07 September 2015

Writing about Greenland while stuck in Beijing

So far this year, I have blogged about Korea, about a new novel set in Japan and Hawaii, and written about my month in Beijing, China to teach a university course. However, the oddest thing about my month in China was how much time I spent in my hotel room writing a new book set in Greenland.

How, you may ask, could I focus on Greenland while in Beijing? I was supposed to be sightseeing as long as I was there, right? I was supposed to enjoy all the Chinese things, right? My mind would be filled with Chinese this and Chinese that. There would be no way I could not be thinking of Chinese stories. Well, you'd be right, except...as my writer friends know, you write the story that wants to come out, no matter where you happen to be.

Of course, the idea came first. I had been intrigued by a story line I happened onto about a year ago. (More on this next time.) The more I learned, the more I felt it would make a good novel. I did some research because, you know, everyone knows about Greenland and the Inuit culture. I was not completely ignorant of it, however, since I consider myself a geography savant, perpetually obsessed with maps and the places they show. 

I started writing, as I usually do, with just a scene--a "test write"--something I thought might be a good place to begin the story. I chose to tell it in first-person, letting my heroine tell her story. I wrote for a while to get the voice down accurately. I had to hear her talking to me, in her natural way of speaking. Even choosing whether she says "yet" or "but" became important to creating her. As a semi-illiterate, her word list would be short yet she had to be expressive. After a few weeks I felt I knew her well enough to imitate her.

So when I finally learned my China trip was a go, I panicked. I feared losing momentum in my writing. I had about 10,000 words by that time but I was going slow, stopping to research the setting as I went. What do you call this part of an Inuit house? What is this garment called? But I had to go to China; I felt rather Nixonian. So I packed the book I was currently reading, This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich, a contemporary account (1990s) of a woman traveling in Greenland yet also providing generous portions from the travel journals of earlier Greenlandic explorers and residents, namely Knud Rasmussen and the American artist Rockwell Kent. It was truly evocative and spurred my writing. I also took a small book about arctic wildlife and my map of Greenland with me to Beijing.
Where the magic happens. See jacket over chair at so-called desk?
Settling in and getting my class going took up the first week. When the first weekend arrived, I did some sightseeing but the oppressively humid weather pushed me back into my air-conditioned hotel room. I had my laptop and I had a cobbled-together "soundtrack" for my book--music that evoked (at least for me) the cold arctic landscape in both its good and bad seasons. I forced myself to focus. I had to get back on track or loose the story for the next four weeks. I read what I had written from the beginning, editing as I went. By the time I reached the point where I had left off, I was back on track and charging ahead with the next scene. (*Fortunately or not, the limited internet access and non-bilingual TV programming in my hotel room further gave me little else for entertainment than the story I was writing.)

So almost every day I wrote a little or a lot. My teaching schedule was light and most of the sightseeing I could be doing was done on my two previous trips to Beijing. Cranking the A/C as cold as I dared (without freezing the system so it would not work) helped set the mood. The music played through my ear buds and I typed, my head filled with the movie I was watching unfold. 

Sweating at Beihei Park but thinking of ice and snow!
For the second week's days off, I planned major sightseeing, but then the rain came. Thursday through Sunday, rain. I pushed myself out on a darkly humid Saturday only to be accosted by art exhibit "hookers" (see previous blog), but the rest of the time I was writing in my hotel room, on my laptop, and no matter which housekeeper came to clean my room or try to extract me from my writing desk, I continued! My fingers were fingers of fury! 

In the third week, I was so filled with the story that I was awaking early to write what was in my dreams. Yes, I was there inside my story, standing on a mountain watching things play out. And I started typing bright and early, before I was fully awake. Bottles of iced coffee in my mini fridge fueled my writing! I did not stop for the breakfast buffet or the housekeeping intrusion. I typed while they made the bed, etc. and I didn't even hear them wish me a good day and close the door behind me. Yes, for two days straight, I got up early and wrote almost full out (restroom breaks allowed) for six hours each day. 

By the time I was boarding the plane to fly home, I had added 55,000 words to the manuscript. That's worthy of a NaNoWriMo award! Once back home, I did not let up. I still had a week before my own school would call for my presence so I kept my fingers to the keyboard. When I eventually finished it--when I arrived at the final scene and could type The End (FYI, I do not actually type that.)--I sat back quite satisfied. Then I launched into the first wave of revision, rechecking facts, researching, clarifying, adding details, correcting a typo here and there.
Just one of many images I used for inspiration.
And so that is how A GIRL CALLED WOLF came to be written mostly during a month in a hotel room in Beijing. It's all about setting the scene, creating the mood, and focusing on the world inside while ignoring the world outside your head. And occasionally going out to get something to eat. And teach a class in Business Writing American style...if I remember.

Next: What is A GIRL CALLED WOLF all about?

*Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Google, and YouTube were all blocked on the link my hotel used. My only links to the outside world were Yahoo email and LinkedIn. My one night at the airport Hilton before departing gave me those common links back but by then it was too late to make much use of them.

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