Everything Novel: Author Louise Miller Shares How to Write Great Characters

This month of DeadDarlings, Novel Incubator grads and authors Susan Donovan Bernard and Louise Miller sat down to discuss craft and Louise's second novel The Late Bloomers’ Club. Susan Donovan Bernhard is a 2014 Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship recipient. Her first novel, Winter Loon, will be released later this year. Louise Miller is a writer and pastry chef living in Boston, MA. Her debut novel, The City Baker's Guide to Country Living, was selected as an Indie Next pick by the American Booksellers Association, a Library Reads pick by Librarians across the U.S., and was shortlisted by the America Library Association’s Reading List Council for best women’s fiction in 2017.

In Late Bloomers’, Louise turns her eye to town and The Miss Guthrie Diner, where owner Nora Huckleberry finds herself in a quandary: local cake lady Peggy Johnson has had a fatal encounter with the oldest oak tree in Guthrie and willed her sizable property to duty-bound Nora and her sister, Kit, a would-be filmmaker in search of elusive funding. The sisters are at odds about what to do with the property—sell now to a big-box chain or hang onto the property in hopes that something more befitting the small town will come along. Louise has an uncanny way of getting to the beating heart of a story—the promise of simple pleasures, how choices are not always clear, the nature of sacrifice, and the draw of a small town.

Susan: Louise! I was so excited when I learned that you would be returning to Guthrie, Vermont in your second novel since we loved everything City Baker. I thought you did a wonderful job of visiting with those characters without making them front and center to Nora’s story. Was it difficult to ignore characters like Livvy and Martin?

Louise: I am so happy that you were excited to go back to Guthrie—I was too! It’s funny, I thought I would be more tempted to include characters from The City Baker’s Guide in The Late Bloomers’ Club, but I found myself so interested in Nora and Kit and seeing the town from the inside out (Nora has lived in Guthrie her whole life, vs. Livvy who is new to the town) that I didn’t find myself thinking about the City Baker characters all that much. But of course, it is a small town, so I knew that any of the characters from both books might cross paths at some point, especially since Nora owns the only diner in town. It was fun to figure out where those cameos would organically happen.

Susan: Your protagonist, Nora Huckleberry, is duty-bound to continue running the family business, The Miss Guthrie Diner. She clearly loves her job but she’s sacrificed so much to play that role in town—her art, her love life. Can you talk about that character, and how we all get bogged down by duty or just inertia, and how that can threaten to get in the way of our own dreams?

Louise: Something I was thinking a lot about as I started this book was the roles we play in our families, and the way we play those roles out, even as adults. I was particularly interested in the ways that those roles affect how we see ourselves, and the impact they have on the choices we make. It’s where the title The Late Bloomers’ Club comes from. All of the characters in the book are late bloomers in some aspect of their lives, and they each have an opportunity to look at themselves and their lives in a new way.

Susan: Like City BakerLate Bloomers’ is packed with loveable characters. Even Nora’s ex-husband Sean had his charms! Do you use real people as models for your characters or are they just the people you’d most like to spend your days with, crustiness, flightiness, and all?

Louise: It’s a funny combination. I’ve never based a whole character on an actual person, but little details about people I know and love do creep into my characters—like the way a person talks, or a little physical quirk—most often it’s just the feeling of a person that influences a character. It’s a little hard to describe. I based Nora on a musician I have long admired. That doesn’t mean she looks or acts like the musician—it’s more like the feeling her music gives me is how I want people to feel as they get to know Nora, if that makes any sense. And of course, there is a little bit of myself in every character as well. Even if I start by loosely basing a character on a real person, the characters always become themselves eventually, and feel totally separate from the original inspiration. It’s important to me to create characters that feel real, crustiness and all, but in the end I believe that most people have a lovable side, even when they are driving you bonkers, and I’m always looking for a chance to show that. 

Susan: You sold City Baker in a two-book deal. Can you tell us a little about that? What are the upsides and downsides of two-book deals?

Louise: Selling two books at the same time was thrilling and terrifying. The second book was sold just on an idea—which didn’t end up being the idea I went with for The Late Bloomers’ Club. A two-book deal definitely has its good sides and bad sides, depending on how you work. For me, it was a little of both. I am grateful for the opportunity, and it pushed me back into writing after many months of being caught up in the business end of publishing—that was the best part. It was a pleasure to write knowing the team and the process, and getting to work with the same people as on my first book. The downside for me was that I don’t love working under pressure—and it felt like a lot of pressure. I had to find tricks to work around my inhibitions and fears. And the business end of things overlapped with the creative part more, and I found that challenging. But in the end, I am just super grateful to have had the opportunity to publish a second book.

Susan: Your Twitter and Instagram feeds are full of cheer. Delicious food, gardens, baby goats! You clearly have an artist’s eye because your photographs are so beautiful. And there’s playful art in Late Bloomers’, too. Can you talk about your decision to include a secret artist and the role that art plays in your life?

Louise: Thank you so much! I try my best to make my little corner of the Internet a cheerful place to visit. I actually studied photography at the Maine College of Art many, many years ago, and drew from my experiences of art school to write parts of The Late Bloomers’ Club. Art has always been an important part of my life, and I draw as much inspiration from the visual arts, film and music as I do from other books. I’m a visual writer—I picture every scene I write first, like a movie, and then record what I see in my imagination. The idea of having a secret artist in the book came from thinking about how easy it was for Kit to claim her role as an artist, and how difficult it was for Nora. I believe everyone is creative in some way. All of the characters in The Late Bloomers’ Club are artists in some form, whether they identify as artists or not.

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Dead Darlings is devoted to celebrating the novel, from the process of creation through revision, promotion and publication. The authors, alumni from GrubStreet Boston’s Novel Incubator, have gathered to provide support for all novelists: aspiring, developing or successful. Writing is best when it has the support of a community, when novelists share their experiences.

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