How to Be Both

Many of us have to, or choose to; rather, combine a writing career with children and a significant other. Or other constellations that make big demands on time and headspace. Trying to plot a novel in your head while someone small and gorgeous and loud says ‘Mommy’ (over and over and over) is, ahem, slightly demanding. Sometimes it drives me outright insane. It’s not like you can switch either off- the novel or the kids. A lot of people, mostly non-writers, are of the conviction that one can just not work while the kids are around, sitting down prettily for a few hours here and there when it’s convenient. Except…It doesn’t work like that, not for me at least. Working on a novel is like living in two worlds at once, so switching it off is actually like switching the world off.

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Writing a novel does seem to be a legitimate, even admired kind of insanity at times. It must be one of the hardest jobs to combine with any other kind of life, though, in its relentless demand of headspace, emotional involvement and hours of uninterrupted thinking (fat chance…)

I should have put a question mark in the title, because it’s hardly as if I have an answer to this one.

 

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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

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!!