#2. Getting started

Updated: Mar 9


Each novel I write starts with one or several theme(s) or idea(s): becoming someone else (L’éloge de l'ombre), our addiction to technology and social media (Heading for the Wall) and projection and grief (Not to Hold). This time is no different. For months now, I’ve had at the back of my mind the theme for my next novel, and that theme is identity.

I’m a French woman living in the UK since 2003. I started speaking English at the age of eleven and I write fiction in both French and English. In other words, I’ve been in between languages and cultures for most of my life. What’s more, I am a proud European living in a country torn apart by Brexit.

Identity is a topic that has come up in countless discussions with friends and family in relation to the choices we make, the jobs we take, the people we share our lives with, the vocations we nurture, the country we live in, the way we introduce ourselves, even though the word ‘identity’ might not have been used as such.

It was bound to come up in my writing one day. You could argue that every novel I’ve written so far is, in one way or the other, about identity. That most novels are and you would be right. This time, though, I choose to put it at the forefront of my story and dive in.

To me, writing fiction is akin to swimming in the open sea (which, incidentally, is my definition of bliss): there are no boundaries, no direction to follow, only an endless exploration using my instinct and curiosity as a compass. How can I possibly begin a novel with such a big theme in mind, you might wonder (perhaps picturing yours truly pulling ideas out of a magical inspiration hat)?

Writing six novels has taught me many things, one of which is that I should never assume that I always know the exact meaning of a word. And the other, that the bigger the theme when I start, the more precise I need to be, hence the use of dictionaries. So what does identity really mean?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines identity as: ‘’who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others’’ and the Oxford Dictionary as: ‘’who or what somebody/something is’’. The first one introduces identity as either what makes a person (or a thing, though I’m obviously interested in the person here) or what makes them different, while the second one only focuses on what makes a person. The point, here, is not to compare or contrast those definitions, nor am I keen to decide which dictionary is right. I’m simply noticing. These definitions are a starting point, offering clues and getting my writer’s brain thinking.

They remind me that identity is a theme I can approach from both the internal and external angles – how one perceives one’s own identity vs how others perceive/attempt to dictate it – which is even more interesting, since identity is not a fixed thing either. It fluctuates as we go through life and that is also what makes it an ideal topic for my new novel.

The potential blank page you might have pictured me facing is no longer blank. As a matter of fact, it’s a small, rectangular notebook with an old-fashioned cream cover I carry with me at all times. I’m writing notes and detailing what my understanding of identity is, breaking it down into a couple of sub-themes: belonging, language, upbringing, faith, connection, love. And each sub-theme, in turn, brings new ideas. My theme is no longer vast nor elusive.

I do not have a plot yet and I don’t expect to have one quickly, but I’m on to something and I’m excited. The writing process has started, even though not a single sentence has been written. I do not know where I’m going and I won’t know for quite some time. If I did, I wouldn’t write the novel. And if writing novels meant knowing everything before putting pen to paper, I would do something else. Writing is an exploration, a process that takes time to develop and needs nurturing and I absolutely love every minute of it.

​​© 2019 Caroline Jestaz


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