Friday, April 24, 2009

The perks of research

A year ago I was in France, driving along the dramatic coastline between Boulogne and Calais, wishing the rain would stop. The colourful fields and yellow gorse were a delight after the drab April browns of Ontario, but the weather wasn’t a lot warmer. Yet I hadn’t come for sunshine. This was a research trip.

On an endlessly snowy day in February, I had been struggling with descriptions of the Calais area where some of my characters work during the First World War. I scoured the Internet for photos, spent plenty of time on Google Earth trying to get a feeling for the landscape, read descriptions by people who had been there at the time, but wasn’t satisfied I really knew what it looked like. So I told my family we had to go to France. Springtime in Paris! No persuasion required and the VISA card had lots of room.

When the rain finally stopped and we were able to walk the beaches at Caps Blanc-Nez and Gris-Nez, and the dunes at Sangatte, I realized how right I had been that I needed to be on location to get a true feeling of the countryside and the sea. And I experienced first-hand the gale-force winds that sandpaper your skin and which people kept mentioning in memoirs. The imposing cliff at Cap Blanc-Nez can’t be fully appreciated from photos, like the one above, and the hilliness of that stretch of coastline was a surprise. Since my characters drive ambulances along here, that was important to know.

Wimereux was a delight, with plenty of Victorian buildings still in existence. I have characters staying in the same small hotel that we enjoyed, since I found a postcard of it from that era, and realize that, except for its name, it has hardly changed. Seeing one of the villas that had been used as an officers’ hospital during the war was also an exciting connection to the past.

I could have spent more than five days exploring this area - we only went as far south as Le Touquet, and hope some time to go to Normandy (for WW2) - but our next stop was the Riviera, where it was warm and sunny. My excuse for this part of the trip was that I have a character who owns a villa in Cap d’Antibes, so we explored that and found the perfect location.

I know that my characters will visit here - often! - and have to admit that I would be thrilled to join them. The exotic vegetation and masses of flowers blooming in the generous sunshine, the rich blues and turquoises of the sea set against the snow-capped Mediterranean Alps were food for a hungry soul. Imagine people actually living here!


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