For today’s Sunday Sojourn, I’m joined by Vanessa Couchman, to talk about creating a sense of place…
Creating a Sense of Place
I’ve lived in Southwest France for nearly 20 years. The region is steeped in history and chock-full of scenic and fascinating places. Why, then, didn’t I set my first historical novel, The House at Zaronza, here? I could have done, but it wouldn’t have been the same. The novel is set in early 20th-century Corsica and on the Western Front during World War I, and it’s based on a true story.
We have made six visits to Corsica, a captivating Mediterranean island. Once, we stayed in a B&B where framed love letters hung on the walls. The owners discovered them walled up in the attic when they restored the house. They were written in the 1890s by the village schoolmaster to the daughter of the house, but they were destined never to marry. I was so intrigued that I had to write my version of the story. Corsica has been French since 1768, but it has always been a place apart. Family honour and deep-seated tradition are interwoven themes in Corsican history and culture. For example, arranged marriages (one of my novel’s themes) were very common there, which was not the case in Southwest France during the same period. So I couldn’t have set my story anywhere else.
But this very distinctiveness meant that I had to do a lot of research. I had to recreate life in a Corsican village during the early 20th century, about which little has been written in English. For background, I used Dorothy Carrington’s magisterial Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica, which explains a good deal about Corsican history and culture.
Other sources I consulted include James Boswell’s book about his visit to Corsica in the 18th century. Boswell wrote an enthusiastic memoir of his travels and was a lifelong supporter of Corsican independence. Since Corsican society changed very little until the 20th century, his impressions were probably reasonably accurate, if perhaps a little rosy-tinted.
My heroine becomes a nurse during World War I, so I also had to research French military medical care, and in particular nursing. Again, this wasn’t straightforward, since surprisingly little seems to have been written about it. I was fortunate to stumble upon some contemporary diaries written by a French nurse that were rediscovered by her great-granddaughter. They provided much useful information about the organisation of medical care, the wounds and conditions that nurses had to deal with, and the day-to-day life of a French nurse.
In addition, of course, I had to research World War I. There, by contrast, I was almost overwhelmed by the volume of information!
We historical novelists don’t always make life easy for ourselves, but we have a lot of fun in our quest to bring far-flung places and times alive for our readers.
Vanessa Couchman has lived in France since 1997 and is passionate about French and Corsican history and culture. Her short stories have been published in anthologies and placed in competitions. She is working on a sequel to The House at Zaronza, set in World War II and another novel set in 18th-century Corsica. Vanessa works as a freelance writer and is a member of the Historical Novel Society.