Today as part of The Sister Queens tour, Sophie Perinot has written a fascinating blog post for us. She is also giving away one copy of her new book to one lucky reader. (see below)
“No Lace I Beg You” – Confessions of a Closet “Description Minimalist”
I am a woman somewhat out of place in my own genre. I just don’t care what everyone’s dress looked like. Gasp if you will. Pummel me if you must. But when I am reading a historical novel and the characters attend a ball (or some other elaborate court festivity) and the author begins to offer me – in exquisite and doubtless accurate detail – descriptions of what everyone is wearing, the decorations, the meal, my eyes glaze over and the skimming commences. Skimming is NOT good.
Do you remember the moment in the 1995 Andrew Davies' adaptation of Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Bennet shouts,“No lace. No lace, Mrs. Bennet, I beg you!”? Well that’s me.
Obviously description has its place in historical fiction. Historical writers are “world builders” in a way that writers of contemporary fiction are not. If you write a novel set in 2012 you can rely to some extent on the knowledge and experience of the reader to fill in the details. We can all imagine, for example, what a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt look like– even if you imagine Levis Jeans and I imagine Joe’s. The same may not be said for a dress in the le saye style worn with a Spanish farthingale. Descriptive details can transport a reader to a time and place and give our historical stories authenticity. But I would argue it’s the quality of those details and not their quantity that does the trick.
So how does a writer pick the right details?
Of course that raises another question—what uses of description are beneficial to the reader? I would argue that appropriate and successful description needs to do at least one of the following:
1) Help the reader get inside a character’s head. For example, in The Sister Queens while Marguerite is awaiting her groom on her wedding night she examines the carvings on a prie-dieu. Her reaction to image of a gilded holy spirit dipping low over a swooning Mary tell the reader a great deal about her frame of mind.
2) Place the reader firmly in the historical setting in a given scene. Ice on the top of Eleanor’s basin reminds readers there is no central heating and it is pretty nasty, even indoors, in an English winter thirteenth-century-style.
3) Forward the plot or make a plot point clearer or more feasible. For example, an author might describe the myriad of layers of clothing a female character must put on to put the rigors of a daring escape involving running and riding into perspective.
4) Build the atmosphere where atmosphere is important. For example in The Sister Queens the description of a character praying continuously under her breath helps build the atmospheric tension in a sick room where a King is expected to die.
But even when description serves a narrative purpose, I would still argue that brief is best. If you want independent proof, I challenge you to read the description of Egdon Heath at the start of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native. If you are eager to continue reading the book after that lengthy description I tip my hat to you. Personally, I was so bored and traumatized by this particular piece of descriptive writing that, even thirty years after I read it first, just calling it to mind is painful.
About the Author:
Sophie Perinot writes historical fiction. In Spring 2012 her debut novel, The Sister Queens, will be released by NAL. Set in 13th century France and England, The Sister Queens weaves the captivating story of medieval sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, who both became queens – their lifelong friendship, their rivalry, and their reigns
Ms. Perinot has both a BA in History and a law degree. She left the law to pursue artistic interests, including writing. An avid reader, especially of classic literature, and life-long student of history, it seemed only natural that Sophie should write historical fiction. As someone who studied French abroad and a devotee of Alexandre Dumas, French history was a logical starting point. An active member of the Historical Novel Society, she has attended all of the group’s North American Conferences.
Active among the literary twitterati as @Lit_gal (a moniker she also uses at Agent Query Connect www.agentqueryconnect.com), Sophie is a regular contributor to the group writers' blog "From the Write Angle"http://www.fromthewriteangle.com. Find her on facebook atwww.facebook.com/sophie.perinot.author.
For more information, please visit Sophie Perinot's WEBSITE. You can also find Sophie on her blog, Facebook and Twitter.