And people do. Incredibly generously. No matter where I go, if I ask a question and say I’m writing a book, mouths and doors open. Even when we barely speak the same language.
My recent research revealed that the location of French farmhouses, at least in the Somme area of France, aren’t like our Aussie farmhouses situated out in the middle of paddocks, far from town, but are located within the village, often on the main street.
Big buildings with high wooden doors and entries, or perhaps steel for the more modern, can line the street, like in the photo here. Beyond the walls and doorways are the yard in the middle and the farmhouse at the back. When asked why farmhouses weren’t on the farm land, my guide explained that it’s safer in the village (in numbers) unlike being isolated out on the land alone. In a country invaded often over the centuries, this made a lot of sense.
The farmyards’ location and set-out is integral to an important meeting of two central characters in my story and when I learned of their true location, I realised I’d set up their meeting all wrong. Only trouble was, since my guide wasn’t a farmer, how did I find out what lay behind the closed doors and gates of French farmyards to even begin to imagine their set out or setup? Many haven’t changed layout much over the century since the war, but, of course, most are much more modern in technology and living arrangements today.
Skulking along the main road of a small village seemed the closest I could get to seeing inside, snapping surreptitious photos through the odd door or gate left ajar. Until… My sidekick and I came across the huge house (pictured) next door to a “farmhouse”. When Jackie, as we came to know him, stepped out the farm gate to retrieve something from his car, we bade him ‘Bon jour,’ and when he responded in-kind, I took the opportunity to ask him how old was the house as a lead in to asking about the farm.
He said he’d pop back and ask the owner of the “chateau” who was inside. Minutes later he returned and asked us to come in and meet the owner. Before we knew it, we were shaking hands with Jacques, Jean Claude and Jackie and explaining my interest as a writer in both the chateau and the farm. To my bemusement, Jean Claude started filming me while I interviewed Jacques. I feared, he may have misunderstood and thought me famous. The word writer seems to carry such weight. I started to explain that I was your garden variety writer, not discovered yet, but knew my words not understood by Jean Claude’s grin and failure to put down the camera, so we both continued to enjoy the moment.
Next thing, Annik, Jacque’s wife arrived and she very graciously took us off to show us through the lower floor of their delightful chateau. I was both awestruck and embarrassed, not having meant to impose so much on their kindness and generosity of spirit. My time with Annik stretched my French to surprising lengths and I found long forgotten phrases and words in my efforts to communicate with her. How could I forget, la fenêtre, the window and other such descriptions around the house from Form One French class? Sr Austin would be proud of me.
Annik and Jacques allowed me to take photos and answered all my questions. I also got to see through the disused farmhouse and imagine how it might have been when one of my characters lived there so very long ago. She may not live next to the chateau but I’m hoping it’s going to find a small role in the book too.
The meeting reminded me how often and how much people are happy to share their knowledge, expertise and sometimes important parts of their lives with me, indulging my writer’s curiosity with an openness of spirit I delight in and very much appreciate. I’ve spoken to rodeo clowns, sailors, itinerent workers, coal miners and now chateau owners to bring authenticity to my stories. Each time I feel they’ve given me a gift. They certainly enrich my stories.
Publication is a tough gig, but the writing life is pretty damn cool.