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Research, Imagination and Experience

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River Congo near the border to CDR

As a novelist, a significant amount of time is usually spent on research, depending, of course, on the kind of fiction you write. If, like me, you write/want to write books set in far-flung locations, occasionally with historical backdrops or flashbacks, then this part of the job will be a pretty big one. A lot of people ask me about how exactly I conduct the research for my writing projects, and I think it comes down to a combination of factual research, imagination and personal experience.

When Before I Leave You (Før Jeg Forlater Deg), absolutely everyone asked me if I’d been to the Central African Republic where the novel is set in part. I haven’t, but I certainly did my homework. I spent several months intensely researching the physical geography, the political situation and the history of the country, and closely conferred with a photographer friend, who has extensively worked in the CDR. One of my main characters, Aurélie, is an art photographer, and so this was useful in killing two birds with one stone. I listened to music from the region, watched videos and endless photographs. Then I imagined a lot, and even though I haven’t been to that exact place, I had a crystal clear vision in my mind of how it looked, felt and smelt. I also drew on personal experience from other travels, for example a jungle trek in Mexico. After the book came out, I was really pleased when reviewers and readers said that the African parts of the novel felt very authentic and well-researched. And now I do feel like I really have been there!
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I definitely think there’s a lot to be said for using places in your writing that you know intimately, and that are a part of your very being- your hometown or country of origin, perhaps, but I don’t think all the locations in a novel need to be places you know and love. I feel drawn to France in my writings, and all three of the books I’ve written or am working on, have a French connection in some capacity. I’ve lived several years in France, speak the language and have French family, so perhaps it isn’t strange that I use these experiences when I create fiction.

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Éauze, Gers. The hometown of my character Luc Mareau

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Brooklyn, New York. Home of Flavia and Genevieve in my new book

The book I am finishing up at the moment is partly set in places I haven’t been, like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kyrgystan, however, those parts of the book are about a fugitive man hiding in the mountains. I can create those images from a combination of geographical research from the Wakhan/Pamir regions, my own mountain experiences (many!) and a solid dash of imagination. And I believe that imagination is a very big part of what being an author is all about; trusting in, and going with, the images in your mind and bringing them to life for your readers.

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Eilat, Israel, where all hell breaks loose in my book…

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Peshawar, Pakistan

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Beating Internet Addiction

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Ironically, I’m writing this during my writing time, doing what I always do; write three sentences, take half an hour to check email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, newspapers and blog, write three more sentences, repeat. Yes, sad. These digressions are often triggered by a quick thesaurus search or checking a fact on Google, but I’m then unable to return to the document until I’ve entirely filled my mind with thoughts about what my friends ate for breakfast, how to fix an iPhone in Verbier, how Huvafen Fushi seems like a rather strong contender for bucket list trip after next book sale… So, where does it stop? I’d love to hear from other writers who were web-junkies like me and who managed to stop. I do have pretty good days when I sit somewhere with no wifi, but on other days, I break out in a cold-sweat at the very thought of this…

However, I do secretly blame the fact that this isn’t my office for my lack of concentration:

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Shhhh… A snippet from book #3

 

vidda Batu Ferringhi

I’m having to be rather secretive about my second novel at the moment, but will say that its working title is Broken Blood and that it’s a bone-chilling (hopefully!) thriller. I’ve also been working late nights on my third book, which is a sequel to the first, Before I Leave You (Før Jeg Forlater Deg). I love the feeling of when a novel actually begins to come together, and this one has been especially enjoyable for me as I’ve had the pleasure of ‘meeting’ all the characters from my book again. So, what’s it about? It’s about what happens after forever after…It’s set in London, Hardangervidda and Île de Penang. It’s a love story, still, but a mystery too. Like Quentin Tarantino, I imagine that the characters from my different projects somehow live in the same universe, and in this novel, (working title I’ll Never Be Afraid of Loving You), a couple of characters from Broken Blood and another future project make brief cameo appearances…

I thought I’d share a snippet!

