Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Delights of a Research Trip to Paris, an essay by M. K. Tod, author of Paris in Ruins

Please join me in welcoming M. K. (Mary) Tod to the blog with an essay about her research trip to Paris for her new novel, Paris in Ruins, which is published today.  The idea of visiting Paris at any time is very appealing, but especially now, when travel has ground to a halt. I enjoyed envisioning all the sights through the descriptions Mary provides.


Delights of a Research Trip to Paris
M. K. Tod  

Paris In Ruins
is set during the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, and the Paris Commune. I arrived at these momentous events not by design but by calculating when two characters from an earlier novel, Lies Told In Silence, would be roughly twenty years old. I had imagined a novel about friendship between these very different women with a dash of romance and perhaps some tangled family dynamics. However, when I discovered a war, a siege, and a bloody insurrection, the plot took on much more drama.

Three earlier novels dealt with World War I, an era recent enough that I knew people (my grandparents) who had lived through it, and once augmented with sound research, could imagine their lives and how that war had affected them. But 1870 Paris required a different approach in order for the time and place to come alive. What did Paris look like? What were the norms and expectations for young women of the upper class? Where did they live and shop? What entertainment was available? How did they travel? What clothing styles were prevalent? What did they talk about? Where did they get their news? Layered on top of that were questions about politics and government, military matters, life under siege, and the origins of unrest and rebellion.

During the early months of 1870, Prussia engineered a crisis that threatened the security of France. By the middle of July, the two countries were at war. The Prussian army had superior numbers, leadership, and technology, and on September 2nd, Napoleon III surrendered after huge losses at the Battle of Sedan. By September 15th, the Prussian army reached the outskirts of Paris. By the 19th, Paris was totally surrounded. The siege lasted until the end of January 1871, but the turmoil continued and two months later, radical republicans overthrew the government and established the Paris Commune. For ten weeks, the Commune carried out acts of murder, assassination, pillage, robbery, blasphemy, and terror, until finally expiring in blood and flames.

“We have to go to Paris,” I said to my husband. “I need to walk the streets, watch the people, explore the history, and get a feel for living there.” 

We’d been to Paris before, but never for more than a few days. What I was imagining was something more intense, a chance to live almost like Parisians do. Fortunately, my husband jumped at the opportunity and soon, he had rented an apartment in the 17th arrondissement for three weeks and booked our flights. By this time, I had many chapters written and a solid outline for the rest. With the story concept in hand, I created a master list of places to see and things to do and the topics I needed to further understand.

After a day of settling in, buying groceries, wine and other important items, and exploring our local neighborhood, we began to tackle my list. Armed with a map, a slim guidebook, and our cameras, each day we walked for miles, taking pictures at what seemed like every street corner. We visited museums and beautifully restored grand homes. We went to Versailles. We climbed the hill to Montmartre and walked its narrow streets. We went to the top of the Pantheon and the Arc de Triomphe. We visited a fan museum. While browsing in a used bookstore on the Left Bank, I found and purchased a book titled Fashion Design: 1850-1895. Another prize from that trip is a map of Paris 1871 which was on sale at one of the museums and now hangs in a lovely frame beside my desk. I used the map regularly to understand the city’s layout as well as the existence of particular streets during the time of Paris in Ruins.

For a look at military matters, we wandered through a museum in Montmartre that featured scenes from the Paris Commune and visited Musée De l’Armée, the National Military Museum, where a display featuring women who participated in the Commune gave me the idea of having a woman become a soldier in the National Guard.

We sat in cafés and watched the comings and goings of Parisians, the way they talked, their gestures and body language. We had lunch at Restaurant Polidor, a wood-paneled place with thick beams holding up the ceiling and a cluttered bar at the back and simple tables and chairs. Le Polidor dates from 1845 and just might have been the place where radicals gathered to plot an attempted coup in October 1871. We admired a display at the Louvre that featured gowns, suits, accessories, furniture, and photographs from the 1870s. We walked in and out of shops that had been built before 1870. We climbed to the top of the Pantheon where Camille and Mariele went to watch one of the battles and the Arc De Triomphe where Camille watched the conflagration and wondered whether Andre would survive. We stood where the Tuileries Palace once was and tried to imagine its splendor before it was burned by the Commune, never to be rebuilt.

