SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: It's January of a new year and I'm starting a new novel — yet-unnamed Maggie Hope #7. Both the year and the book are pretty much a blank page —something I find inspiring and exhilarating — while also managing the accompanying anxiety and dread. You'd think having written six other novels would help with facing the blank page, but no — it's always a challenge.
So, what to do?
Well, I start with lots of research — books, documentaries. I especially like first-person accounts of the time from people, who were really there. Luckily, there are many memoirs from people in the French Resistance. Here's a powerful photograph I've found of Nazis performing outside of the Palais Garnier:
I think about my characters — where they are emotionally and physically after the last book. How much time has gone by? What is happening historically? I left Maggie in THE QUEEN'S ACCOMPLICE in March of 1942. Do I pick up where I left off? Or do I let some time go by and start the story later in the spring? If I do start later, I can work in the Vel' d'Hv roundup of the French Jews on July 16, 1942. Ah, that's an idea....
Sometimes I need to work in pen and paper, not just on the computer. So I'll draw things out, especially how the characters are related to each other. Here's a picture I did recently.... The final book may not have anything to do with this drawing, but it's a start.
Through Hubby's airline points (he's traveled all over the globe working for Sesame Street International), I'm able to make plans for a trip to Paris. But my trip isn't just for seeing the tourist sites. It's for experiencing the Paris of the Resistance, SOE agents and Nazis in the spring/summer of 1942. Here's where my research meets guidebooks and the internet, as I try to come up with a schedule of must-see places and things to do off the usual path:
Address of Paris killer Docteur — 22 Rue Le Sueur
Gestapo headquarters – 93 Rue Lauriston
Avenue Fochs, #72 — where SS Colonel Helmut Knochen orchestrated the crushing of resistance forces
#31 — Theodor Dannecker and Adolf Eichmann planned the Grand Rafle of 16 – 17 July in which over fifteen thousand Jews were taken to the Vel d’Hiver before eventually being sent to death camps.
#84 — small servants’ rooms of a large villa. "In these cramped rooms on the fifth floor the legendary Violette Szabo, “The White Rabbit”, “Madeleine” and other British SOE agents were tortured until their upscale neighbors could hear their screams."
Sometimes, serendipity comes into play. I've corresponded with Colin Fields, the head of the Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz, for a cocktails book I wrote. He was gracious and lovely, and so, I'll send him a letter. Getting a backstage look at the Ritz Hotel would be amazing. I've also been chatting online with fellow novelist and friend Cara Black, who writes the New York Times-bestselling Aimée Leduc series of books set in Paris. As it turns out, we will be able to coordinate our trips to Paris! Watch out — two novelists on the loose in the City of Light!
Back to the blank page. I'm still staring at it, as the days of January tick by. In the words of fellow Red Julia, it's like having a term paper due all the time! And so, in a moment of quiet, I start typing. I'm not sure if the scene I write will be int he finished version of the book, but I have to start somewhere. Even if I don't use it, I'm farther along than I was — and when you're pulling together something as huge as a novel, sometimes that's all you can ask for.