Writing a story is an art in itself. Creating the right setting, the perfect characters, plot, believable dialogue and conflict. With those blended ingredients are what makes a story impact the reader’s imagination, mind and heart. The most important aspect of story-telling is to draw the reader in your character’s world. How are the stories written to do this and how does one make it work? Today, Award Winning Author Sophie Perinot, shares with us her expertise.
What are the steps in creating a setting for your story?
Creating a realistic 3-dimensional world for our characters and readers to inhabit together is one of a writer’s most important tasks. Historical novelists have both an advantage and a disadvantage when creating settings, because that many of the locations in our work are real.
The advantage to genuine settings is we can visit them in person or—if that is not physically or financially possible—visit them virtually via the internet. We can also research the bejeebers out of them. As someone who majored in history, I am very serious about my research. I’ve also been to many of the locations featured in my work, especially those in my most recent novel, Médicis Daughter, which has settings not only in Paris but at a variety of landmark Loire Valley Châteaux. I always take copious notes when traveling to potential settings, and make sure to take more pictures than I could possibly need. I am particularly on the lookout for distinctive, memorable details—both large and small—and I will get back to why in a minute (promise).
The disadvantage to having real historical settings in a novel is that often readers have also visited these locations and sometimes they inexplicably persist in thinking that places looked the same 500 or 700 years ago. This came up in conjunction with in my first novel, The Sister Queens. That book is set in the 13th century, at a time when one of my main characters, King Henry III of England, was actively renovating Westminster Abbey. Lots of people have been to Westminster—the version that reflects Henry’s completed changes, as well as later renovations—and some of them took issue with my pre-renovation description. Another example would be my description of Avignon. I didn’t mention the Papal Palace because it did not exist at that time. But today it is prominent in the skyline. So again, some readers wrote to ask me how I could possibly have failed to mention it.
Now, as promised, back to the distinctive details. As a novelist I am looking to transport my readers to the moment and the spot where my historical characters are living their lives. But I do not want to over-describe, because, imo, nothing slows down dramatic plot action like a wall-by-wall, chair-by-chair description of a room or a bush-by-bush description of a garden (however lovely). I’ve found that the real key to evoking place and mood is the inclusion of not every detail but the right ones. To find those “right” details I ask myself “in her present mood and mindset what would my main character see when she walked into this space and why?” Very often I fix upon something to share with readers that has emotional resonance (say a favorite view or object) for my character while also helping to flesh out my setting.
A final word on building settings: I think it is particularly important to remember as a writer or reader that when a person lives somewhere he/she often ceases to remark upon the things that a stranger might notice. So what a character notices in a new place is different than what he might observe walking through a place that is well-known to him. The same is true with items that would be common in a past era but are not common now. It would be bizarre for my point-of-view character to take extensive notice of an object that while absolutely novel to 21st century readers would be entirely pedestrian and every day to someone inhabiting the 16th century. If I feel it is absolutely essential to describe that item to my readers then I must find an entirely plausible reason for my character to be thinking or talking about it.
There is a fine line between creating a visible backstory and a hidden backstory of your characters. What are the steps in balancing it out? What should you not do?
I am constantly telling new writers to view backstory as an iceberg—you have to know every inch of it, but only the tiniest increment of it should be visible to the reader. Knowing your characters inside out—including their likes, dislikes, history, prejudices, and personal habits—makes it possible to bring them fully and vividly to life. For example, I know the favorite perfume of the point-of-view characters in the manuscript I am working on currently. I know who her favorite poet is. Those are likely not things the reader will ever know or need to know. When weighing whether to include any particular piece from a character’s backstory in my novels I ask myself:
Does this forward the plot?
1) Alternatively, does it tell the reader something absolutely essential about the character—something that will help readers to understand actions/motivations that might otherwise remain remote?
2) Is there any chance at all I am just showing off my research?
Ultimately if a bit of backstory clears all these hurdles I make sure to the greatest extent possible to follow the rule of “show don’t tell” in presenting it.
Finally, the true test of whether any portion of visible backstory will survive is a second reading by my awesome critique partners and/or my editor. I’ve been called in the past—and rightly so—by critique partners on including details of backstory that turned out to be self-indulgent. But these valuable extra sets of eyes have also occasionally prodded me to provide more backstory.
How much is too much conflict? And what do you do about it when it’s not working in the plot?
