Writing is a pleasure. No question. But a particularly enjoyable element to writing fiction is the visualisation and ‘ground truthing’ into which you graft the story. Lights of Rue Catinat is a working title of a narrative I have been tweaking for quite some time now. Two French servicemen have spent time in the trenches of Word War One. One of the characters is Simon whose family farm lies near Haudanville, a stones throw from that battefield. The other is Andre who remains in the Army after the way. Both find themselves in Vietnam in the 1950s when Andre, now with the secret service uses Simon to try and uncover the theft of cryptographic equipment. Except maybe it was supposed to be stolen.
I started writing a long piece of Andre in the jungles of Vietnam fighting the Viet Minh. It’s now no longer the beginning of the novel, is dramatically pared down, and is now found in the middle of the work serving a different purpose altogether. But visits to Vietnam were important for me to get a feel for who he was. The arc of the story really focuses on Simon however. And Vietnam threw up the best clues as to who he was.
I visited a second hand book shop which I regret not plundering even more. It was full of photos and maps from the period about which I am writing. Here is Simon. I decided he would not be a socialite. He wouldn’t be part of France away from France but carve his own path in Saigon. But it helped to have a feel for what he might have looked like.
And this photo is one of a number of photos of a small steel fabrication plant which I found in a shoebox of images. This sparked the idea that Simon and one of his ex Army buddies set up fabrication business in Saigon.
That idea was supported by a box full of original blue prints of an endless number of projects being built across Vietnam in the 1950s – mines, schools, hospitals. Prisons! Steel fabrication was in hight demand.
Another character in the story was sparked by this image found in the same shoebox of photos and French bus timetables from the 1930s (very handy).
And before we leave Saigon, another handy resource – a 1972 survey map of Saigon, slightly the worse for wear. But it allowed me to properly place Simon’s metal fabrication plant for the period. It would be a bit daft to drop the plant into an area overgrown with other businesses.
Simon was raised on a farm outside Haudanville, close enough to the front to have most of the locals clear out. I visited Verdun and Haudainville. The former was an inspiring and sombre experience. The latter proved a drab and grey place, an impression not helped by me being there in winter months. But back to the farm. It’s based loosely on a farm in northern Victoria where I worked after leaving school. Given the time it took to draft the narrative I sketched the layout of the place and used it to keep me on track. The edited version of the story has less of this farm but any reference is at least consistent.
And of course the ship on which the crime is committed and around which the morality tale is spun. I used any number of pictures to give me a feel for what was going on and where equipment might be stored. And where our unlucky sentry might be placed. Pictures like this one helped me understand what the bridge might look like.
The challenge is that warships are constantly modified and the one in this picture varies from others. You have to be careful if you want to be accurate.
Ultimately it’s a model I build which gives me the best feel for where I might place my character and which shapes the event best. Its dated 1945 so I need to ensure updates for the 1950s warship visit to Saigon makes sense. You can see the model and the image above have very different bridges.
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