"The Little Details Are All True" Countdown to Muse 20 with Louise Miller

The Muse and the Marketplace 2020 will soon kick off on April 3rd in Boston! This year’s theme is “Imagination and Reality,” as many presenters are exploring the boundaries between fact and imagination, and how each contributes to great writing. Here, presenting authors have selected a passage from their own work, highlighting in green which elements came roughly from their direct experience, memory, or fact; while highlighting in blue which elements came from their imagination or speculation. In this post, Muse presenter Louise Miller shares an excerpt from her novel The City Baker's Guide to Country Living.



After the abrupt end of my shift, I stopped by my apartment just long enough to stuff some clothes into a canvas bag and pick up Salty, my chunky Irish wolfhound mix. I drove north for three hours, fueled by the desire to be called “hon,” blasting the heater to dry my sprinkler-soaked hair, which was sticking to the back of my neck like seaweed. Salty, who just barely fit in the backseat, pressed his cold nose to my ear and sniffed. The scent of burned velvet clung to my skin. A slow-motion video of those last moments in the Jefferson Room played over and over in my head. A tablecloth had caught fire first. It might not have been so bad if it hadn’t been the tablecloth under the four-foot ice sculpture of a squirrel sitting upright with an acorn in its outstretched paw. The flames caused the squirrel to melt rapidly. When its arm snapped off, the sculpture tipped over, taking the table with it. A wave of oysters, clams, and shrimp flew into the panicked crowd before hitting the floor. The flames caught the edge of one of the antique velvet curtains, which ignited like flambéed cherries. And that’s when the sprinkler system kicked in.

[End of excerpt.]



Before my first novel, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, was published, I sat down with the GM of the private club where I work as a pastry chef, to reassure him that the book was entirely fictitious, and that unlike the private-club pastry chef of the novel, I had never had an affair with the club’s president, nor did I secretly harbor the desire to burn the club down. The major plot points are inventions. But, of course, the little details are all true.

One of the inspirations for writing the novel was the wish to share the real-life behind-the-scenes world of a chef, and to dwell in the details of food and the culture of the kitchen. It was marvelous to be able to lean on the facts that I know in my bones—it allowed me to stay focused on developing plot and character, pacing and structure. 

The passage above is a good example of how a writer might pull details from real life while creating a fictional scene. While I have never watched a fire engulf a buffet, I knew the food that would be on the table and that there would be an ice sculpture on the raw bar. (And I did briefly work at a club with a squirrel mascot that I once saw rendered in ice.) I have never had an Irish wolfhound, but I did have a large dog who loved to stand on the back seat and sniff my head during road trips. And on a stressful day, I will always have the longing to sit in a diner and drink weak coffee and eat pie and have a waitress treat me sweetly, because a trip to the diner with my dad always made me feel cozy and comforted and safe when I was a kid. For me, it’s the emotional truths behind both the factual and the imaginary that make a novel come alive. So while my characters aren’t real people, and none of the plots of the novels have actually happened, I hope the readers can sense that the emotions are real, and that they connect to the characters and the story on a heart level.  That’s always my goal. Ann Patchett summed it up best—when asked if her novel Commonwealth was an account of her own childhood, she responded, “None of it happened and all of it’s true.” I want to be able to say that about every piece of fiction I write. 


You can catch Louise's craft discussion, "Researching and Choosing Agents to Query" on Friday, April 3rd at 10:15am at the Muse. For all the latest Muse news, follow #Muse20.


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. Her 2nd novel is The Late Bloomers' Club. In addition to being a writer and baker, Louise is an art school dropout, an amateur flower gardener, an old-time banjo player, an obsessive moviegoer, and a champion of old dogs.

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