Tag Archives: setting

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!


Still Life‘s setting

When Jen described her idea for Detectives around the World, I was really excited. First, of course, because I love mysteries. But in the last few years I’ve really come to love books with a strong sense of place, regardless of the genre. Those books where the setting is so relevant that it’s basically a separate character? Yeah, I *love* those. So an idea that combined mysteries with a look at settings was right up my alley.

But when it came time for me to focus and write this post about the setting of Still Life by Louise Penny [link to my review], I’ve had a difficult time knowing what to write about.

I thought about writing this post strictly about each of these individually, at at least one point:

• Penny definitely used cozy food and beverages — from Thanksgiving dinners to the bistro — to help set the scene.

• All the talk about the weather (next storm coming in, cold front, hunting season) reminded me of rural small-towns I’ve lived in.

These are both valid, even important aspects of Still Life‘s setting. And I adored how Penny implemented these aspects to draw Three Pines. But these mostly, I think, define Three Pines as merely a rural small town. That’s part of it, but Penny gives us more.

• Penny’s use of language (particularly the smattering of French words thrown in) to bring us down to earth in Quebec, Canada.

I’m a lover of words. As part of that passion, I love languages. It always thrills me to read a book that has bits of another language here and there. And this book is no exception to that.

Now, not being fluent in French (or any language other than English, I’m ashamed to say), I mostly rely on the context to help me understand what’s going on, so I don’t have to run for Google Translate mid-sentence. But even if I can’t figure out each word, I love having those words there. I think for a book set in Quebec, this was an important thing for Penny to do, and I think she did it well.