Here's my problem: I need in-depth information as to what it would be like in Paris in 1889. Not even just 1889--the first half of the year, February to April-ish. Complicating matters is the fact that this is the year the Eiffel Tower went up and the World's Fair came to town, so geography (temporary pavilions, etc.) and social matters are all out of whack. I mean, imagine needing to know what it would be like to live in Atlanta, Georgia, precisely when the Olympics were going on. See what I'm saying? So. Searching for World's Fairs in general turned up surprisingly little--and I'm not just talking about the internet, here, I'm talking about Amazon and local libraries.
Okay, failing that, let's broaden the scope. I'm looking for... Victorian France? No, it's not called that, silly. It's... what is it? Dammit, I don't even know how France was governed in 1889. Wikipedia, have I told you lately that I love you? Yes? Good. Ah. The... Third Republic? Really? No shit. Hmmm. Well, I know fin du siècle is tossed around a lot, let's try that.... Huh. Not much. Great.
That's where I was when I left off researching a few weeks back (class and all), so that's where I picked up. Now, for some reason--you know how sometimes things are just right in front of you and you don't notice? Yeah. There in the French history: Third Republic Wikipedia article: Belle époque. That's the search term I needed. It was like I'd pushed a secret button at the UAB library search engine. Of course, now I have a paper due on Thursday for Literature of Antebellum Reform--I think I may do something with mesmerism--and while mesmerism will also play into Black Ribbon, and thus I'm sort of multi-tasking... it still puts off serious reading for a while.
Here's the stroke of genius I had: I love reading historical biographies--of royals, if at all possible. I love Alison Weir's bios of the Tudors and Plantagenets, but Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette bio was great, too. And after reading these books, I feel reasonably equipped to start--start--writing an historical novel set in any of those periods, should I so desire. The level of detail--food, clothing, social mores--is that good. So: Why not find a figure in the time and place I want, find a good biography, and read that?
I've settled on Sarah Bernhardt for my French research; she traveled a lot and was a figure of huge cultural importance, so I ought to be able to glean a lot of ordinary details from an extraordinary life. I'm thinking of using Vienna for Vol. 3, so I'm looking for books on Elisabeth of Austria--Empress Sissi. She rebelled and lived in Venice, Corfu, and Madeira for a time--a great panorama of what life was like in several places at the time. In fact, her son's famous suicide happened right about the time Vol. 1 takes place, so she's situated ideally in my timeline.
Obviously there's the problem of class--my characters aren't royalty, after all, and so a lot of what I read might not apply to them. But my experience with biography is that you learn so much about the period in general that it's worthwhile. And, like a lot of people, I've soaked in Victoriana for years--but I know very little about any other place at the time. (Vol. 4 will take place somewhere in Eastern Europe, I'm not sure, and finish in India. Of course, there may be zipping back and forth all through the series, I don't know.) If any history buffs out there have any particular book suggestions, I'd love to hear them.