We walked the wide boulevards and the narrow side streets of almost every arrondissement. We strolled along the Seine and saw the chestnut trees with their conical white or pink blossoms and walked through the Luxembourg gardens where the Medici Fountain glistened in the sun. On one sublime afternoon, we listened to a concert while sitting amid the sparkle of the stunning stained-glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle.

Of particular interest were the hotel particuliers – grand homes – we visited: Musée Cognacq-Jay, Musée Jacquemart-Andre, Musée Carnavalet, and Musée Nissim de Camondo. I wanted to understand how my two main characters, both from wealthy Parisian families, might have lived including the layout of such homes, the décor, the furnishings, the paintings and other accoutrements of their lives. The splendour and luxury were astonishing and although these home inspired only a few brief descriptions in the novel, they gave me images that I carried around in my head as I wrote.

Musée D’Orsay never disappoints. It’s home to a superb collection of impressionist works of art. However, on this visit, I looked for paintings done in the late 1860s and early 1870s, paintings of Paris, of fashion, of homes and cafés that might spark a scene and help me imagine the lives of both rich and poor. Frédéric Bazille, Claude Monet, Henri Fantin-Latour, Berthe Morisot, and others provided such inspiration. Three weeks of immersion in the world of Paris was not only a spectacular trip but also a wonderful way to absorb the feel of the city, to watch the people interact, to listen to the language, to see the trees and flowers in bloom, and to let my imagination roam. A lingering sense of being there continued to guide the writing of Paris In Ruins.

I’m grateful to Sarah Johnson for having me on her blog today. I know I speak for many other authors in expressing gratitude for Sarah’s ongoing efforts to promote the presence and enjoyment of historical fiction.


About Paris in Ruins:  

A few weeks after the abdication of Napoleon III, the Prussian army lays siege to Paris. Camille Noisette, the daughter of a wealthy family, volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers and agrees to spy on a group of radicals plotting to overthrow the French government. Her future sister-in-law, Mariele de Crécy, is appalled by the gaps between rich and poor. She volunteers to look after destitute children whose families can barely afford to eat.

Somehow, Camille and Mariele must find the courage and strength to endure months of devastating siege, bloody civil war, and great personal risk. Through it all, an unexpected friendship grows between the two women, as they face the destruction of Paris and discover that in war women have as much to fight for as men.

War has a way of teaching lessons—if only Camille and Mariele can survive long enough to learn them.

About the author:

M.K. (Mary) Tod writes and blogs about historical fiction. Her latest novel, Paris in Ruins is available  on AmazonUS, AmazonCanada, Kobo and Barnes & Noble. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.


  1. Many thanks, Sarah. It's a delight to be on your blog and to talk about Paris and Paris In Ruins.

    1. It's great to have you here, Mary, and thanks again for the essay! The book sounds fantastic.

  2. I just finished reading Paris in Ruins, and I loved it! I hadn't read much about this period before. (I've read a lot about the French Revolution, but not the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, or the Paris Commune). Paris in Ruins really brings the era to life, and makes me want to read more about it.

    1. I haven't read much about the period before either. It deserves more attention from historical fiction writers. I'm looking forward to reading the novel, too.

    2. I'm delighted to know that you enjoyed it, Vicki!! And many thanks for telling me and others reading Sarah's blog!

  3. I've done considerable research in various historical archives in Paris and written essays on the Paris Commune and am looking forward to reading this to explore the representation of the Communardes, many of whom were women desperate to improve their lives. Wondering if the author of Paris in Ruins visited pere lachaise cemetery, where there is a monument to the communardes who shot for the guard at the end of the siege of Paris?