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Making it from author Julia Stagg

Making it from author Julia Stagg

In preparation for our writing competition, we asked best-selling author Julia Stagg for her advice on putting pen to paper for the first time…

julia-stagg-writing-tipsThey say everyone has a book in them. The trouble most people have is getting it out. For me, France was the catalyst. The wonderful scenery. The passion of the people. And the food. But it didn’t happen how I’d planned it. We bought an auberge in the Pyrénées with the idea of giving me time to polish up a novel I’d already written set in Japan. Two years into our new life, I hadn’t so much as looked at it. There were rooms to paint. Septic tanks to sort out. Bathrooms to be fitted. Sheets to be ironed. Meals to be made. French bureaucracy to deal with. In short, there was a business to run.

Most frustrated authors will recognise the above scenario. They want to write. But somehow it just doesn’t happen. Life gets in the way. So here, in time for the New Year, are some tips on how to clear the decks and finally get that novel/memoir/biography started.

Making time

Forget the old adage of seize the day. As a writer, it’s far more important that you seize a pen and paper! But in order to do that, you have to make time.Now, many people think that means an allocated hour every day. Or a half-day once a week where you sit at a desk and chew on a pencil and wait for the muse to strike. For all of you leading busy lives, I’m happy to say, it doesn’t have to be like that.

Ironing. There’s an awful lot of it when you run an auberge and in the laundry room was where I did most of my writing. I had a piece of paper at the end of the ironing board and as I worked away, pressing piles of sheets, my mind would be wandering. Characters were developed, plot problems unravelled and the basis of my Fogas books took shape. Admittedly, my inattention did cause the occasional burn!

Similarly, while I was cleaning rooms, I would be working on a particular scene I was having trouble with. While I was cooking the guests’ croissants, I was thinking about the way a chapter was taking shape. This meant that when I managed to grab an hour in front of my computer, I was ready to put words on the screen. Don’t forget, an awful lot of ‘writing’ isn’t about sentences and paragraphs. It’s about planning and development. And that, luckily, can be done any time your brain has the space to think. So use that time. Make it work for you.

Making space

You don’t need a Louis XV desk to write a novel. In fact, you don’t need a desk at all. But you do need some space. Somewhere to note your ideas; to organise your work. A laptop is ideal but I also find that notebooks are invaluable. I carry a small one (palm-sized) with me everywhere I go for jotting down things I see or overhear which take my interest. Snippets of conversation in the boulangerie. Two old men arguing at the local market. A particular view of the Pyrénées. Anything which might later trigger the imagination.


I also have separate notebooks for works in progress. Usually A4 size, sturdy – because some of them might take years to yield anything worthwhile! – and in different colours. I use them to store ideas, to make notes when I’m editing and to take with me when I’m away from my desk - writing on paper is a refreshing change every now and then.

Making ideas

This is where many people stumble. ‘I don’t know what to write,’ they’ll say. Well, I’ve got news for you - there is no muse so if you’re sitting waiting, you’ll be there a long time! There is, however, your brain. Your eyes.
Your ears. You just have to learn how to use them.

Let’s go back to the two old men in the market having the debate. Note it down. The body language. The Gallic gestures. The slant of the beret. Then, when you are doing the cooking or mowing the lawn or relaxing with an apéritif, dwell on it. Are they brothers? Neighbours? Talking politics or farming? Imagine the scene as a raw lump of clay. Pull at it. Tweak it. Until something starts to take shape. That’s where your inspiration comes from. Living in France, you’ll never be short of material!


Making Words

Time, space and ideas are meaningless if you don’t put pen to paper or lay fingers to keyboard. Writing is a skill, the same as any other. And just as you won’t be the next Monet if you never pick up a paintbrush, so you won’t be a Zola if you don’t get the words down. For many, this is the hard part - the commitment of ideas that are so wonderful in the head to the black and white of print. But the key to it is to start. Now. Write a sentence. Then another. Try to write a little every day. Keep a diary. Get the habit. With practice, you will improve.

Finally, I’m not promising that these suggestions will help get you a publishing deal – that’s a whole other article! But they will turn you into a writer. And once you’ve achieved that, who knows what the future holds. Happy writing, everyone!


Taking the plunge...

Julia-Stagg-writing-tipsJulia Stagg is the author of the Fogas Chronicles, a series of novels set in the Ariège region of the French Pyrénées. The books, which revolve around the lives, loves and machinations of the inhabitants of Fogas, came about after her first attempt at getting published met with rejection. 

“I was sitting in our auberge with yet another letter from a literary agent telling me thanks, but they didn’t want a book set in Japan, and I looked out of the window in despair, wondering what to do next. Across the river I saw the local bull, a notorious animal, always escaping from his field and causing mayhem. And I just knew he was a worthy subject. I sat down and started planning and the Fogas Chronicles were born.”
Writing in the winter when the auberge was quiet, she took two years to finish L’Auberge, the first in the series. She decided to send it to a literary agent who had taken the time to give her feedback on her previous
submission. The agent loved it and sold it to publishers Hodder and Stoughton within weeks.
Four years later, Julia has four books and a novella published and has just handed over the fifth novel to her editor.

As for the book on Japan? “It’s still in a bottom drawer! One of the days, when I’m finished with Fogas, I’ll dust
it off and have another go.”

julia-stagg-novelJulia’s latest novel, ‘A Fête to Remember’, is available now (Hodder & Stoughton £7.99/€10.73). ‘A Christmas Wedding: a Fogas novella’ is also available for download (£0.99).  

Twitter: @juliastagg

Facebook: staggjulia


© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. First published in December 2014