The Bones of a City

What makes us know a city inside out?

Paris, with its catacombs, the Bastille, the sexy Metro.

London: Big Ben, the Tube, Carnaby Street in the ’60s.

Vienna, high architecture and Spanish horses, the big wheel in the Prater turning slowly, forever.

All three of them underpinned by big modern sewer systems you can track The Third Man through, or a Spoonsize Boy.

The Spoonsize Boys - Illustration for Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates (c) Dirk Berger at The Art of Light and Storm
The Spoonsize BoysIllustration for Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates (c) Dirk Berger at The Art of Light and Storm

What makes a city so memorable – and what makes it like nothing else on earth?

I’m intrigued by this for a number of reasons. I may not be about to list them all…

First, the sheer amount of stories set in particular cities which dominate all other locations. I’ve mentioned this before.

Second, I’d like to work out how that influence is constructed. Does the foggy London of Sherlock Holmes arise from the pages of Conan Doyle, or early-morning film productions in the misty hills of 1930s Hollywood? Or even weirder, from the smogs of Edinburgh’s Old Town where Robert Louis Stevenson set Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde?

Third, once I’ve worked this out, how do I produce it in my own writing?

How do I build a city magnificent enough to carry and hold its own myths?

The question first pushed itself to the forefront of my mind in 2019, after reading Glasgow belongs to us – a Guardian article on the Alasdair Gray novel, “Lanark”.

Now, I loathed the book. I only read it after Gray died, and I finished it in much the same way I persevered with Moby Dick – read it once, so I’ll never have to read it again, and can own my loathing as a gift of that perseverance.

But in the words of Janice Galloway, who wrote the article I came across after Gray’s death, quoting from the novel itself:

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”
“Because nobody imagines living here,” said Thaw… “Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”

– from Janice Galloway’s introduction to the 2002 edition of “Lanark” [my bold]

So… I know it’s easier to set a novel in Paris, or London, or even Moscow. We have shorthand for those places already.

As a novelist, you can lift the bones of a city into your story far easier if those bones have been sorted through already by earlier novelists.

But building a new city of your own? Even one based on a real city, with added magic and mystery and myth, takes a lot of heavy lifting.

Like building a cathedral, one stone at a time, if we want those cities to exist we have to create them. On foot, from maps, from history and our bold imaginations.

Who’s up for the journey?

Market 17th Century by Apollinary Vasnetsov, painting of a busy street market in a Russian town
Market 17th Century by Apollinary Vasnetsov

This week’s links:

Capitalism by Gaslight – The Shadow Economies of 19th- Century America* (another example of a common shorthand, in this case referring to the USA, not all or any other of the Americas)

The Official Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off – SPFBO – hosted by author Mark Lawrence.

Dark Roasted Blend. In case I haven’t linked here before (but maybe I have).

Published in: on May 16, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  
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Shadowbox: Adieu

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin; his control
Stops with the shore; upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths…
– Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees…
…for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the paths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
– Tennyson, Ulysses

Jim Morrison's Grave, (c) Patti Smith

Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris; photograph by Patti Smith.

The end of laughter and soft lies
Jim Morrison, one more poet in Paris

Published in: on June 30, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: Adieu  
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Shadowbox: First Light on Paris

The world of SHADOWBOX exists before photography became commonplace – but only just. Below is the very first photograph, of anywhere, ever, taken in the late 1820s:

View from the Window at Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1826 or 1827).

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the scene with a camera obscura focused onto a pewter plate coated with Bitumen of Judea, a naturally occurring asphalt.

Boulevard du Temple“, a daguerreotype made by Louis Daguerre in 1838, is generally accepted as the earliest photograph to include people. It depicts a boot-black with a customer on a street corner in Paris. If you look down in the bottom right-hand corner, there’s a tiny black figure with a stovepipe hat and his leg at an angle.

Boulevard du Temple, by Daguerre (1838)

There’s an excellent analysis at including an account of how the photograph  survived the bombing of Munich in 1940. If you follow the link and click on the picture over there, it will open up a larger version where you can see the details – the cobbles on the street surface, the awnings of the shops along the boulevard, the painted advertisement on the side of a building.

