Before I hand things over to Julie, here's a bit about the book from the publisher:
It is January 1208 and in a village on the border between Provence and Languedoc, a monk whispers a benediction over the body of a slain papal emissary. The Cathars—followers of a heretical faith—are blamed for the assassination. The Pope declares a holy war and Languedoc is forever changed.
Eight hundred years later, historian Lia Carrer returns to southern France to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. Instead of finding solace in Languedoc’s quiet hills and medieval ruins, the woman trying to heal risks love, and loss, again.
Reincarnation is familiar ground for Lia—an expert in the mystical beliefs of the ancient Cathar faith—but to reconcile the truth of that long-ago assassination, the logical researcher must accept religious fantasy as historical fact. Three lost souls enter her life, each holding a key to the murder that launched a religious crusade in the heart of Europe.
And now, I am pleased to welcome Julie Christine Johnson to the blog!
Stumbling into Historical Fiction
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.
Her second novel, The Crows Of Beara, a finalist in the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, has sold to Ashland Creek Press for publication in fall 2017. In this work of women's fiction, a struggling American PR executive and an enigmatic Irish artist face off over the development of a copper mine in rural Ireland, finding love and redemption amid the rugged, mystical land.
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.
Huge, huge thanks to Julie Christine Johnson for being here today and huge thanks to her publicist for setting up the stop!