The Dangers of Research: Corsican Pirates and Parisian Undergarments


By Byron Rempel

Last time we met, as I’m sure you’ll recall, the alligators had the upper hand. Who ever said a writer’s life was free of danger? Even now northern scribes burrow into dens and empty caves to avoid November, the month that opens with a celebration of death and closes with a shopping frenzy. And I will tunnel with them, because this year there’ll be no toothsome lizards for me. This winter there’ll be no Cracker cowboys, or races with my Bonneville T100 down main street, or deep-fried butter: this year there’ll be no snowbirding in Florida. I don’t know if it was the menace of alligators in my backyard that chased me away, or the Republicans’ love-in across the bay in Tampa. Either way, it was time to sail on.

Fortunately, the mixed metaphor I sailed on went off course due to inclement weather and washed up in Valinco Bay on the island of Corsica. If you must be castaway, the coast of the Isle of Beauty is not a bad place to begin, especially at mid September when rental fees plummet for shepherd huts. But even Mediterranean idylls conceal risks for writers. Indeed, it is only through immense stores of will power and discipline that I sit in front of my computer and write this today.

This is the thing they don’t tell you in Writer School (I imagine, since they didn’t let me in): choose your subject wisely. Or as they say in Maid School: you made your bed, now you have to lounge in it for the next three years. In previous books I wrote what I knew, and lay down with Manitoba and Montreal. Both exotic, but troubled with winters. So in my latest two books (the world still breathless for their publication) I incorporated Paris, then the Caribbean and Mediterranean. From here on in, it would be all bronzed heroes and unbound heroines.

Those of you dedicated enough to make it through the twenty-year program in Writer School will remember one of the mid-term cautions: Research can kill. If you fall in love with your subject you might as well fall in love with your kidnapper. It’s normally called Stockholm syndrome, but in the writer’s world we call it Avoidance. It’s the best way to skirt actual creation at some point.

Byron in Paris with coincidental background

This is why some of the dangers of research can be lessened through the osmosis approach, which plays well with lounging. Stop with the relentless interviews and notes. Immerse yourself in the environment and see what happens. Normally this kind of work is straightforward enough, but sometimes you have to put your back into it. For instance, just before our ship slipped into Corsican harbours, there was a one-night Shop and Awe in Paris especially for Geneviève. She chose to do some research of her own. Within minutes of our arrival on an otherwise grey and faceless boulevard, her eye found the wispy display windows of a Parisian underthings shop. It turned out to be one of the least painful shopping events a husband or boyfriend might endure, especially when you consider that Parisian etiquette demands the man be invited into the changing room. Osmosis is all about this kind of assimilation of ideas and knowledge.

My own research was less stimulating. I chose to walk through the Tuileries, Catherine de Medici’s little playground between the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe. But all the statues were already naked. It left nothing to the imagination, which is the writer’s currency, non? I was there to conjure up a woman searching for the Café Very in the gardens, lonely and despondent in the rain. Ha! I have learned my lesson. Next book will be set in the tropics and involve less rain and more underthings.

Paris research completed, we eventually tied up in Valinco Bay and found a hut with a view. No, “view” is not the word, since it only exists to capture the moment, and on that hillside over the ocean you could see all the way back to the Carthaginians and Romans and ancient Greeks, you could see where Napoleon was born and Jean Jacques Rousseau sailed in to bring democracy, you could see the Corsicans killed in World War II for the French and the island emptied of men and the leftovers desperate like they’ve always been to keep their rock-strewn island safe from invaders. You could see the National Liberation Front of Corsica blow up the Club Meds of the continental French who came to transform it into a Riviera playground, you could see their deadly dilemma between keeping invaders out or death without tourist money, and you could see their future laid out like a patient etherized on the table®, dissected for the pleasures of outsiders…yeah, it was some killer view.

Well, osmosis. There have to be limits. If you’re going to immerse yourself in an environment like Corsica, then you’d better pick up the hottest item in the tourist shops. I came prepared to write a novel about pirates and Corsica, but didn’t know I’d meet them with knives in hand. And not just the tender little mushroom knives that come with a handy brush on the other end, but the serrated vendetta knives. Quaint! A people that grouped together to fight off pirate attacks, and got so fed up with their neighbours that eventually they killed each other in ceaseless feuds. Not so fun to live amid; but for a novelist to plunder, quite so much.

After that kind of immersion, even alligators begin to have a certain charm.

Now those islanders watch Quebec jealously through the distorted binoculars of the press. Here in the New World there are month-long marches through the streets, students armed with idealism and pots and pans. To the French it must look like Paris 1968 when students armed themselves with cobblestones torn from boulevards. In Quebec the separatists are back in power; in Montreal mayors crumble and fall from byzantine deals and Mafioso payoffs. And every day, to the French youth who scramble through a demoralizing economic attack, and the Corsicans who want separate but equal rights, Quebec shimmers like El Dorado. From the perspective on this hillside, the Lost Colony has surpassed the Motherland.

See, that’s the kind of thing you soak up when you research danger. The volcanic eyes of the shepherds, the cliff-roads, the wild boar hides draped like flags over guardrails, all decorate the vengeance of the Mafia who sip their espressos in family cafés. That stress, strain and pressure scares away mortals, but novelists are flies to the corpse.

So on our return to one more night in Paris, it shouldn’t have surprised me when Geneviève was once again drawn to underthings displayed in a window, but this shop with a darker and more dangerous allure, manned by three witches and a French bulldog named Rita, who insisted on playing with you and his strangely familiar chew toy pulled from the shelves.

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Observations from New France

Byron Rempel

Byron Rempel lives outside of Montreal and writes and edits books for a living.