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Louise Penny on setting as character

The New York Times-bestselling author on the value of enticing the reader with sensory detail... without straying into overload territory.

There’s a saying in sports that the home crowd is an extra player—a significant advantage over the other team. The same is true of setting. It’s an unacknowledged character, one that can play a huge role in the success of your book.

Here’s how I try to heighten the sense of setting in my novels. While each of us needs to approach our story in our own way, it’s possible this will work for you too.

I try to make my books sensual. Not sexual, but sensual. I want the reader to have all their senses engaged, so that as they follow a character they feel the cold scraping their cheeks, they hear the squeak of boots on packed snow, smell the maple wood smoke and taste the rich, musky café au lait.  

The goal is to not just bring a place alive, but to invite the reader to step into it. To join the story. To break down the barrier, so that they’re not reading typed words on a page, but they’re actually living the story. Walking beside the characters, hearing their voices, seeing the peaceful village, the grimy city, the frost on the panes, the worms on the spring road.  

Now, the key is to not tip over into purple prose or over-description. Remember that reading is as creative as writing. The reader is our ally, our partner—the necessary second half. We suggest, they fill in. We write the descriptions, they bring it alive. But in order to really engage the reader, it’s vital to not treat them as idiots. Simply suggest. Make use of the telling detail. A chipped mug, a dead flower, stale perfume in the air. They’ll see it, they’ll smell it. No need to tell intelligent people more. And in asking them to do the rest, the reader will become part of the story.  

It’s a very beautiful relationship. As writers, we need readers. Not simply to buy our books and help us make a living. But they complete our books. And the readers need us to guide and stimulate their imaginations, their intellects, their heads and their hearts. A great book engages both. We might forget the details of a book we’ve read, but chances are we won’t forget how (to paraphrase Maya Angelou) it makes us feel.  

In terms of where you set your books, well, that’s up to you. Some of you will make purely market-driven decisions, and that’s great. Some of you will choose a location that means something to you personally, as I did. A setting can influence the tone of a crime novel. Mine are mostly set, deliberately, in a hyper-idyllic village. And then I violate that peacefulness with a crime. My books are, I hope, many things besides crime novels—and one of the ongoing themes is duality. The distance between perception and reality, between what we think and how we feel. Between the public face and the private turmoil. And the duality of the lovely setting and the grim crime. Setting for me reinforces one of the driving themes of my books.  

And, for what it’s worth, I think great novels are set in Canada. The setting is never the problem… the writing might be, but not the setting. 

Louise Penny didn't begin her writing career until her mid-forties, when she set to work on her first crime novel, Still Life. Set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, the series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the head of Homicide for the Sûreté du Quebec. Her books have been translated into 23 languages and have hit the major bestseller lists, including The New York Times, the London Times and The Globe and Mail.


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