The Fictional Cities

Barricade_rue_Soufflot_1848 horace VernetJoanna here.

I was writing the other day, trying to get a picture of the scene so I could decide just how close everybody had to be. My mind wandered off, thinking about how writers use scenery and all the nifty useful things they do with it. This did not, you understand, help me actually write, but it was a nice sneaky bit of procrastination.

Writers add scenery to a story so the characters are not floating around in an undifferentiated, moist white mist, which would be annoying for all concerned. We describe what the character sees and hears and touches and smells because it helps us reveal the interior of that person we're creating. It makes them real.

“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” Oscar Wilde

2011 cafe attribjuliajansen




The cock pub blackfriars street cc 2is3


But then, if you’re lucky, the scenery goes off and acquires a personality all in itself.


When I put my people in Paris, I want the reader to feel the city all around. I want bakeries in the Marais with the smell of bread on the wind. I want cafe tables on the Left Bank.

“We'll always have Paris.”

I want London with its East End slums and the smell of dank fog rolling off the Thames. London with intimate, small alleys and cobbles underfoot.

London is too full of fogs and serious people. Whether the fogs produce the serious people, or whether the serious people produce the fogs, I don't know. Oscar Wilde

But I want more.
I create my people, hoping readers will like them and be intrigued by them. I spin them out of men and women I've known and fiction I've read and from little parts of myself. I make my cities the same way, from history books and old paintings, from fiction, from walking down their streets and from my imagination of them.

I grow fond of the cities I make. My fictional London with its Secret Spy Headquarters at Meeks Street and its Den of Thieves. My Paris with its winding alleys and places of stark and dangerous beauty. 

And in the end, when I give my characters to my readers, I find I also want to bring readers to my fictional city and the real city and say, “Dearest Reader, meet Paris. You two have so much in common. I’m sure you’ll have a lot to talk about. Paris, my dear, meet Reader.”


Do you know a city or town that seems almost alive? A place you’d like to set a story in so other folks could learn to love it?

The Elegance of the Cravat

Regency cravatNicola here, and today I’m talking about the cravat. Such an elegant part of a Regency gentleman’s attire. Cravat-wearing fell out of fashion in the late the 20th century when it became a synonymous with the sort of gin-quaffing, yacht-sailing, smooth-talking roles played by actors such as Roger Moore or David Niven. It became a bit of a parody and even a joke. Yet at the recent Edinburgh Festival one author at least was encouraging gentlemen to pick up their cravats again and wear them proudly. Nicholas Parsons said: "I've seen people with beautifully tailored jackets on, with an open shirt… and an awful Adam's apple." The solution, he suggested, is the cravat.

 The Croatian neck cloth

 Cravat-wearing is said to have originated in Croatia in the 170px-Origin_NeckTie early 17th century. Mercenary soldiers fighting in the French army popularised the style, which was known as La Croate, “in the style of the Croats.” The officers had cravats of fine silk, the ordinary soldiers had cravats of poorer quality linen and they varied in size and colour.

 Prior to the 17th century, gentlemen had worn the ruff or something called a band, which was effectively a cravat – a long strip of neck cloth that could be either attached to the shirt or draped over a doublet. The benefit of a neck cloth was threefold. It was easily changeable if it became dirty, it covered up a less than pristine shirt and it provided some comfort between a man and his armour. Cravat Day is still celebrated in Croatia on 18th October.

 Paris Fashions

 The Parisians, always on the look out for a new fashion, were very taken with the style of the cravat, which became known as the “cravate” in French society. They added broad laced edging to the linen and muslin, and on occasion made cravats entirely out of lace. The court even employed a cravat-maker (cravatier) who delivered a few cravats to King Louis XIV on a daily basis so he could choose the one that suited him most. The cult of the cravat quickly spread across Europe.

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