I Know a Place: On Being There in Fiction

You need travel scoop, I’m your guy. Like if you’re in Paris and want to buy a roast chicken, you go to Rue Daguerre. Your average passer-through wouldn’t head as far south as Montparnasse. If most people lay eyes on Rive Gauche at all, it’s from a bateau mouche or a stop at the Musée d’Orsay or a stroll through the Latin Quarter. Writer folk will check in at Shakespeare and Company. It’s hard to carve out time for the Fourteenth Arrondissement when so much Paris awaits. But if you’re skipping Montparnasse, you’re missing out on life-changer roast chicken.

Trust me on this. Rue Daguerre is a market street, and the boucheries spit-roast the chickens there on the sidewalk. I’m not talking Kroger-style rotisseries, either. Friends, the French are generations ahead of us in poulet rôti technology. The machines turn the chickens just so and to perfection.

By now, you’re thinking, “What the hell am I gonna do walking around Paris with a roast chicken?” Hear me out. Importantly, you’ve never smelled so inviting in your life. You meet people fast, a chicken like that. This being Paris, who knows what romance might bloom? If it does, Rue Daguerre has snug cafés, florists, and a wine shop every 85.7 meters. Check me on that, if you want. It’ll hold up.

Related note: I worked for an international conglomerate back when, and they assigned me a learning experience with an executive coach guy from Paris. Near the top of his career advice was to take a mistress. For the record, I did not.

Your Man in Montparnasse (2014)

Still, I hear you. A whole chicken is a commitment. But here too the French are years ahead. At the bottom of that sidewalk Rotisol, drinking in a drip-drip-drip of fat, are beaucoup diced potatoes  seasoned and gloriously chicken-stocked. YOLO food, is what it is. Portable glory. Ah, France. 

I’m serious. Once, we found a street potato machine at a food market and grabbed a bag for TGV ride ahead. We earned approving looks from the French and wondrous glances from fellow tourists. The conductor came around and chatted with us. If you can’t do a whole chicken, go for the street potatoes.

The question, of course, is how an American low-tempo traveler knows about Rue Daguerre and the street potato lifestyle. Here is where writing meets travel. I had a story idea set in Montparnasse. I needed a street there to let events unfold. So I made sure I got to Paris and spent a day walking the arrondissement. It was early by Parisienne standards, the shops opening with accustomed slowness. Locals read their papers at cafés still doing breakfast. Delivery vans were the main traffic along the one lane.  Rue Daguerre is color and energy even at morning deliveries, a street meant to be painted. Barely any of my trek discoveries made it on the page. I even cut street potato snacking. But all of that local color seeped indirectly into the final piece.

I don’t believe short fiction writers absolutely must have meaningful experience with a place. With a culture and perspective, yes. Place? A lot of research plus a little experience can equal verisimilitude over short distances. And if experience is everything, how do sci-Fi and fantasy writers invent their places entirely? No one gets on a fantasy writer about the correct wine shop per block ratio.

I’ve sold stories set in places I’ve never been. Good stories, well sold. My MWA anthology centered on lookback twist on Hungary. My latest story for AHMM takes place on a boat in the Indian Ocean. I’ve never sailed in other than trainer craft hugging a coastline. All fine and good, but even these pieces connect back to my trudges through Europe and fascination with history and cultural flair. Whenever I can, I walk the ground and eat the food and interact with the people. It transforms the work.

Second related note: That same Parisienne career coach gave as vivid a le cinq à sept character sketch as any later-on writer could hope for. Again for the record, I did not follow his lead.

A deeper question is why this really matters. We don’t live to write. We don’t live to read. We live to experience this world, to understand it. When you’re curious enough to walk that extra kilometer, you live that much more fully.

In Paris, with street potatoes.

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