"Falling for Hamlet retells the familiar Shakespearean tragedy from the point of view of a feisty, empowered Ophelia, who is neither suicidal nor anybody’s pushover. In a glittering world of celebrities, paparazzi, and reality TV, Ophelia navigates the minefield of teen life in a royal family gone crazy."I can't wait to read it! Here's Michelle on some of her favorite fictional settings -- and the art of crafting her own from Denmark to North Africa.
What's a fictional place that has stuck in your head even after you closed the pages of the book?
Three books come to mind right off
- The Age of Innocence. Every bit of clothing, daily objects, homes and streets were described so specifically that I could picture Edith Wharton’s 19th century upper class NYC world perfectly. The fullness of detail was practically suffocating just like the main characters were suffocating within it.
- Harry Potter. I’ll be darned if Rowling didn’t describe the places so well (like the dining hall and the classrooms) that when I saw the first movie, all I could think was, “Exactly! Look at the snowy ceiling! The moving staircases! Wow!"
- The Thief Lord. Ah, Venice. Give me a book set in Venice and I can’t help but read on. Add an adventure with kid thieves and a little mystery, and, well, call me hooked.
Where do your characters travel? What's your current setting, and what makes it live and breathe?
In my upcoming novel Falling for Hamlet, the characters are in “Denmark” but not the real Denmark. It’s American, it’s urban, but nowhere in particular. I had to imagine each place, and it became a combination of places I’ve been and places that (and I’m not sure how this happens) built themselves in my imagination out of nothingness. As I typed that last sentence, it made me think of “Inception,” where places are built around characters to fit the necessary story. Why did Ophelia’s apartment have her bedroom to the left of the kitchen and her father’s to the right? I don’t know. Why did the shelf in her sitting room have exactly five framed photos? No idea. But that’s how they lodged in my mind, and having those details there, closing my eyes and being able to picture the room so specifically, really helped the writing. That way, the characters aren’t floating in mid-air. When Ophelia is annoyed with Hamlet, she grabs for . . . the mushy pillow that was sitting on her bed all along. When he goes to leave, he throws a magazine he finds on . . . her bedside table. Having the room in mind helps me quickly fill in these meaningful details.
It’s hard to know how much of what’s in my mind to write down, though. My struggle in writing is to balance moving a story along with putting enough description. As I just said, the characters can’t float in nothingness. I don’t write literary fiction so propelling the story is key. But how much is too much and how much is not enough? I do my best then let my awesome agents and editors give an assist on that one.
Sometimes I’m working from a real place, like when Hamlet and Ophelia go to Florence. Why did I pick that city of all places? Mostly because I had a vivid childhood memory of my parents taking me there, and back then I thought it seemed like a romantic place to go someday . . . if I ever had a boyfriend. We had this amazing view of the Ponte Vecchio from our room that I’ve never forgotten. As a prince, Hamlet’s hotel got to be fancier, but that view remained untouched. I’ve not been to Florence in the last 20+ years, so I used internet images to help with details. Then I used my remembered fascination and excitement to build the emotions Ophelia has as she looks at the view.
I’m visual, so I’m hugely influenced by movies. There’s a fabulous scene in “Pride and Prejudice” (with Kiera Knightly) where she goes to Mr. Darcy’s mansion and tours his art collection. She is fascinated by the marble statues -- something I’m obsessed with, too. In Falling for Hamlet, Ophelia is an artist so Hamlet takes her to a gallery. When writing, I began with the “P&P” image of the statues glowing in the soft gallery light, but when the view got wider in my writing, the place was modern and specific to Ophelia’s world and my imagination.
Now I’m working on a manuscript that is set in 1497. It begins in Lisbon and ends up in various places in North Africa. The problems are multiple. First, I have to research every single detail because I have been to neither Lisbon nor North Africa. Second, even if I had, it looked very different five hundred years ago. I can’t rely on photos, obviously, and when I use paintings, I have to be sure they are of the correct year, not just the century. For instance, I was researching furniture and got really excited about “Indo-Portuguese” design, which is ebony and ivory inlay introduced in the “late 15th century.” “Woo-hoo” turned to “uh-oh” when my research revealed that Vasco de Gama didn’t even leave Lisbon for India and beyond until August of 1497, meaning that the character couldn’t have that object yet. I began research again. Nevertheless, the work is paying off, and with luck, I’m getting most of it right. It will never be as perfect as Edith Wharton, for she lived the world of her books, but there is information out there. Plus, as my agent and an editor have said, “It’s fiction, Michelle. Make it up.”
I guess that’s the key then. Do your research, picture it as best you can, and when in doubt, make it up. It is fiction, after all. The glorious world of make believe.