In addition, has a rather fabulous set of pictures showing the Boulevard du Temple location in 2002 and a set of maps, engravings from the period, and satellite photos. (Sadly, most of the site is in French so if you want to do more than just skim, the language may be a barrier. My school French from thirty years ago just about copes with the gist.)

But the one which haunts me, with the same ghostly quality you find in the film Vampyr (1932), is Ramoneurs, by Charles Nègre.

Ramoneurs, by Charles Negre (c.1852)

Although Ramoneurs dates to 1850s, the Paris in the background is much the same as the Paris in the boot cleaner photo.

Other photos of Paris from this early period show the streets, the houses, rarely the people. This was due to the long exposure times required for the image to ‘take’ on the negative.

In my search for a copy of Ramoneurs I also came across another photo of the same trio, Trois ramoneurs au repos quai Bourbon, where the two figures on the right are seated facing the camera and the boy with the bag is staring out over the quai. Up to that point, you could be forgiven for thinking these chimney-sweeps weren’t so young, but go look at them sitting with their backs to the wall and see if you don’t agree: they’re just kids.

And while I know it’s another rebellion, another revolution, the image in this photograph is still relevant, 16 years after the June Rebellion which foreshadows the events of SHADOWBOX:

Commune de Paris barricade, Rue d'Allemagne (1871) - Avenue Jean-Jaurès

Commune de Paris barricade, Rue d’Allemagne (1871)

I could spend ages roaming around websites with early photographs. It’s a form of archaeology, after all – how the past actually looked, which we can use to compare with how the remains present themselves on the ground.

Taken twenty years after the events in SHADOWBOX, do these photographs show what Paris might have looked like, even a little, in 1832?

Next in the SHADOWBOX series: Camera Obscura.

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Published in: on June 13, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Shadowbox: Paris in 1832

Paris, in 1832, is more than just the setting for SHADOWBOX. A great cosmopolitan city teeming with riches cheek-by-jowl with poverty and a sense of injustice that sparked into insurrection at the drop of a sou;

“…Paris was illuminated by a splendour possessed by no other places.” – Isak Dinesen, Letters from Africa, 1914-1931

Learning more about the city was essential so I could paint a suitable picture, in words, of the circumstances into which I was jettisoning my characters.painting of Paris flower market in 1832

I asked myself: what do I need to learn about Paris in 1832?

And the answer came back in overwhelming detail (as a simple stream-of-consciousness brain dump, this is it):

Parishes, the Seine, political situation, newspapers, curfew, citizens, police, royalty, Revolution, colonies, clothes, religion, immigrants, trade.

It isn’t just London with French people.

Further inland, so it isn’t coastal. What bridges were in place? What format were they? Stone, or wooden, or a combination? Did they have houses along the sides? They didn’t have the Great Fire like London did, so what might have stayed?

Check Gaston Leroux/Victor Hugo for that. Look at maps online, and photos/paintings from shortly thereafter.


Why did the city arise in the first place? What special geographic features other than the Seine make it attractive to settlement?

I assume that the Seine was navigable up to the city at least until Mediaeval times, but at what point do ships cease to be a viable option? If not, where does Paris get its supplies? What port? How close? How are goods transported between those places? What infrastructure links Paris to the rest of the country, and the Empire? Which parts of Europe and the Med and Africa did it (still) own? Dukes of Savoy, of Lombardy, etc.

Politics of Paris 1832 – who was in charge? French Revolution over, Napoleon Bonaparte dead, a series of smaller rejiggings? Democracy or not as thorough? Liberté, Fraternité, Égalité – how far did this penetrate the social structure?

I owe a lot of my knowledge to a Yuletide gift from my partner: The Invention Of Paris by Eric Hazan. A love story in geography and history and literature bringing the city of Paris alive in your hands. The author obviously has a love for all the quartiers of Paris, rich and poor, ugly as well as beautiful, which comes across on the page with the most wonderful enthusiasm.

(I highly recommend it if you’re looking to fall in love with the city. If you have the opportunity to follow his written journeys on foot, don’t let my envy stop you.)

