Writer Tasha Alexander and her Victorian-era novels featuring the intrepid, ahead-of-her-time Lady Emily should be well-known to BookPage readers—see our reviews of them here. The fifth in the series, Dangerous to Know, came out last week. Here, Alexander gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of the research required for Dangerous, making us even more jealous of the life of an author!

Zen and the art of driving in France

guest post by Tasha Alexander

I spent much of last summer housesitting in rural Normandy, writing and doing research for my latest book. It was heavenly. The landscape is extraordinary, like walking through an Impressionist painting, and the food is everything you’d expect from France. I’d do just about anything right now for the village boulangerie’s still-hot croissants. Spending a significant amount of time in the place your novel is set enriches the story in ways you can’t anticipate—and in ways that would be impossible if you limited your research to reading.

But the thing that surprised me the most about my time in France was driving. Or navigating, really. And that was something that couldn’t go into a novel set in 1892.

To start, let me say, for the record, that I absolutely adore France and the French. Always have, always will. Until I came to Normandy, I’d not spent much time in France outside of Paris (it’s pretty hard to tear yourself away from Paris), and I was looking forward to exploring the coast, the crumbling châteaux, and the lush countryside. Armed with directions printed from Google Maps, I set off for my first excursion, to the seaside town of Étretat.

Within about half an hour, I was hopelessly lost.

Google Maps, you see, doesn’t quite fit with France. I was approaching the trip like an American—an American planning to follow numbered highways to numbered exits.

Now. The French have both numbered highways and numbered exits. But to get to them isn’t quite so easy as you might think. It requires a different frame of mind. You don’t want to look for the number—instead, you need to go through each roundabout in the direction of the next village that’s on your way to your final destination. Knowing you need the N15 or the D8 isn’t enough. From that day on, I abandoned Google for a real, hard copy map, and made lists of towns before setting off. In the end, it made for much more pleasant excursions. How lovely to look for Pierrefiques or Fauville-en-Caux, wondering what you’ll see there, rather than fixating on numbers. Sure, you may eventually wind up on the N15, but more likely, you’ll never see the entrance and will spend a gorgeous afternoon meandering through charming places you’d never have seen otherwise.

Once you get accustomed to it, switching back to taking I-80 to exit whatever seems pedestrian and crass. I’m already looking forward to my next trip along the back roads of France.

Thanks, Tasha! Next time you go to France, take us with you. :) Visit her site for more about Tasha Alexander and the Lady Emily series.

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