Writing the Layers
by Julie Christine Johnson
The idea had been nattering away at me for months. More image than story, really: a woman standing on a cliff’s edge; below her stretches Corbières valley in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, laced with vineyards and studded with wind towers. Behind her, a man steps out from the ruins of a Cathar citadel. I was aching to find out who they were and to write their story, but I had no idea how to begin. I’d written and published a handful of short stories, but a novel? In June 2012, I went my first writers’ conference, searching for inspiration to launch me from intention to action.
Early in the conference, I attended a session on storyboarding and it all clicked. I’d been carrying around the knowledge that the Cathars—followers of medieval Christian sect—believed in reincarnation. That was my way into the story. I could see the narrative unfolding as a time slip between medieval and contemporary Languedoc. Romance. Adventure. Mystery. Reincarnation. Castle ruins. Knights Templar. Wine. What fun!
Two weeks later I opened the novel template in Scrivener and the cursor blinked back at me, a ceaseless ironic wink. What did I know of thirteenth century Languedoc? What have I done? What do I do now?
If I started with the research, if I explored everything I’d need to know to write credibly and convincingly about life during High Middle Ages in southern Europe, I feared I would never emerge to write the story. But I had no plan. I had no outline. No beginning, middle, or end. I had only a vision as fleeting as snowflakes on glass.
I did have a few tools in my box that made setting a first novel in France a natural choice: a twenty-two-year love affair with French culture and history; a degree in French; a personal library of histories and novels. I spoke the language. I’d attended university in France and returned often to explore new places and visit familiar haunts. I had those April weeks in 2011 when my husband and I fell deeply under the spell of Languedoc’s haunting beauty and history. We spent our days clambering around medieval ruins and our evenings reading up on local history, while sharing a bottle of supple Languedoc wine. Unknowingly, I was setting the foundation of research for In Another Life.
Bird by bird, word by word, I would write this story.
In the two years it took to write In Another Life, I learned to layer my narrative with research. My library of materials on the Cathars, medieval France, art and architecture of the era grew and the scenes set in the past deepened. Writing a work of fantasy allowed me poetic license with the plot, but I wanted to honor the historical details of daily life.
Much of my research remained in earlier drafts or in my process notebook. I poured on the exposition and then slowly trimmed it back, until only those elements that created a sense of place and time and moved the plot forward remained (but ever so glad I saved every draft: my publishing editor came back wanting more backstory, more exposition and I was oh, so happy to oblige!).
My goal was to create as seamless a transition as possible between past and present, while retaining a sense of almost dream-like wonder between the two worlds. It’s a feeling I carry with me when I’m in France, where the past lives and breathes in concert with the present. The towns, streets, hills, vineyards, and many of the edifices within In Another Life are ones I’ve explored, wandered through, dreamed of.
In Another Life is a fantasy built on the scaffolding of history. One of my greatest delights was to etch the theme of history vs. the past into the narrative: history is what we know to be true—facts gleaned from primary sources and artifacts. The past is what we make a reasonable guess at. I hope to open the door of readers’ mind with history, but then extend a hand as they make a leap of imagination with me into the past.
In Another Life(Historical Fiction/Contemporary Women's Fiction/ Fantasy/Romance) Release date: February 2, 2016 at Sourcebooks 368 pages ISBN: 978-2954168197 Website | Goodreads
SYNOPSISHistorian Lia Carrer has finally returned to southern France, determined to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. But instead of finding solace in the region's quiet hills and medieval ruins, she falls in love with Raoul, a man whose very existence challenges everything she knows about life--and about her husband's death. As Raoul reveals the story of his past to Lia, she becomes entangled in the echoes of an ancient murder, resulting in a haunting and suspenseful journey that reminds Lia that the dead may not be as far from us as we think. Steeped in the rich history and romantic landscape of the Languedoc region, In Another Life is a story of love that conquers time and the lost loves that haunt us all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Photo by Al Bergstein
Julie Christine Johnson is the author of the novels In Another Life (February 2016, Sourcebooks Landmark) and The Crows of Beara (September 2017, Ashland Creek Press). Her short stories and essays have appeared in several journals, including Emerge Literary Journal, Mud Season Review; Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim; Cobalt, the anthologies Stories for Sendai; Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; and Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss and featured on the flash fiction podcast, No Extra Words. She holds undergraduate degrees in French and Psychology and a Master's in International Affairs. A runner, hiker, and wine geek, Julie makes her home on the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington state with her husband. In Another Life is her first novel. Visit Julie's website and blog. Follow Julie Christine Johnson on Twitter and Facebook. Sign up to receive her Newsletter. Buy the book: on Amazon , Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.
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