Mixing Reality with Fiction
Written by
Anne Trager
October 2012
Written by
Anne Trager
October 2012

When I translated the prizewinning, international bestseller The 7th Woman by Frédérique Molay, I had the opportunity to discuss with the author how she mixes reality into fiction. I share those revelations below, and would be most interested in knowing how other writers out there weave reality into their fiction, or are inspired by it. 

Molay told me that all of her stories stem from encounters, things she has read in the papers and heard about.

“Before I start writing,” she says, “I do real fieldwork, exploring settings, visiting places, interviewing people to make my characters--the Paris elite Criminal Investigation Division detectives, CSIs, medical examiners, judges-- more lifelike. I find it fascinating to meet people who talk to me about their work with enthusiasm and sincerity, who show me what they know how to do. Isn’t that one of the characteristics of crime fiction? Mixing reality with imagination? And my research is an enriching moment before I dive into the solitude of writing, where I live exclusively through my characters. Sometimes my research gives me a cold sweat, like when I attended human dissection at the medical school for the second in the Nico Sirsky series.”

The first in Nico Sirsky, Chief of Police, series--The 7th Woman--introduces readers to the team at the Paris Criminal Investigation Division, an elite unit of top crime fighters headquartered in an epic building at 36 Quai des Orfèvres, right down the street from Notre Dame and communicating with the Palais de Justice. Frédérique Molay managed to obtain an interview with the head of the division, who took a liking to her and showed her the ins and outs.

“When I spent time at 36 Quai des Orfèvres, my pen did not leave my notepad as I jotted down all the details that would allow me to translate how things work there and the prevailing atmosphere. Police officers were constantly interrupting us, I listened to how they talked. I soaked up the relationships that existed, their attitudes. I remembered anecdotes and then used all this information to write the story.

“Nico Sirsky certainly mirrors the police detectives I had an opportunity to meet there. And, I’ll admit that I tossed in a touch of inspiration from comic book superheroes, who make me dream. I tried to give Nico Sirsky the calm, determination, and fine mind that I perceived in the real chief of police, who was heading up the Criminal Investigation Division when I visited it. He had really impressed me with his stature, his vivacity and his humor.”

How did she do it? “I began by writing up a short biography, which grew as I continued to write the story. The idea was to pay homage to my father’s family and more especially by my paternal grandmother’s Ukrainian origins. His first name comes from Nicolas Gogol, who according to my family mythology is one of my ancestors! There is no certitude in that, but I don’t need to look for truth in it, the dream is enough. I preferred the short version, Nico. I thought it would convey more mystery. He is tall, blond with blue eyes. He is a strong and handsome man with a heart.”

Did she succeed? “When the chief of police read the manuscript (anonymously) he realized it was written by a woman, but he thought the author was a police officer. That means I reached my goal.”

Frédérique Molay has been called "the French Michael Connelly," and her book The 7th Woman--an edge-of-your-seat police procedural--is now available from Le French Book. It won France’s most prestigious crime fiction award, was named Best Crime Fiction Novel of the Year, and is already an international bestseller. For the launch, Le French Book is giving away a trip to France, French wine and lots of other gifts. We've also dropped the usual list price for a limited time. Check it out at www.the7thwoman.com.

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  • Anne Trager

    Kathleen, how very interesting.

  • Kathleen Kern

    I like to think that I don't write primarily as a form of therapy.  But I do work as a human rights activist in the West Bank, and my first novel was a farce about a human rights team in the West Bank city of Hebron.  My second novel involved a young woman who is more interested in anime than she is human beings so he isn't able to cope when her sister is kidnapped while working with a human rights organization in Iraq (See the Kirkus Review at https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/kathleen-kern/because-angels/)  While I am not at all like the main character, I think writing the book did help process what I and my organization went through when four of my colleagues were kidnapped and one murdered in Baghdad November 2005-March 2006.

    For the first two novels I invented a denomination, the Reformed Anabaptists,  because I write a lot of nonfiction for a Mennonite audience and didn't want to confuse my readership (and because a lot of people don't know what Mennonites are or think Mennonites are weird).  For the one I'm working on now, set fifty years in the future under a fascist Christian regime in the U.S., I've thrown caution to the winds and decided just to let Mennonites be Mennonites.

  • Anne Trager

    Thanks Mardith for your comment. Isn't it nice though that you can read these writers in English? Hope you enjoy discovering the new French writers we are translating too. 

  • Mardith Louisell

    Hi, Anne,Your post  got me going to the library and checking out Fred Vargas and Manotti and I loved them both. Also found Vargas's detective is on international  mystery and I can go to the the video store for it. I realize I should be reading mysteries in France by French writers.  Thanks so much. Good luck on your translation. I loved