Cara Black is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 15 books in the Private Investigator Aimée Leduc series, set in Paris. She’s received, among other accolades, a Washington Post Book World Book of the Year citation and the Médaille de la Ville de Paris—the Paris City Medal. The BBC book review calls her latest book, Murder on the Champ de Mars, “delectable.” – Meg
Cara Black: Let’s Talk Research
My books take place in Paris, each set in a different arrondissement of the City of Light. That means 20 arrondissements, composed each of 4 districts/quartiers encompassing medieval villages. So my legwork is finding that old ‘village’ feeling which is the best part of my job – research.
Friends think its all croissants and shopping but alors, non! Getting down and dirty in the sewers, exploring old quarries under the Sorbonne, in the crawl spaces in old cellars used as bomb shelters during the war – that’s a lot of what I find myself doing.
When I started writing my research skills were minimal. I needed tips and the best advice on using research to build character came my way when I heard ‘Empty your characters purse or wallet.’ In my character Aimée Leduc’s case, it reflected her and her world. Doesn’t your bag? Her worn Vuitton wallet carried a thumbed photo of her father, a seashell, old Metro tickets, mascara tubes, encryption manuals and sand in the bottom of her bag. The Paris flea markets are wonderful for finding evocative sense memory objects: old keys, bon bon tins, antique watches and advertisements.
Years ago my mother had a trunk, which I’ve inherited, full of old things; my grandmother’s 20’s era flapper dress, old China dolls, photos and passage tickets of my great grandparents trip from England to emigrate to the US. We were allowed to touch everything, play dress up and pretend. That sense of touching the past has stayed with me. Menus, napkins, sugar cubes, expired Metro tickets, a trinket from the flea market, museum passes from Paris find their way in my pocket. Paris phone books help a lot. My friend was throwing hers out so I bought a suitcase and brought all her phone books home. Invaluable. I find names, the plumbing shop near Notre Dame, you name it.
Going to some photo archives and libraries require registration and seriously, in Paris it is a big involved deal. Countless times I’ve attempted to navigate the Archives National for research, I really feel amateur especially when I’m next to a historian consulting a 14th century manuscript with white gloves and I’m struggling to request a simple 1935 document.
Yet to me it’s also about capturing the social history of the quartier- who lives and works here, the details that give it a unique flavor. Finding the ambiance, the nuance, the conversation between a grandpa and his grandson on a bus, watching how people relate and interact. Recording the sounds in a cafe, on the street, taking photos. I talk to anyone who’ll talk to me: people in the park, cafe owners, bus drivers and pharmacists are great sources. Most times they are people who like to talk, know their clients and their quarter.
It’s about weaving the rich history of the place into the story. I never imagined that the Champs d’Elysée had all been swamp once, that the Presidential Elysée Palace had been Madame du Pompadour’s little pied à terre and that beyond the Eiffel tower, the Champs de Mars was a war games exercise area of Napoleon when he was a cadet at Ecole Militaire. Sometimes research feels like playing dress up from my grandmother’s old trunk. – Cara