Vanessa Couchman – The other South of France

Continuing the writers abroad series, this week it features Vanessa Couchman whom I met at a literary festival here in France. Vanessa  writes historical novels and short stories set in France or on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Quirky true stories often find their way into her fiction, and she likes nothing more than pottering around ruined châteaux or exploring the lesser-known byways of France.

Over to Vanessa!

People sometimes say to me, “How’s life in Provence?” When you mention the South of France, people naturally think of living the good life in some Lubéron village, like Peter Mayle.

Actually, I live in the other South of France, the Southwest: less well known, but no less interesting, and endowed with its fair share of picturesque places and glorious scenery.

We moved down here from London nearly twenty-five years ago, seeking a less frantic, more satisfying lifestyle. We are still here, so it was a good move, although a bit of a leap in the dark.

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie – one of the region’s many hilltop villages

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie – one of the region’s many hilltop villages

France has had a huge influence on me as a writer. First, if we hadn’t moved here, I would probably never have started writing fiction again after a gap of decades. My freelance lifestyle offered more opportunity to return to it.

Just as important, France has given me the inspiration behind my writing. Our region is pervaded by history. It was once a frontier zone with an independent spirit, which it retains today. Much of its past involved crusades against heretics or wars with foreign powers.

All this has made its mark on the now-tranquil countryside and villages and left plenty of material for a history nut like me.

Corsica – Saint-Florent with Cap Corse mountains behind

Corsica – Saint-Florent with Cap Corse mountains behind

In fact, my first forays into novel-writing were set not in mainland France, but on the French island of Corsica. From our first visit in 2003, I was smitten. The magnificent, mountainous landscape, distinctive culture and turbulent history are gifts for a novelist. My first two books are set there, and I plan to return to Corsica for future novels.

Coming back to “France continentale”, as the Corsicans call it, I am writing a trilogy set partly in Southwest France, spanning the period from the 1890s to 1945.

The series follows the fortunes of a young woman born to a modest farming family in Aveyron, one of France’s most rural départements (counties). She has ambitions well above her station, and the trilogy chronicles her progress as an opera singer through the momentous events of the 20th century.

The protagonist travels far from her native Aveyron to Paris, Vienna, Italy and New York, among other places, but she retains a deep attachment to her roots. French people are strongly connected to their rural past. This has spawned a genre of novels, Romans du Terroir. They are mostly rustic family sagas, which venerate a lifestyle that disappeared not so very long ago.

Alongside wars and political upheaval, profound social changes took place in French rural society over the 20thcentury. Farmers abandoned the land, attracted by the much shorter working hours and the more regular income the towns offered. The mechanisation of agriculture, although slower to take hold in France than in other countries, also cut a swathe through the rural workforce.

Oxen once used for ploughing

Oxen once used for ploughing

In researching past times, I am fortunate that acquaintances have lived through them. Our very elderly neighbour told us stories of his youth, when they harvested with scythes. Our friend Claude (now in his early seventies) said his parents still ploughed with oxen.

These first-hand accounts have enabled me to incorporate some authentic colour, and I have unashamedly adapted people’s anecdotes for my novels.

Finally, after so many years here, I now speak French well, although not perfectly. Despite years of French at school, I could barely string two words together when we arrived. Intensive language classes put me on the right road.

As well as facilitating conversations with local people, reading French is essential for my writing. This has enabled me to immerse myself in the Romans du Terroir I mentioned earlier and to gain a feel for the spirit of the age. I can also study French history books, consult primary sources and navigate online French archives, which are not always the most user-friendly. Thank goodness for the internet, though, especially in these restricted times!

If travel broadens the mind, living abroad expands one’s horizons.

All images ©Vanessa Couchman


Connect with Vanessa


Discover Overture, Book 1 of the Alouette Trilogy:

All Marie-Thérèse wants to do is sing, but everything conspires against her dreams.

France, 1897.

Born to a modest farming family, Marie-Thérèse has a remarkable singing voice and wants to become a professional singer. But too many obstacles, including her parents’ opposition, stand in her way. Through no fault of her own, she makes a dangerous enemy of the local landlord.

The family circumstances change suddenly. Marie-Thérèse and her mother must move to Paris to work in her aunt’s restaurant. Her ambitions rekindle, but the road to success is paved with setbacks, until a chance meeting gives her a precious opportunity.

She is close to achieving all her dreams, but the ghosts of the past come back to haunt her and threaten Marie-Thérèse’s life as well as her career.

Overture is the first in a trilogy set in France, starting in 1897 and finishing at the end of the Second World War.

Buy Overture here:


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste the latest contemporary thriller… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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