Thursday, 12 July 2012

How to become a millionaire novelist, Part 3: The Setting

The setting in any bestselling novel ought to evoke the best of its era. For example, if you wish to set it in the Regency era it is of the essence that the environment is full of ladies and gentlemen of leisure, handsome carriages and extensive estates. Not to mention the beautiful white dresses you see in Jane Austen films. Balls are full of agreeable dashing young gentlemen, and the gardens lush and exquisitely landscaped. If you happen to have read about the French Revolution, or the lower-middle class struggles of the well-known Romantic journalists, Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt, you would do well to discard them all away. War and poverty are never pleasant subjects to the reader. Do by all means describe the elegant satin gowns of the ladies, the pretty fans and Grecian plaits, the exquisite cravats of the beaux and Macaronis. If the drawing-room has a Wedgwood china and Chippendale chairs, all the better. To Victorian aficionadoes, omit the mention of your favoured era, because the Victorian era was full of industrial unease, the wealthy were more prudent and less leisured, and many of the wealthy actually had jobs. They were also very disapproving of adultery and flirting.  As for the young ladies, they were more reserved, which means seduction and elopement with poets or genteel highwaymen would not suit the Victorian era as the Regency. This necessarily means less thrilling passionate romances.

It is more feasible, however, to set it in our times, because few readers have more than a vague understanding of the Regency times and its customs and hence will not be able to identify with the heroine. You could of course place modern customs and language in a Regency setting but the more intelligent readers would only attack your book and recommend Jane Austen to their fellow readers. No, place it in the 21st century, preferably in a high school or college. Twilight is in high school, Fifty Shades in college, and My Immortal in school (Hogwarts to be exact). Since leisure living isn't what it was, instead of aristocratic friends have wealthy millionaire friends lounging away in tropical resorts. The scene of action is not a ball at Pemberley, but a five-star hotel.

A useful tip to tantalise the reader is to write a restaurant scene. Your restaurant is preferably gourmet with the sort of food only the well-heeled can afford. It is in a swanky area in town, with excellent wine and truffles and Kobe beef and fresh oysters with lemon slices. If you must mention that vulgar item, pizza, take care to endow more exotic ingredients such as sundried tomatoes, mascarpone cheese and chorizo. In what must surely be the most memorable passage from Fifty Shades, Christian Grey and Ana dine at a hotel on cod hollandaise with asparagus and crushed potatoes.  
Keeping my eyes locked on his, I take the spear in my mouth, and suck, gently … delicately … on the end. The hollandaise sauce is mouthwatering. I bite down, moaning quietly in appreciation.
This is a most efficient use of Phallic Symbols without resorting to vulgarity - but most importantly it impresses upon your minds the exquisite process of eating. You need not, of course, write about Hollandaise sauce, as it might precipitate a lawsuit from EL James. Other alternatives include Bearnaise sauce, Mornay, or anything with a French name. Suitable meats are seafood (oysters and lobsters especially), salmon, cod, and steak. Vintage wine is an added bonus. Desserts should be syllabub or something with cream in it. Omit the apple pie and chocolate pudding. However, something like Ice-Cream flavoured with Crystallised Ginger and Madagascan Vanilla Pods should be sufficient. 
ginger ice-cream with orange zest and black pepper

It is all about Luxury Living. Have a modern villa-ish hotel in muted colours, far away from the general crowds but still near enough the designer shops and the beach. Fifty Shades provides a most excellent example of this. The rooms should be softly carpeted, the beds linen white, and the walls lined with expensive minimalist paintings.

The wealthy suitor's luxurious apartment should have a similar minimalist theme, with a Steinway grand piano. Piano lovers may prefer a Bechstein or a Bösendorfer, but the names fail to register with most amateurs.

It is worthy to note that Alice Cullen indulges in designer shoes and clothing. Do the same for your heroine since her lover is loaded. She will automatically adopt an elegant style no matter how gawky she was formerly. Designer undergarments are recommended for the hero.

From my hypothetical novel:
I gaped at the dishes brought to us, all cut into miniscule bits on plates of gargantuan proportions. Holy cow!  My grilled sea-bass was a symphony of spinach Mornay with delicately sautéed garlic, asparagus boiled in apple butter and a sprinkling of shredded truffles. Supporting this fragile concoction was a tower of potatoes, crushed and packed together and pan-fried to a golden tinge.  Holy guacamole! Seared scallops with leeks in a cream sauce, flecked with roe of crab ... for dessert we had a sumptuous crumble, consisting of pears soaked in champagne and a great deal of almond, apricot jam and brandy-flavoured cream. Christopher Blue had a Black Sesame Ice-Cream with Chestnut Sauce. I observed as he devoured the dessert and wondered how it would be if he ate me.  He wore an exquisite blue silk tie with little swastikas on them. The band started to play some Elgar. It was a haunting sad melody that thundered with passion. It was Salut d'Amour.
black sesame ice-cream

On music: stick the simple well-known classical music. Don't mention Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor or Rachmaninov's Preludes. Clair de Lune, The Sea, and jazz pieces will do. Oh, and Elgar's Salut d'Amour is good - because the title itself is easily likeable. Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto has gained popularity but it is still too long for the average reader. Light simple pieces is the key.  Bach and Mozart sound clever but the polyphonic structure is too complex to digest (not to mention too structured and ruled). Mention it in passing if you must if only to show how clever the hero is, but don't go all ecstatic and descriptive. For more modern repertoire, Frank Sinatra and Antonio Jobim. They are good at croony love-songs.

About the bigger picture: As Katherine says, Washington State seems to be a popular setting. You might do well to emulate the authors. This effectively rules out the Regency Era.

Take Forks for example. It is supposed to be a secluded backwater which is romantic, as the couple have no other distractions. It is almost Rousseauan - torn apart from civilisation, two dreamers sit together on a rock and ponder. But I will come to that later.

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