 Plate 15 of the Turgot map of Paris at wikimedia commons

Plate 15 of the Turgot map of Paris at wikimedia commons

Within the pages of The Invention of Paris I found a city sparkling with lights, ringed with market gardens, humming with intelligence and culture.

I saw the high walls of the Farmers-General encircle the city’s faubourgs for tax purposes, and the cobbles prised out of the streets of Montmartre to be thrown through the bright window-glass of the bourgeoisie’s favourite shops.

Eric Hazan led me down alleyways where the streetlamps burned all day, to show me forgotten squares between the houses where someone hung chrysanthemums from their balcony and caged birds sung overhead.

“Paris was a universe whole and entire unto herself, hollowed and fashioned by history…with her towering buildings, her massive cathedrals, her grand boulevards and ancient winding medieval streets–as vast and indestructible as nature itself.

All was embraced by her, by her volatile and enchanted populace thronging the galleries, the theaters, the cafés, giving birth over and over to genius and sanctity, philosophy and war, frivolity and the finest art; so it seemed that if all the world outside her were to sink into darkness, what was fine, what was beautiful, what was essential might there still come to its finest flower.

Even the majestic trees that graced and sheltered her streets were attuned to her–and the waters of the Seine, contained and beautiful as they wound through her heart; so that the earth on that spot, so shaped by blood and consciousness, had ceased to be the earth and had become Paris.” ― Anne Rice, Interview With The Vampire

Le Cholera, from Le Petit Journal, Paris

Cholera, from Le Petit Journal (via

In 1832, Paris was ravaged by a cholera epidemic that affected mostly the poorer quartiers of the city. The wealthy citizens fled the plague to their country mansions and waited for the ill wind to blow over. By the time SHADOWBOX takes place most of the damage had been done, and the city was in recovery, having spent the summer in riots and uproar.

In social terms, the June Rebellion sought to replace the new King with another Republic, and I’ll not challenge Victor Hugo for the right to describe that in more detail. Needless to say, Les Miserables shoved its way onto my reading list faster than the musical, or the film, would have persuaded me otherwise.

But the politics of France in 1832 has only a slight bearing on my story. SHADOWBOX describes the procession of an Englishman through Paris, and he doesn’t need to get involved with the imbroglios of Blanqui or Barbès.

The Nation Is in Danger, Auguste-Hyacinthe Debay, 1832

The Nation Is in Danger, Auguste-Hyacinthe Debay, 1832

However, it would have been folly to let Louis Beauregard swagger through Paris as if the city’s culture didn’t exist. He’s a character with an appetite for life, robust and challenging, and imposing his desires upon a place as fractious as Paris in 1832 without taking note of the city’s troubles would be doing both parties a disservice.

“Night came on, the lamps were lighted, the tables near him found occupants, and Paris began to wear that peculiar evening look of hers which seems to say, in the flare of windows and theatre-doors, and the muffled rumble of swift-rolling carriages, that this is no world for you unless you have your pockets lined and your scruples drugged.” ― Henry James, Madame de Mauves

Soirée Intime, By Philibert-Louis Debucourt (France, Paris, 1755-1832), via Wikimedia Commons

Soirée Intime, By Philibert-Louis Debucourt (Paris, 1755-1832)

So Louis encounters suspicious gendarmes taking note of every newcomer to the city. He takes his pleasure in the bourgeois quartiers where the minor aristocracy keep mistresses and he takes liberties as much as any other young man of his age.

He visits boutiques and cathedrals.

In well-lit salons he and his companions play cards and drink rough wine.

But the political situation was more fraught than the events in SHADOWBOX make explicit.

After the cholera epidemic, the June Rebellion solved nothing. Parisians were still disgruntled when the fictional Louis Beauregard strolls along its boulevards looking for adventure. Social injustices which the 1789 Revolution were meant to address had not been taken care of.

The people were easily sparked.

My story is not about Paris, however much I fell in love with the spirit of the city through literature. I chose Paris because of its attraction, because of its links with the mythology of the Cuckoo Club and the Lady (see THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN for more on this), and because of its marvellous history.

I’ll leave you with the thoughts of a writer who, for me, captures the soul of Paris in all of his writings, a man who lived through the June Rebellion in 1832 and wrote his greatest novel about those events:

“He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic. Nothing is more sublime.” ― Victor Hugo

The next post in the SHADOWBOX series: London in 1832, in which we explore a very different city altogether.

Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email. And bring a lantern.

Published in: on June 6, 2014 at 10:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Shadowbox: Rivers of Paris, Rivers of London

One of the central facets of my novel, SHADOWBOX, is the river goddess known as the Lady, first introduced in THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN.John William Waterhouse - a mermaid

As a core concept, this river goddess interacts with the main character in subtle ways, and thus the rivers of Paris and London take their place within the novel. In fact, both the Thames and the Seine – with the Rhine completing the picture – shaped the underlying concept behind both novels.

But first: mythology aside, how important are the Seine and the Thames in the landscape? What are their similarities, and their differences, at the point where the river intersects with the city?

The major river in each city is fed from a large catchment area. There are tributaries within the city walls of both Paris and London, some of these minor rivers and streams channeled into the underground drainage systems even as far back as 1832.

Paris lies on the Seine far inland.

Although still navigable, the river is narrow enough to place a gate across the water to allow Customs and Excise duty to be extracted from the river-borne trade. Henry IV fortified the Ile de la Cité in 1514, creating a citadel within the outer boundaries of Paris, and defined the shape of the island.

Around this island – and the Ile St-Louis to the east – the Seine flows westward. A freshwater river, the mesmerising effect of the water rolling at the tip of the Ile de la Cité was described by Tim Powers in “Declare” as:

Standing above the sloped cement piling at the very tip of the island… it had been easy… to imagine that he was at the bow of a vast stone ship pointed downriver towards the distant sea, and that the Ile St-Louis on which he lived was a barge towed behind.

Being narrower, the Seine in Paris has many bridges. Transport moves across its breadth by cart, on foot or on horseback in 1832. Only the smaller Ile Louvier is served by boats, its bank-side flanks silted up, making road transport easy.

The ancient course of the Seine runs in a broad loop of marshland known as Le Marais, where in 1832 the market-gardens flourished. This ancient river-course is a lazy loop of a meander, similar to the curve on the western edge of Paris where the Bois du Boulogne fills a pendulous isthmus. In the past, the loop of the Marais silted up, as do most meanders over time, and the water flows through the straight cut.

You can see how close London came to having a similar landform in this map by Thomas Reveley, which proposed a cut through the Isle of Dogs to create a fast channel.

Thomas Reveley's proposed Thames cutting, 1796

Thomas Reveley’s proposed Thames cutting, 1796

In London, the Thames is a broad river, with salt water in its blood.

The tidal rise and fall helps remove detritus and refuse but also enables larger ships to sail upriver almost to the City. Massive dock complexes built in the Victorian period on the Isle of Dogs are matched by a crenellation of smaller wharves along the river’s upper reaches far inland.

By the nature of its breadth, the Thames in London has fewer bridges. I’m no civil engineer, but I imagine that forging a tidal river with permanent bridge struts has different pressures and architecture than a river with a single direction of flow.

There are no islands in London.

Paris has the advantage of shorter spans, thereby enabling bridges with earlier technology to take hold of the river crossing.

The Thames was wider, too, before the construction of the embankments which came later than those in Paris. The picture below (from 1677) shows a broad river with shallow banks, not the wharves and jetties of a wholly constructed city riverside.

The Frozen Thames, 1677 by Abraham Hondius

The Frozen Thames, 1677 by Abraham Hondius

Paris, too, has a series of small wharves, visible on the map from De Bruyant, but there’s nothing to match the Isle of Dogs and the expansion – later in the 19th century – of the massive docks complex. The East India Dock and St Katherine’s Dock almost complete Reveley’s proposed cutting.

Thames Docks 1882

Thames Docks 1882

Visibly, the differences are obvious. Standing in the shadow of Blackfriars Bridge, where I first envisaged the opening chapter of THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, you can see the wide tidal Thames sweeping downriver past mudlarks and HMS Belfast, pouring the rain from the southern half of England into the North Sea.

