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The heart of Normandy

Hi all!

I'm currently plotting my 345th first novel and am really aiming to finish this one. After a month of working on it, the plot did a complete 180 seemingly of its own accord and instead of going to Hawaii my protagonist is now going to Normandy, France. This presents a huge challenge for me seeing as 1. I've never been to Normandy, so no personal experience to lean on, 2. I've never researched another country or tried to write as though I lived in said country before and don't know where to start, and 3. I don't know anyone who's lived or travelled there (to Normandy), either! I'd really like to capture the heart of this place in my novel - if that's even possible without going there myself which, let's be honest, isn't going to happen anytime soon. 

Any advice or experience would be incredible and if you've spent time in Normandy, feel free to direct message me with as much info as you'd be willing to share!

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Replies (20)
  • I think it's called Google. Start there!

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    • Haha way ahead of you!

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    • Hi Miriam, 

      Normandy is pretty different depending if you are talking countryside or the coast or big town like Deauville. Depends as well how much the setting is involved in the story itself.

      My personal advice would be to consider using a fictional town in Normandy so like that there's no issues about knowing where the right hospitals, supermarkets, statues, parks, etc... are.

      Otherwise, depends on what works for you. I'm a visual person so I use a lot of photographs and film setting (mainly for landscape and architecture) to help me with getting the right sense of place when writing.

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      • Hi L, thank you.

        At the risk of sounding totally naïve, do people do that? Create fictional cities in real countries written in realistic fiction? Oh, how much I have to learn.

        I definitely want the setting to play a role, as it is the place my protagonist's maternal grandparents are from and there's going to be a strong connection across time. I'm thinking I'll need to know what kind of foliage grows there, the landscape (yes to looking up all the images), house structure, village scenes, proper names of castles, regions etc.. I guess that's my question answered though... google, google, google.

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        • Yes, lots of authors do that. For example, Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects takes place in Wind Gap, Missouri which doesn’t exist. Same with Gone Girl, North Cathage is a fictional town.

          Google images and Pinterest are good places to start. A lot of traditional countryside houses in Normandie have a tutor inspired feel with exposed timber if that helps.

          Depending on where you are on the coast some of the fields near the beaches have quite a few shallow craters with are leftovers from exploding bombs from D day and WWII battles. 

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        • Hi Miriam,

          I've been to Normandy a few times and have often crossed it on my way to the port of Dieppe to take the ferry to the UK. So, as L. already said before, it is an area with many different aspects and contrasts. You could make up a totally fictional place in Normandy, but if your novel were to be read by people who know Normandy well, they might not be very amused and give you bad reviews if your descriptions were not accurate. For sure the normands would... the french are quite sensitive how their culture is portrayed. Even in fiction, you still need the facts right. Such as, normands are likely to be devout catholics that attend mass on Sundays, etc. The region is deeply connected with WW2. Old folks don't like newcomers.

          Thomas Hardy wrote about Dorset villages and towns using made-up names and even today people visit the area to see the places he described so well in his novels. So, places are important.

          My opinion is that you should either aim to write accurately about Normandy / or a place in Normady, or not write about it at all. You can always choose a place that you already know well somewhere else.

          If you must write about Normandy, you could start by researching online and later do a fact-finding visit. I may be able to find a couple of "real normands" to beta-read your work before you publish it. I know someone who has retired there, but he's Parisien.

          Just let me know what kind of info you need and I may be able to be more precise.

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          • Hi D.M.! 

            I apologize for my late reply, life needed my full attention for a couple weeks there, but I'm back. 

            Thank you so much for your kind offer! My plot seems to have turned itself back around (and around and around) and my protag is no longer going to Normandy - that feels like a future novel. 

            Is this crazy whirlwind of "this is going to happen, no this, no this." normal for the plotting process? I've never plotted before and man, it is a trip and a half. 

            Either way, I will definitely keep you in mind for when I decide to write that second novel ;) thanks again for the info!