Nothing that doesn’t forward your plot arc or humanize your characters belongs in a novel. Period, full stop. So if some particular conflict doesn’t work in the plot then out it must come. And as for “too much conflict” is there such a thing? Honestly, as a reader I’ve often been disappointed by books that failed to have a meaningful central conflict or a dramatic plot arc. You know the sort of books that can be summarized as “and then this happened, and then this happened . . .” but the series of events is just that—disjointed and without any unifying plot arc. I honestly can’t remember a single time when I’ve thought, “there is just too much exciting conflict in this book.”
What are the steps in creating believable characters and dialogue?
Characters have to live for an author before they can come alive for anyone else. For me that mean researching the heck out of them if they are genuine historical figures, or building them down to the slightest detail (remember my perfume comment above) if they are not. I have characters notes for just about every character in my novels—even those who are relatively minor. I let all those notes ruminate in my subconscious for as long as it takes for the one of the all-important point-of-view characters to start talking to me, literally. Generally, I find I hear them first when my attention is focused elsewhere—I am grocery shopping, driving carpool, or drifting off to sleep. Whatever scene they want to weave for me first, even if it is not the opening scene of the book and even if it ultimately ends up on the cutting room floor, I take it down quickly and without overthinking things. Because this is a genesis moment, and it is all about spark and voice rather than language and plot.
If I am writing them correctly, I come to care about my characters and to feel as if they are truly alive. I worry a lot about portraying them fairly and honestly, about understanding—even in the case of wholly fiction ones—what it is they have to say to readers that is essential. And you can ask my family, when a draft is finished and I know that I will never hear my main characters voices again (because editing is just not the same as drafting) I’ve been known to grieve. There are certain characters I miss more than others. But the sudden silence is always rather deafening.
As for writing dialogue, in my experience NOTHING is better for making it sound authentic than either dictating it in the first place and transcribing it, or reading it aloud after you’ve written it. People don’t speak in the same way that they write. They often use incomplete sentences. And they assume that the other party to the dialogue knows/understands certain things. When we talk to other people there are always underlying assumptions based on past interactions or any number of other factors. The best, most believable dialogue reflects those realities.
What is the advice you would give to a writer when they get stuck on a specific scene or comes across a road block in their plot?
When it comes to any given scene, do not force it. Not every book is written in an entirely linear manner. So if you are stuck move on to another scene—one you are certain of, one that inspires you, one that makes the words flow readily. And don’t be too much of a perfectionist in the first draft. Some first drafts as shiny and you’d be proud to show them to anyone. Most, however, are messy and occasionally ugly. That’s fine. They are not a finished project. Just keep telling yourself “this is a work in PROGRESS.”
Plot is a little trickier. When you are stuck mid-way through your narrative arc and you know points “A” and “C” but can’t figure out a point “B” that will take you onward that’s tough. Two things that have worked for me: 1) write through it. Don’t worry about perfect, just write “B” one way and then if necessary ten more ways until you find one that resonates with you and moves you to where you need to be. Or, 2) call up your trusted critique partners. The number of “plot bunny busting” lunches I’ve had with fellow historical novelists Kate Quinn and Stephanie Dray can’t be counted on two hands without running out of fingers pretty quickly. In fact, nearly every time the three of us get together one or more of us will say “let me run this sticky spot by you,” and the collective brainstorming will start. Remember in every aspect of this tricky business your fellow writers are some of your greatest resources!
About Sophie Perinot:
I’ve always been passionate about history. I was the first member of my college graduating class to declare a history major (first quarter of freshman year – not that I was over-eager or anything). Next, I attended law school. Whatever else can be said about lawyers (and please, spare me the bad jokes), we get a lot of practice writing. It’s a much larger part of the job than most people realize. Eventually, however, my muse was stronger than my inner-litigator and I left the legal side of things to my husband (aka my law-school-sweetheart) and “retired” to the happier job of raising my children and pursuing artistic interests, including writing.
It’s often said writers are readers first. I am no exception. I have always been an avid reader, especially of the classics. Deciding what to write was easy. As a life-long student of history, from a family of history-nerds, historical fiction was destined to be my niche. My attraction to French history was equally natural — I studied French abroad, and I am a hopeless devotee of one of the grandfathers of the genre, Alexandre Dumas, père.
I live in Great Falls, Virginia surrounded by trees and books. My books are time machines. Currently I travel daily to the 17th century Rome of the Barberini. But it is anybody’s guess where I will be off to next and who I will meet there. I can’t wait!
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If found this most interesting and useful. I researched Westminster Hall pre all the H3 rebuilding and that was fascinating and makes the building description I wrote right for me. Not great amount of detail but enough to be sure it is how it could have been. It is very difficult to let go of the masses you, the researcher writer, discover. It is tucked away though and can be drawn on or just remembered for your own insights. Thank you for this.