Louise Penny on Setting, a guest post

Today I’m pleased to welcome Louise Penny, author of Still Life and the entire Gamache mystery series. As part of Detectives around the World, she wrote this about the setting of these books. Ms. Penny?

Louise Penny, photo from her website

The Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries would never have been written had Michael and I not moved into the Eastern Townships of Quebec, south of Montreal by the border with Vermont. Two things came together here, the magnificent landscape and my immeasurable laziness. It proved a potent partnership. Setting the Gamache novels where we live meant I had access to stunningly beautiful, often wild, almost always untamed countryside, and characters. And it meant I didn’t have to do much, if any, work. I write not only what I know, but what I see every day. The storms swallowing the mountain across from us as they march toward our home and village. The blizzards, and foot after foot of dazzling, fluffy snow. The grim ice and cold that lingers in the marrow. The eventual, miraculous first shoots of spring reminding us that life is indeed a force greater than death. The sizzling hot summers and the fork lightning that can explode trees and homes and barns. The delicate old world roses and honeysuckle, that survive where strong trees tumble. But more even than the landscape, it is the rich culture of Quebec that seeps into the Chief Inspector Gamache books. The French and English living in harmony if not always in peace. The cafe au laits and carrot cake. The rice pudding and steak frites. The tartes and croissants and soups and rich, fragrant stews. Baguette and brie. Yum.

Because Quebec is both French and English, and a few of the main characters are French, I throw in some French words now and then to set the atmosphere. That’s a bit of a balancing act. I’ve come to realize people have different tolerances for hitting words they don’t understand. And it’s something I’ve struggled with. How much to put in. Where. What do people understand? And does the context make the translation obvious? Merci, madame. Surely that doesn’t need translation. Bon. Voyons. All words meant to set the stage and not convey crucial clues. And I know when I read a book I have no problem when Russian speakers sometimes say something in Russian. Or Spanish or Italian. I like it, in fact. But, as I say, I realize people have different tolerances. The other thing I’ve come to realize is that readers don’t know how to pronounce the names of the characters. Now I can definitely understand the frustration with that! After all, why would you know how to pronounce Reine-Marie, or Jean Guy, or Olivier? Or even some of the meals they eat.

So, I’ve put a pronunciation guide on my website (www.louisepenny.com) where I talk about the French names and words and phrases, how to say them and what they mean. I think it helps.

I wish I could say writing my books is a titan effort, but the fact is, they are an act of love. And every word is a love letter to the place I live and the people I adore. The fact they are also murder mysteries is, it must be said, only slightly disturbing and we’re not yet sure what that says about how I really feel. But I find if I drink enough cafe au laits and eat enough croissants those questions fade. I, however, have grown more substantial.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on setting!

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7 responses to “Louise Penny on Setting, a guest post

  1. Oh goodness she’s so modest. Louise is stunningly beautiful, don’t let her kid you!

    This is so perfect for this project. Setting plays such an important role for so many writers in the crime fiction genre.

    Thank you, Hannah, for hosting Louise and allowing her to be a part of our project! And thank you for all the work YOU put into this project. It couldn’t have been successful without you.

  2. Who can resist an act of love? I can imagine it’s a balancing act to add enough French words and names and food to make the setting and world real but not throw off readers who might have trouble understanding.

    Great post.

  3. Jen, I agree totally. Louise is indeed beautiful and she gives off a sense of calm and peace, regardless of what she may say. 🙂

    There is a reason why I said that this is probably my favorite mystery series. I want to just immerse myself in Three Pines and I’ve never even been to Canada!

  4. Oh my gosh, you scored a fabulous guest post! I love that she throws French words in – it makes it feel more like Quebec!

  5. Wow, what a post! I just picked up my first couple in this series and am so excited. I’ve heard such wonderful things from other bloggers and my mom. We are both huge mystery devotees. Thanks for taking time to share!

  6. What a great post! I’m a diehard Louise Penny/Gamache fan, and I’ve been wanting to visit the Eastern Townships ever since I first read Still Life. Most of all, I’d LOVE to find a place like Three Pines – I could definitely move there and settle in quite happily!

  7. The pronounciation guide is nice, but I don’t have an MP3 player, so doesn’t help me. How about just posting the file on the web where everyone can access it?

    Love the books

    thanks