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          • Miriam,

            Hi, a slightly boring way of seeing what Normandy looks like is to use (as Iain suggested) Google Maps. Zoom into any village / town and then switch to Streetview in order to get an idea of the architecture of that place. 

            I've been on holiday to Normandy several times, staying near Arromanches. The coastal areas are different from inland. Also beware of which towns / areas suffered heavy fighting in WW2; parts of Caen were reduced to ruins, hence it has a lot of new architecture. Much more than Bayeux.

            If describing any journey's or trips or even your book's subjects simply walking about anywhere, beware that villages in tourist areas (near the coast in particular), have now introduced one way systems to relieve the traffic congestion that can build up. If the time period in your book is in the summer, popular tourist destinations (WW2 sites), will get mobbed. Move more inland, and even in summer traffic density falls off. 

            As regards the countryside, the further inland from the coast you go, the amount of bocage increases (i.e. small fields bounded by hedges / copses, with a lot of roads being narrow lanes.)

            You might also want to take into account which villages / towns have regular markets. The Bayeux market is an excellent source of cheese, cured meats, vegetables, fruit and locally made armagnac,

            Ultimately, the best way to get an idea of what Normandy is like is to go on holiday there (self catering for a couple of weeks?), bearing in mind COVID restrictions at present. Easy to get to, and a peaceful way of life. 

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            • Thank you for your reply. Even with such a small amount of information, I feel like you provided a visible picture. You never know what the future may hold! ;) 

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            • The spacecraft in Mass Effect, is called the Normandy. I'm acting like a tourist. 

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              • Hi Miriam, writers use fictional names for towns, villages and cities all the time. It allows you to invent details. With small places it avoids the risk of inadvertently alluding to real people or families.

                Donna and Laure have given lots of helpful information above.

                I think writing about a landscape and culture you've never experienced is a challenge and perhaps only worth the research time if you feel there is no possible alternative setting. It also depends of course on how much of the novel will be set there. The following is my attempt to put you off, meaning that if you're still keen then you'll be enthusiastic enough to put in the time. I don't want to put you off Normandy - it's a wonderful area.

                My advice is to read books, especially ones with photos. Novels set in Normandy may be helpful but finding the all-important detail can be a needle in a haystack. If you don't already know the geology then personally I'd start with a book on that. A quick general overview could well be enough. If you know the geology of a place it's much easier to learn how and why it has developed and how it looks, and what grows there.

                The internet is invaluable of course but an image search for anywhere often brings up different places without telling you. Having had a quick glance at Normandy images, most of them show glorious sunshine and only tourist destinations. Normandy's weather is changeable. Also you will generally get lots of WW2 images as well. This one for the Rouen tourist board at least shows some of the size of the city, the river and some of the typical Normandy building styles, a mix of timber-framed and stone: Rouen  

                I've stayed in Normandy a few times and the Wikipedia page looks quite helpful. It mentions the agriculture, a significant feature -- lots of cows and dairy produce, which means a rainy weather pattern. Food with cream, cheese and apples in it. Lots of apple and pear orchards.  Huge and frankly bleak areas of arable crops especially on the plateaux where there are also wind turbines and electricity pylons. In the north especially, the local drink is cider not wine, though of course you can buy wine there . Even this site Normandy wine has its main photo of apples, not grapes.

                Then there's the local history, people and politics. The history is researchable (there's a lot of it), the rest is more subtle. 


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                • Thank you so much for your thorough reply! 

                  As I said above, my plot decided to twist back to its original trajectory (unruly thing, as it is) but Normandy still feels like a future setting for a future novel... whenever that comes to be. I will definitely follow your advice when it does.

