Reading old medical journals for information, I ran across a summary of an article on historical suicide statistics by Dr. Allan McLane Hamilton, of New York. There is a surprising amount of data, broken down by gender, location, marital status, work — but only for some cities.
In 1793, [there were] 1300 [suicides] in Versailles.
In the year 1806, 60 suicides were reported in Rouen, an extremely small city [in France].
Paris, from 1827 to 1830, furnished 6900 suicides,
Now, these numbers don’t tell you much, not really. There’s no information here on how the data was gathered, whether it was sampled and if so, how, etc etc. We don’t know how many people total lived in Rouen at that time. But there is something to take from this, because the doctor, who writes in a fairly sober style, paused long enough to express an opinion about the great number of suicides in one small town in France: sixty suicides in the year 1806. That’s a little more than one a week, for the entire year.
To my mind, this is an interesting clue to a larger story. First I would have to make sure of the fact as it is presented, but assuming for the moment that it is exactly right, I have my work cut out for me. First I have to find Rouen (there it is on the left, or at least one narrow lane of it). Then I would need to dive into its history — social and economic, in as far as possible. If there are any kind of records for 1806 in this part of France, I have to have a look at those. This kind of thing might have been written up in Gentleman’s Quarterly type publications, so I have to check those as well as the papers in the region. Would this news have reached Paris, and if so, would anybody take note?
To cut to the chase: Rouen is a very significant place in the history of France. Big things happened here. Joan d’Arc was put to the stake; it was annexed to France in 1208, and later Rouen surrendered to Henry V and was promptly annexed to England. 1806 was a high point in Napoleon’s bid to be the big cheese of all Europe, and spirits were high. It was in 1806 that Napoleon marched into Berlin, the way Hitler would march into Paris and occupy it some hundred plus years later.
Interesting, no? But what about sixty people committing suicide in one small town in 1806? Were these deaths clustered together, or spread out? Was there one particular method, or a variety? Men? Women? You must realize that on average they had a little more than one suicide a week in Rouen. Somebody had to write something about it, somewhere.
Things can develop in many different directions from this point:
1. You give up; too much work and not enough story up front;
2. You go off to learn French fluently, and then you start with primary materials. For this, you’ll have to go to Rouen and spend at least a couple months studying in the local archives and libraries. When you are all done, you will write a non-fiction book on Rouen in 1806 and the Napoleonic Ideal.
3. You find out what you can, piece together as much material as you can reasonably do in a month or so of research (part time research; you’ve still got to keep working), and then you sit down to write a novel. This novel may follow the facts quite closely by means of a fictional family of your own creation. You want us to follow these people around with you so we can come to an understanding of what Rouen was like in 1806, and what was wrong. You may have an idea for a much more interesting story than the one you’ve researched, and change a lot of things. Anything is possible at this point.
So you see, one small note in an obscure, very dated medical journal might spark a series of events that result in a novel that people read for the next five hundred years. It could happen.