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Picturing a World

What makes this book so happy (2): Place

One way a book can make you happy is to transport you from your armchair to someplace else altogether. It helps, of course, for the place to be somewhere you’d like to visit (exposés need not apply). From Prevention’s list of 55 happy books, I’ll point to Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon as books that make you adore being in France. Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency illustrates the success of mystery series set in vividly evoked locations. Move from Africa to Paris, and you get The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff!

If I was not aware of making food a theme in Where the Light Falls, I certainly was consciously determined to make the settings come alive. I did a lot of research, not just on Paris, but on Cincinnati, New York, Brittany, and Provence. As someone said about writing historical fiction, the author must know so much about a place that he or she can feel at home walking around in it in imagination.

It helps to visit a place on the ground (not to mention being fun); but to re-create the past, you also need to study as much written and visual evidence as you can lay hands on. A.-P Martial’s colored etching of the Passage de l’Opéra is an example of a picture that can supply information to an author. Its invitation to explore is also a visual analogue of the curiosity that the writer hopes to inspire in the reader. Don’t you feel confident that if you could walk on behind the woman with the little boy you could look into the shop windows along the rest of the passage? Don’t you want to go exploring? For a Bibliodyssey collection of Martial's depictions of Paris, click here.

Writer’s tip: People do read travel books in part for the descriptions; but in fiction, it’s best to treat settings like dialogue. Everything should count at least twice. Speech can convey information, amuse, move the plot, or reveal character; ideally, every exchange ought to accomplish at least two tasks. Settings can allow the reader to see a place through the characters’ eyes, foresee invisible dangers, understand action better, or experience a mood.

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