My debut novel, which is not yet published, (two literary agents are looking at it—please say a prayer AND cross your fingers), is about things I know everything about, and things I know nothing about except what I’ve read.
Take the chapter set in a Korean orphanage. I’ve never lived in an orphanage, nor been to Korea. I read the chapter to two women who had been to Korea AND an orphanage, and they told me to change a few pronouns and use different adjectives, but said, overall, “You hit it. Are you sure you’ve never been there?”
I wrote two chapters set in Afghanistan. I haven’t been there either. How can I do that?
- I read A LOT to get impressions about a place.
The Afghanistan chapters comprise thirty pages and focus on a confrontation between two characters, not the setting. I read five books about Afghanistan—2000 pages total—to get a general feel for the time and place about which I wrote. Here are the books I read and my favorite quote from each:
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, Riverhead Books 2003.
Baba said the only sin is theft.
Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Alfred A. Knopf 2012.
A senior USAID official told me that security, management, and overhead costs had grown to almost 70 percent of the value of most contracts by late 2010. That meant only 30 cents on the dollar was going to help the Afghans. In many cases, the real figure was even less.
In the Land of Blue Burqas, by Kate McCord, Moody Publishers 2012.
Who we follow really does make a difference.
500 Days Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars, by Kurt Eichenwald, Simon and Schuster 2012.
FBI supervisors in Washington wouldn’t authorize an investigation of Moussaoui. There wasn’t enough information to justify a search warrant, they said, or to push through an application under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—FISA. Finally, Samit’s boss, Greg Jones, called Michael Maltbie, the supervisory special agent in Washington who was blocking the case…“What you have done is couched it in such a way that people get spun up.” “Good,” Jones replied. “We want to make sure he doesn’t get control of an airplane and crash it into the World Trade Center or something like that.” Ridiculous, Maltbie scoffed. “That’s not going to happen.”
Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, by Doug Stanton, Scribner 2009.
Life was like that, thought Nadir. Somebody keeps digging holes in your life and you keep filling them in.
- I daydream. That means I make things up!
I get my best ideas while walking in a park, riding a bike, doing yoga, or sitting by a swimming pool staring into space. How do you come up with ideas for your life, and solutions for your problems? Are you comfortable alone with your thoughts? If you have to have TV, social media, food, drink, or new possessions to be happy; if you can’t walk alone in the woods or enjoy a restorative yoga class without feeling restless and edgy, your soul has things it wants to tell you. Listen.
I tried to drown my sorrows in alcohol but the bastards learned how to swim. —Frida Kahlo
- I talk to people.
While writing these chapters, I met—at a hiking meetup, in a coffee shop and hotel restaurants—an amazing number of people who’d been to Afghanistan for military service or government contract work. They shared details about day to day stuff. How big were the Connex boxes used for offices and quarters? How did the boxes get to Afghanistan? What American fast food restaurants populated Kandahar NATO base? One even told me “Make sure you put in that we called that area Cholesterol Corner”! Call it fate, divine providence, or spooky circumstance…these people wanted to talk.
- Where do you get your stories…about yourself, about life, about purpose?
In my first blog, I said reading is important because we are what we think. I’ve made the mistake in the past of thinking too much about bad experiences, bad people, and my frustration over bad situations. I still do, but more and more I turn my thoughts toward those who are good, things that I want, and activities and places I like. I must choose to do that. I challenge you to examine the stories you tell yourself about yourself and re-write and replace those that don’t help you. We all write a story with our lives.
How well does your story align with the passion of your heart and your boldest, greatest you?
- Coming next week
I’m excited to read from In the Land of Blue Burqas, a stunning book from my Afghanistan reading list. It’s a true adventure story of an American woman who left a high-powered corporate job after 9/11 and went to Afghanistan to start a non-governmental organization with the goal of helping Afghan women. She learned the local language and lived on her own in small villages for more than five years. It reminds me that love and care are most authentic when we get our hands messy helping others instead of relying on government programs that waste money with fraud and abuse.
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