 

Bruno Siguël

Villa Chengdu

Batu-Ferringhi

Île de Penang

 

 

Chère Aurélie,

Did you receive my last two letters? It seems unlike you to not respond, but perhaps I have offended you. If so, I apologize. Life here is still mostly good. I am pleased to tell you that I have met somebody who I’m enjoying getting to know and spending some time with. Her name is Jen and she’s a surgeon from Boston; we work together. Like me, she likes film noir and dim sum, so it’s been nice to rediscover both of those in the company of someone other than myself. There’s an open air cinema just a few minutes walk down the beach, and it’s a rather wonderful place; its basicness adds to its charm, and I have caught myself wishing that you could have joined me for a movie in the fragrant evening, to the background noise of the old canvas screen rippling on the breeze merging with the distant smash of waves.

Something else that has happened: I stumbled, for the hundredth time the other day, on a floorboard which is slightly loose, and this time, I decided I’d had enough, so I pulled it entirely loose with the intention of properly fixing it later. But underneath was a large collection of letters. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will say I glanced at them briefly at first, and then with more interest; they painted quite an ominous and disturbing picture of a family which must have once owned or lived in this house. It would seem that a brother and a sister, twins, had an ongoing love affair over several decades, and that their relationship resulted in three children, two of whom were killed in infancy by the third. Can you imagine? After reading them, I felt quite unsettled but put them back where I found them and fixed the floorboard. I want to let Villa Chengdu keep her secrets, I’ve decided. It made me realize, though, that this life isn’t uncomplicated for anybody. I’m not someone who has suffered disproportionately.

On a different note, work is going very well. I get on with my colleagues, and while there is a steady stream of patients whose conditions challenge me on a daily basis, it’s nothing like in M’Nembe, when I constantly felt like I was trying to save mankind with some iodine and a couple of Band-Aids. I have thought about one thing a lot: that you put up with as much as you did. When we first went to Africa, I convinced myself that doing so was our shared dream, Aurélie, but I know that it was only mine, really, and you let me have it. Life, like dreams, I guess, can be fickle and suddenly turn sour, and had I known how much of a nightmare M’Nembe would turn out to be, I’d never have brought you there. We did have our moments, though, didn’t we, in that sad, blue bungalow? I’m laughing as I write this, thinking about playing Sam Cooke loud on the old gramophone, dancing in the kitchen with you, and all the villagers came and stood outside in the clearing, wondering what the crazy French medicine man and his wife were doing.

Or when we went to Cameroon and the car got stuck in the mud on the way to Kribi and you had to drive while the taxi guy and I pushed it free, do you remember? The look on your face, Aurélie, priceless; a cool, Parisian blonde at the bare metal wheel of a patched green VW beetle in the middle of Africa. Another memory from those days, which never fails to make me smile, is when you’d given a few items of clothing you no longer used to that woman who was married to the very tall longboat man (what were their names?) and she shredded them and made bridles for her goats.

And those football matches against the Ugwu boys- remember how serious they’d get? I have a vision of you in my head of getting up off the blanket you were sitting on at the sideline, suddenly screaming ‘Merde’ when Olalu tackled me to the ground, drenching me in mud, a sharp rock underneath it slicing into my skin. And later, at home, you sat so patiently cleaning the fleshy gash on my back of mud and grit, bathing it in hydrogen peroxide, as if you were the doctor, not me. We talked and talked through the bad times, didn’t we, but we never did find the time to talk about all the joyful moments.

I hope my letters are reaching you and that you are keeping well.

Bruno

What is a good daily word count?

This is a question I’m pretty sure most writers preoccupy themselves with at times, pity there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer on what a respectable daily output should be. Personally I try to do 1000 words a day if, like now, I’m actively building a novel. On a good day, I sometimes write 4-5000 words, on a bad day, of which there are many more, less than 500.

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How I wish this was me, and that my days were spent rambling around a big, French country chateau, reading and writing!!