“The Thames shouldered its way past Blackfriars Bridge, impatient with the ancient piers… a rush of ugly water that had scented the open sea and was ready to make a run for it.” ― J.G. Ballard

In Paris, seen from the Metro where it crosses the Seine between Quai de la Rapée and Gare d’Austerlitz, the river which drains the northern half of France rushes through domestic embankments, channeled, narrow, busy with tourist boats, under the eye of Notre Dame cathedral.

Smaller streams feed each mighty river within the city boundaries.

London’s Lost Rivers, a lovely book which I thoroughly recommend, shows where you can track down the underground streams across the city. Paul Talling explains where the little rivers give their names to streets and roads and parks.

Susanna im Bade by Franz von Stuck, 1913

Susanna im Bade by Franz von Stuck, 1913

There is one little river within Paris mentioned in The Invention Of Paris: A History In Footsteps by Eric Hazan. The Bièvre (brilliant article with copious photos) is still visible on Google Earth, tracing its way through the landscape to discharge into the Seine, upstream of the islands.

Different rivers, then, with their own particular character.

In mythology, both of these rivers have goddess-names, associated spirits, which reflect their pan-Celtic background.

Thamesis, goddess of the Thames (and the Isis, which is the name for the same river upstream of Oxford).

Sequana, goddess of the Seine, named so by the Parisii who settled on its banks and fought the Romans at Alesia.

Both names have been Latinised – the first taming of the wild Celtic spirit which so revered water-courses, rivers and trees, who Tacitus tells us worshipped a sacred king who ruled until sacrificed by one who would take his place.

But that’s a story for another day.

Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: Paris in 1832.

Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email. And bring a lantern.

P.S. Check out the SHADOWBOX page for a full list of posts in this series so far.

Published in: on June 5, 2014 at 10:00 am  Comments (2)  
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#ROW80 – Project AR and the Day 49 Progress Report

The Winter Solstice is nearly upon us, and in my part of the world that means long dark nights with grey short days in between.The urge to hibernate is strong. We are even promised snow flurries tomorrow, which after tonight’s torrential gales will be something of a relief.

1. Project AR: I have begun to edit the First Draft, with the aim of adding another 20-30K words or so. Three chapters done so far, twenty-five to go. Not rushing this. I won’t have it done before Hogmanay, but I might have a complete Second Draft by Burns Night. Watch this space.

Do you reckon I could gob on his hat from here, hein? Careful, Pierre, you don't want to kick something off...Meanwhile, my researches into the world of Paris in 1832, to add flavour to the story, have awoken an urge to visit the city and live there for a couple of weeks, student-style, and swan around the places mentioned in some of my favourite novels – Declare, by Tim Powers, for example, or the aforementioned Les Miserables.

Not going to happen.

But I’m fascinated by the differences between Paris and London – two of Europe’s great capital cities, both founded on rivers, both ancient and jam-packed with history and art.

More on this later, when the novel is finished…

2. Kobo publishing: Nope.

3. Large Print: Nope.

4. Regular blog posts: Once a week is regular. Just not healthy “regular”, if you know what I mean…

Published in: on December 18, 2013 at 10:54 pm  Comments (3)  
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#ROW80 – Project AR and the Day 42 Progress Report

This last week has been one of rest. The sort of rest that involves contemplation, couch-surfing and curry.

I have made no progress with writing or any of my other goals. And I’m cool with that.

1. Project AR: New title fits nicely into a striking cover, so I’ve been noodling along with shaping that up while the next 20-30K words filter through my story.

One of the characters is a bit thin at the moment and too much like someone in another novel, so I have to flesh him out a little. He has at least two major relationships in his life that require further details so he’s real, not just an avatar.

Plus, in doing my research for the next layer of texture I discovered that my characters appear in Paris a scant few months after the June Rebellion which features in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

If only the locals had proved friendly...

Paris Rebellion of 1832, of Les Miserables fame.

One of these days you’ll get a blog post on French writers of the 19th Century…

2. Kobo publishing: Nope.

3. Large Print: Nope.

4. Regular blog posts: Not right now, although this is once a week. I have blog posts building up for when I’ve published this current novel – maps, lifestyles, history, sources. Lots of nice links and pictures. But not yet.

Published in: on December 11, 2013 at 10:53 pm  Comments (7)  
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