Account Books and Budgets as Writing Inspiration

Guest Post by Ann Marti Friedman –

“Truth isn’t in accounts, but in account books,” Josephine Tey wrote in The Daughter of Time. While she praised account books for supplying facts for the historian, they can also be sources of inspiration for the historical novelist.

Account books and budgets help the writer to determine the wages or salaries their characters might earn. While doing research for An Artist in Her Own Right (Cardiff: Accent Press, 2018) set in the Napoleonic era, I came across the budget for the Louvre Museum. Annual salaries ranged from 12,000 francs for Dominique Vivant-Denon, the director, to 1,200 francs for the museum guards. They had been earning 600 francs, but when Denon took charge, he said this was not a living wage and doubled it. One can imagine both the guards’ relief and their resentment at having been so poorly paid before. A payroll sheet tells us not only their names but also who was capable of signing his name and who could only make his mark. As a result, we get to know them as individuals.

The Comptes des Bâtiments du Roi sous Louis XIV (The Accounts of the King’s Building Works under Louis XIV)[1] was a key resource for my dissertation on sculpture in the gardens at Versailles. Scanning the pages for payments related to my many artists, I gained a sense of the life of the place quivering beneath the printed page, with hundreds of people working to build, decorate, and entertain in the palace and gardens. I think of account books as narratives in numbers. Each payment represents several actions: the work done to earn the money, the palace administrators recording and handing over the payment, and the workers pocketing the coins. Spending the coins, however, is another series of actions that takes place outside the confines of the account book.

I wrote my dissertation almost forty years ago, but some of the stories contained in the Comptes have remained with me as I work on my current novel, Death Amidst the Fountains of Versailles. A firm of haulers was paid compensation for four horses that died falling into the Grand Canal. How did the horses fall in, I wondered? Were they spooked, running headlong down the western slope of the garden? Or did their heavily loaded wagon venture too near the edge, dragging them into the water and holding them under so that they drowned before they could be cut loose? One can imagine the yells of the drivers; the panicked thrashing of the horses; men putting down their tools and running to join the crowd along the edge of the canal; some jumping in to help, others shouting advice, all of them avidly taking in the scene; the slow, sad process of pulling the bodies of the horses out of the water. I used that incident in Fountains as the setting for the discovery of the victim’s body at the bottom of the canal.

A world of sorrow is contained in the payment to a widow whose two sons died falling from the palace scaffolding. One can imagine her grief at receiving the news, other women gathering around her to support and comfort her. One also wonders why the brothers fell. Did their scaffold fail beneath them? Did they both trip? Did one of them trip and the other one reach out to save him, only to get pulled over? Did they get into a heated argument and not watch where they were putting their feet? Or was a sinister motive behind the event: Were they pushed? If so, by whom, and why? A historical whodunit might be in the offing.

Account books can give the names of real people to add to one’s fictional characters. I employed Monsieur Liégeois, who supplied the fireworks for the fête of 1668, for my imagined fête of 1677. Another man whose name stuck with me when I had long forgotten those of my sculptors is Pot-de-vin (Wine pot), a soldier who was paid a modest sum for digging out the lake on the southern axis of the garden. His nickname suggests his habits, and I knew that I had to use him as a character. He plays an important role in A Fine Tapestry of Murder (London: Headline, 2020) and returns in Fountains.

Account books can also reveal character. When the Marquis de Louvois took over administration of the arts in 1684, he began a new practice of charging sculptors’ widows for the blocks of marble that the Bâtiments du Roi had given to their husbands for uncompleted work. Often these widows were owed hundreds of livres for the works their husbands had finished and would not be paid in full for several years (after Louvois’s death, in fact). Charging them for the marble must have added insult to injury at a time when they were grieving. It is indicative not only of Louvois’s unpleasant nature but also of his pettiness: the very modest sums involved are small compared to the thousands being spent.

“Truth isn’t in accounts, but in account books.” Inspiration is there too.

[1] Edited by Jules Guiffrey (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1881-1901). It is now available online through the website. Unfortunately, because the payments cited here were not related to my dissertation, I did not make note of the dates or the names of the recipients.

Ann Marti Friedman is the daughter and sister of accountants. Turning her back on the family profession, she studied art history and became a museum professional, only to find herself spending 18 years of her career writing grant application budgets and narratives. She lives in Mission, Kansas, USA, under the watchful eye of William, her demanding cat. A lover of classical music, she serves on the board of the Kansas City Baroque Consortium. Ann is the author of An Artist in Her Own Right (Cardiff: Accent Press, 2018) and A Fine Tapestry of Murder (London: Headline, 2020).

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