On coincidences. How I found the perfect protagonist (or how she found me) [Research Trips 02]

France, summer 2012. We had been on the road all day, travelling to research a novel set in Burgundy. It was late in the afternoon, and my husband was behind the wheel, driving us back to the small, rented gîte where we were staying.

Suddenly, my husband pointed at a sign along the road and asked if we could stop one more time.

We were researching potential settings for a novel set in the 1940s, when the German Nazi army had conquered France in five short weeks. I was scrolling through the over 300 photos on my camera display. After visiting 4 museums, 8 churches and several villages, I thought we had documented more than enough that day.

“Only to take a few photos from outside,” my husband asked again after he could sense my hesitation. “The guidebook says it’s privately owned and you cannot visit inside anyway.” Reluctantly, thinking we would just stop for a few moments, I agreed.

But as we parked the car, we noticed that the gate of the estate was wide open. We could peek inside the inner courtyard with the large maple trees, full of green leaves, and spot the different buildings behind the walls. Actually, there were groups of people at the entrance, and others – apparently the owners – were welcoming them, inviting them to come inside and visit the estate. Seemed like there were even guided tours going on.   

Turned out it was National Heritage Day.

On that special day, French owners of historical buildings open the doors to invite the public to come and visit what is normally concealed.

“You know what?” I told my husband. “I’m very tired. Let me just stay in the car and I’ll try to sleep a bit.” He nodded, took the camera and left.

A short time later, he was back – and he was excited. “Look at those images I took,” he said, pointing at the camera display. “Or even better, go and have a look yourself!” He insisted: “You must see this estate. Trust me. You must.”

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Reluctantly, I left the car, still tired and sleepy, and I approached the large, red-painted wooden gate. One of the owners greeted me personally. “Do you want to know more about a certain lady who lived here?” he asked. Then he started to tell some stories – and oh boy, my husband was right: I wouldn’t regret listening.  

One of the daughters of the family, the French man explained, had been a passenger on the TITANIC in April 1912.

She didn’t drown, but they rescued her after she’d spent hours and hours in the ice-cold water.

This incident changed her life.

When the young lady returned home to Burgundy, she was the first woman to buy a car and to drive it on her own.

She was the first person in the whole rural area who had electric lights installed. They were followed by central heating and indoor plumbing.  

She was one of the few women who’d managed to run a large farm estate.

When the Nazis conquered the area in 1940, she was one of the very few who opposed the German generals in order to protect her family and her estate. She was a true “avantgardiste,” the French man explained: someone who wasn’t afraid to stand out.

I instantly knew I had found my female protagonist.  

And this estate could be the setting of the novel! So I went and photographed everything I was allowed to – the different buildings of the estate. The stables. The grain barns. The pigeonnier. The hall. The spacious, tiled kitchen with the squared curtains. The original power cables, which she had installed to create the infrastructure for her estate’s electricity.

Then there was the car.

As I entered a dark and dusty shed, there it was. 

An original Peugeot from the late 1930s. 

 

“Hurry up,” one of the French ladies suddenly called. “We’re about to close our estate!”

Wide awake, I ran back to our car. “It was fantastic,” I  said to my husband. “I maybe took a hundred photos. And now I feel so pumped that I want to start writing right away.”

Never in the world would I have found this perfect place while only researching on the internet.

Never would I have found this courageous woman: a lady from the 1940s who had decided to take her life into her own hands. Someone who took over the reins in order to run a large agricultural estate. Someone who was deeply rooted in the Burgundian countryside – the home of her family for decades – and at the same time open to modern amenities like electricity, warm water and fast cars!

How pumped I was that I’d found her, and what a coincidence.

Just because my husband had seen a random sign along the road and we had stopped – despite the fact that I wanted to get home as fast as possible.

Because he urged me to leave the car – although I was so tired.

Because the estate was open – when normally it would have been closed to us on the other 364 days of the year.

Because we’d entered the estate – just minutes before they’d closed it.

All those coincidences allowed me to discover a French lady and her estate, which fit better in the novel than anything I had imagined. Some call this “synchronicity,” others say “accident,” and Liz Gilbert calls it “Big Magic”.

For me, it felt like the different pieces of the puzzle suddenly fell into place.

Those magical moments while researching. When you find the perfect spot for your setting. When you meet just the right expert. Or when you find a real, historical person from the past who inspires you to change almost your entire plot …

That’s what happens when you leave the internet.

When, instead, you get up from your desk and start exploring the setting of your novel in person.

Did you ever have such an experience while researching on location?

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