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                • I've just reread your post and had this idea: since your protagonist is going to Normandy, because her grandparents are from there, give her more good reasons to go, such as:

                  >>>  her family had some connection with WW2 and she's going to visit a WW2 graveyard or attend a WW2 memorial service (these are held annnually in various places)

                  >>>  their house and village could have been bombed and little left of it now, so she is trying to find the places connected with her family but does not find much, apart from the local church which was resconstructed, and she recognizes the belfry from an old family wedding photo

                  >>>  she is trying to get EU citizenship, and visits the local archives to get documents such as her grandparents birth certificates, that she needs to apply for French / EU citizenship

                  >>>  all of the above (I think that having several strong reasons to go to Normandy would make your story more realistic / stronger plot)

                  If she is travelling to Normandy from the UK, I can help you with that, as my first ever visit to France at the tender age of 20, was from the UK port of Newhaven to to French port of Dieppe, and I have a personal story about that first glimpse of french soil that may be of interest to you. If interested just let me know.


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                  • Love these ideas! Thank you.

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                  • And as Geoff says, Google maps are really useful.

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                    • It's possibly a personal thing, but I wouldn't set (part of) a novel anywhere I hadn't actually been. There's only so much you can do through anecdote and research and there will always be readers who know better so you might lose credibility. If it's really important that it's Normandy, I would consider leaving the details of setting until a point when I could go and experience it first hand. You can easily put in markers (eg. 'description of village graveyard here') and fill them in later.

                      Elizabeth George's book Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life has a great section on location; I'd recommend checking it out.

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                      • I feel the same way as Sarita. I wouldn't do it either. But there are successful novels written by people who've never been to their locations. Stef Penny wrote The Tenderness of Wolves without ever having been to Canada. She had agoraphobia and couldn't travel.

                        Another big consideration for me would be the amount of time it takes to do reliable research. If the location is only a small feature of the novel you could be lucky and get everything you need from one source.

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                        • Thanks Sarita! You make valid points. I actually just bought that book and am looking forward to reading it.

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                        • Hi Miriam,

                          You’ve already received a lot of useful advice. I would just add a couple of points based on my experience of living in France. (I’ve not lived in Normandy, but have travelled there and taken groups through the region as a tour guide.)

                          The landscape, especially in rural Lower Normandy, is profoundly marked by history which goes back centuries. There is a distinctive architecture, donjons and other fortifications, built by Norman nobles who resisted French kings, a bit later which the French built in defence against the English. Normandy is rich in Romanesque churches (many are rural) as well as cathedrals (urban). Manor houses rising up in flat fields are an impressive sight and a heritage from the English.

                          Each area still has very distinct customs and manners. Calvados, for example, is different from the Eure, even though both are in Lower Normandy. 

                          I second Libby’s attempt to dissuade you, because as she says, finding the right details is like searching for the proverbial needle. If you do decide that you really want to go for Normandy in your story, you will need a long-term commitment, all the way from searching for such details to confidence and determination in following through. If you do do considerable preliminary research, you might try to contact habitants of the area you’ve chosen – English-speaking if you don’t know French. If that’s the case, I could help you with making contacts.

                          If you do read and write French, let me know, I can make other suggestions.

                          Just a final word about the power of intention. You say that you won’t be getting to Normandy any time soon, and that’s likely to be the case. I agree entirely with Sarita's advice about the importance of getting there. You would lose nothing by formulating and holding a strong intention to do that as soon as circumstances allow. This is a subjective matter, but I have found that intention sometimes opens doors you didn’t think existed.

                          Best of luck,

                          Janet

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                          • Hi Janet,

                            I loved your reply, thank you so much for taking the time. Something about Normandy (France, in general, really) speaks to me of poetry and emotional depth. It feels beautifully haunting. That could just be me romanticizing, having never been there, but I like to think it's because of its rich history. 

                            My current WIP has decided to go back to its original setting but Normandy still has a hold on my heart and I feel it may pop up in a future novel. Is it strange to feel connections to places we've never seen?

                            I'm sorry for the late reply, life utterly consumed me for a while but I am officially back.

                            Thanks again!

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