I'm a huge fan of Maggie Harcourt's books, so I'm really happy to join the blog tour for The Pieces of Ourselves. For my stop on the tour, I have a Q&A with Maggie about her writing process.
Tell us about The Pieces of Ourselves.
The Pieces of Ourselves is about what happens when Flora, who left school after being diagnosed with bipolar (II) disorder and works in housekeeping for a local hotel, meets Hal – who is trying to uncover the story of a soldier who went missing during the First World War. It’s set mostly in the West Country, and although it’s technically a contemporary romance, there’s also a little bit of historical in there, and a mystery to be solved. It’s taken me a couple of years to write it, and because it’s full of the things I love – Somerset, old houses, history – it’s quite special to me.
Are you a plotter or a pantser, and how do you develop your initial idea?
Somewhere between the two! I usually have a plan… and end up abandoning it along the way. This book was slightly different from any other one I’ve written, because it felt like it kept adding bits onto itself and getting longer and longer. I think, in the end, I cut about 30,000 words from it between the first proper draft and the final book – and a lot of that was me writing my way through the process of discovering what it was meant to be. I did a lot of research for this book, too, because although the First World War is only a minor part of my story, it’s such an important period of history that I wanted to be confident I understood what it was like to live through it.
Do you have any writing rituals that help you get in the zone?
Not really: I tend to just get on with it. I’m quite boring, really. I keep notebooks with any ideas or snippets of dialogue that pop into my head, and sometimes I’ll put on specific music to help me focus. There’s usually a playlist for any book I’m working on, which will have tracks connected to the story or the characters. This time around, I listened to an album called “The Unfinished Violin” by folk musician Sam Sweeney: it’s new interpretations of songs which would have been familiar to soldiers in the First World War, played on a violin which was initially made for a soldier at the time.
How do you go about incorporating real and historical elements into fiction?
I like to have as many “real” elements in a book as I can: on the one hand, because I write contemporary stories, it immediately makes the story feel more rooted in our world… and on the other, because if you happen to know where the real places are, they become like little Easter eggs in the book. A lot of the inspiration for the big old houses mentioned in The Pieces of Ourselves came from National Trust properties I love: Dyrham Park and Stourhead in particular, as well as the house at Longleat. At the other end of the scale, a tiny vintage dress shop that also appears in the book is inspired by a real shop in Bath called Vintage to Vogue.
Historical elements were a bit trickier: I’m not really a historical writer, so it was a little daunting. Mostly, I did a lot of reading about the life of soldiers on the Western Front, and the lead up to the first few days of the Battle of the Somme, then tried to think about what would really matter to the characters who were involved: because they generally appear through their letters, it was more about how I could get a sense of what they were living through across, rather than turning it into a history lesson.
Given the current situation, do you have any advice for finding motivation when you’re working at home?
Lots of breaks! It takes a fair amount of focus to stay motivated if you’re working at home – especially if you’re more used to the rhythm and routine of an office. Make it easier on yourself by trying to stick to “office hours” – don’t work later than your normal end of day, or you might find it hard to switch off in the evening. Take a proper lunch break and read or watch something so that you don’t keep thinking about work: it’s important to give yourself a rest during the day. (Personally, I recommend The Great Pottery Throwdown. I watched an episode a day for a week or two and I was SO invested!)
Have you got any book recommendations for escapism or lifting readers’ spirits?
I love escaping into books: something by Jenny Colgan or Miranda Dickinson is perfect if you want warm, uplifting stories with romance. It’s pretty well known that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is one of my all-time favourite books: I would happily disappear into that for days at a time because it’s a whole world. If you want to be kept guessing, you can’t go wrong with Agatha Christie either: there’s a reason she’s one of the best-selling authors of all time. And if – like a lot of us right now – you need to laugh: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Even if you don’t particularly like fantasy, there’s probably a Pratchett book out there for you. “Guards! Guards!” is a great place to start.
Thanks so much, Maggie! It's so interesting to get an insight into how authors approach writing and I'm sure lots of people will appreciate escapist book recommendations at the moment.
You can follow the other stops on the tour using the banner below. Thank you to Usborne for inviting me to join in!