One of the most beautiful features of Paris is its streets. I love the ornate buildings, I love the beautiful landmarks, I love the stately cathedrals, but I also love the streets. They are cobbled unevenly, smoothly paved, or somewhere in between, geometrically decorated with modern pavers. They are grand like the Haussmann-designed boulevards and averagely wide like the Rue Milton or narrow like the Rue de Nancy. They each have their own little personality in the decorative facades or foliage or parking or modern features.
My favorite streets are the tiny pedestrian alleys where you can cut through quietly while dwarfed by the stone cavern rising up around you. Those are secret and mysterious, especially at night. In fact, the passages are one of the reasons I set most of my stories in Paris.
A Real Life Street That Wasn’t Quite Right
So, as I began my novel The Forgetting Flower, I knew I’d need the perfect street for my protagonist Renia and her plant shop. I’d walked the Rue Saint-Placide, named after Saint Placidus who was rescued as a boy from a lake in an alleged miracle, and I liked it. Saint-Placide is jammed with businesses and had a deep terrace, which my character used a lot for displays. It even had a real life plant shop, thus inspiring me to use its name in the novel.
I also liked that the street implied the word “Placid” or “stillness.” It was a nice bit of irony to name a thriller that included a death and some nefarious incidents on a street described as “placid.” Recently though, in editing the book, I realized the street was too busy for what happened there not to be obviously noticeable and public. Also, the street is not technically in Saint-Germain-des-Prés though it’s very close. And my protagonist’s desire to live in chic Saint-Germain was integral to the story. So, I nixed it.
The Search Continues
That led me on a Google maps goose chase. I knew the Rue du Bac. It nicely captured the spirit of Saint-Germain with its boutiques and hotels and restaurants. It runs in a snug narrow lane. Fewer cars travel it but tourists do, which was in my story. It had great sunlight and one of the first acts Renia does is look up at her friend’s balcony against the sunny blue sky. It had the makings of the perfect size and culture of the street in my dreams.
But the Rue du Bac bustles with tightly packed businesses. In my novel, a certain liquid rolls down the limestone wall of a building. There’s little if any limestone wall space between businesses on the Rue du Bac. And that moment kicks off the story’s plot. Sadly, I ruled out the Rue du Bac.
I’d also walked the Rue Gozlin, whose quiet, tucked away feel at the center of Saint-Germain seemed unassuming and hidden. It had a lovely, out-of-the-way quality where tourists might not travel and locals would. And it had lots of stone with some businesses too. But the street is a single-lane street and throughout the story I describe vans and cars coming and going. Parking a car on this street would be impossible because of the iron posts lining the sidewalk. And the sidewalk was too shallow as well.
An Imagined Street
I continued virtually visiting various streets, many of which I’d walked and some I hadn’t. But with Saint-Germain at the heart of the story, I couldn’t find the exact street I needed. This annoyed me. I wanted the setting to be as true to life as possible, somewhere I could stand and point and say, “That’s where it all happened.” As a literary tourist, you can do this with streets in Flaubert, Balzac, and Hugo’s novels. I wanted the same true-to-life accuracy.
Still, I had a lot of true-to-life accuracy with other streets and sites. It was just this central location that dogged me. But it wasn’t meant to be. Not in such a tight neighborhood. So, I decided to create the street in my imagination. It’s a one-lane street like the Rue du Bac with lots of sun and has parking. It has a deep terrace and bustles with commercial activity like the Rue Saint-Placide. And it has classic limestone building walls. It’s in Saint-Germain and ironically named. The Rue Sereine.
The World of the Story
Though I now can’t pinpoint the exact location of Renia’s plant shop, I’m okay with my fictional choice. It’s always disappointed me as a reader when I can’t place a novel’s street in real life and so I hope I don’t disappoint my own readers. But it can’t be helped. And most readers probably won’t care anyway. They’ll be following Renia through her trials of the plot. Hopefully The Forgetting Flower’s words and characters and story will engage them so wholeheartedly that they won’t notice or care whether the Rue Sereine even exists in real life. Time will tell.