on their stroll through the city.
I’m working on a story called “The Alchemist of Paris” which is set both in present day Paris and in the 1820s (you’ll be hearing more about “The Alchemist of Paris” in the coming weeks!).
The 1820s was the period after the French revolution and Napoleon, and during the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. It was the time when Paris was beginning to assume its role as the world scientific and cultural capital of the 19th century.
While the plot of “The Alchemist of Paris” is swirling faster than mercury in an alchemist’s bowl, making sure the historical setting was accurate, required some research.
I found it useful to create a list of landmarks.
What our heroine in 1820 would have seen:
- Place de la Concorde (built 1755) (known as Place Louis XV until the French revolution, then Place de la Revolution during the revolutionary years, then Place de la Concorde in 1795, changing back to Place Louis XV in 1814. In 1830 the square became Place de la Concorde again)
- Louvre Palace and the Tulieries Gardens
- Place Vendôme (1702) and column (1810)
- Pont Neuf (1607)
- Notre-Dame (but not in the wide square where it currently stands. The old Notre-Dame church was surrounded by buildings on the medieval Île de la Cité)
- Conciergerie (built 13th century)
- Bird Market in the Île de la Cité
- Père-Lachaise Cemetery (1804)
- Bièvre River (Paris’ second major river after the Seine. The Bièvre was Paris’ main sewer and was eventually covered over as part of the sanitation measures in the 19th century).
- Place des Vosges (1612)
What our heroine in 1820 would not have seen:
- The shops and houses on the Pont au Change (due to frequent collapses, all structures on this famous bridge were ordered to be destroyed in 1786)
- Arc de Triomphe (built between 1833 and 1836) [Although the foundation stones were laid between 1806 and 1811]
- Champs-Elysées in its current form (although the grand avenue was laid out in the 1700s, the avenue was substantially redesigned in 1834)
- Opéra House on the Boulevard des Capucines (1874)
- Madeleine Church (the current neo-classical building was built in the 1830s)
- Sacré-Coeur Church in Montmartre (built between 1875 and 1914)
- The Grand Railway stations (there were no trains in 1820!)
- The Eiffel Tower (1889) (obvious, I know but…)
Have you written a story with an historical setting? Do you have any tips? Share below!