Books·How I Wrote It

Emma Donoghue: How I wrote Frog Music

Emma Donoghue explains why she wrote her historical fiction crime story at a treadmill desk.
Emma Donoghue is the author of the novel Frog Music. (Punch Photographic/HarperCollins Canada)

It was in a compendium of Victorian-era rebels that Emma Donoghue first read about outlaw Jenny Bonnet — but that was 15 years ago. For Donoghue, the seeds of her books are always planted decades before she gets to them. Once the noise surrounding her best-selling novel Room subsided, she was finally able to get to harvesting. 

In her own words, Emma Donoghue gives us a behind-the-scenes look at her new novel Frog Music — from the small table in Nice where she began to the computer program she can't live without.

On target

"I have much more power over titles and covers than I used to. I am so excited about the cover of Frog Music because of the real bullet holes. I've never had a perforated book cover before. And they let me tinker with the actual shape of the bullet holes. The bullet holes seemed too smooth to me, and so they roughened them up." 

Ten miles a day

"I wrote the book at a tiny little wooden table in our rented apartment in Nice. But when we came back to Canada I got myself a treadmill desk because I was reading all these articles about how sitting down is particularly bad for your health. I realized that I'd been sitting down since I was about four, so I transferred to a treadmill desk and spent about half my working day in that. It's a breakthrough for me because I'm a completely lazy lump. To feel I can get my exercise done while I'm writing and not even think about it — and at the end of the day I might have walked ten miles — is amazing. I bought a very good one. It's a horseshoe-shaped desk erected above a treadmill and you put the computer on it. I use a big screen so it's very comfortable and it keeps me wide awake."

Motley research

"I always do a lot to start with, but then you still have to go back and answer questions you've set for yourself. Like you'd suddenly stop and think, 'Hang on, how much would her customers have paid her for a private rendezvous? How do you kill a frog anyway?' The next minute you're on YouTube looking at videos of people in Louisiana out spiking frogs on long pointy sticks.I found a lot of my information in online databases of 19th-century newspapers. I thought I would go blind looking at them because you have to peer at these PDFs and you are zooming in over blurred 19th century newsprint. It's tiring work, but so engrossing. I would look through census returns, a ship's passenger list, San Francisco's own municipal reports, reports on various institutions. Research using historical sources shows you traces of real people. It may not tell you very much about them, but just enough to get your imagination going. And because this is fiction, I really enjoyed those moments when the facts would run out and I would be forced to purely invent."

Ok computer 

"I have to rave about this program called Scrivener that I use. I think I used it first with Room. It basically allows you to write anything. You tell it that it's a film script or a novel or a text book and it sets up the format that way. Then you write in pieces and you move the pieces around. I used to work in one huge long Microsoft Word file, and if I wanted to find the bit about the dog I'd have to search for the word 'dog.' But Scrivener will let me write each scene separately and then I'll have them in big folders for chapters. For instance, about a third of the way into the book I decided I wanted to tell the story cutting back and forth between a few weeks before the murder and then after the murder. Before that I was writing in a chronological order. So it only took me about a half an hour to rearrange all the pieces that way...  In Scrivener I'd also have a lot of research files. I'd have had a file called 'Fashion' and within that I'd have different files: 'Men's fashion,' 'Women's fashion.' And within that I'd have pictures files, so you could effortlessly click between 20 or 30 of these files. I find it an enormously helpful tool."

Emma Donoghue's comments have been edited and condensed. 

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