Thursday, May 26, 2011

Back Stage With Freedom's Stand

My youngest child has at last cut the umbilical cord and is taking those first tottering steps in the big, wide world outside my hovering embrace. Not some unanticipated late-life flesh-and-blood offspring [my husband just breathed relief!], though the birthing has been far more prolonged and arduous than any of the four humans who list me as parent on their birth certificates.

No, it just that my latest book, Freedom's Stand, rolled off the press this month. Its exquisite face looks up at me from the pages of CBD catalogs. It holds hands with illustrious neighbors in Tyndale's summer fiction ads. It makes its own way beyond my control into bookstores and libraries. As a parent, I hold my own breath, urging it on to a long and healthy life in that competitive, even cut-throat that is today's book publishing world.

Much has been said elsewhere both by myself and others about the message and story of Freedom's Stand [see's Fiction Blog], my own heart for Afghanistan and its people, issues of religious freedom and the persecuted church. So I won't linger on the book's contents here. In brief, Freedom's Stand is the sequel to 2010 Christian Book Award and Christy Award finalist, Veiled Freedom, set in contemporary Afghanistan. Veiled Freedom brings together on Kabul's dusty streets a disillusioned Special Forces veteran, an idealistic relief worker, and an Afghan refugee, each in their own personal quest for truth and freedom. Returning in Freedom's Stand, these three unlikely allies soon discover that in a country where political and religious injustice runs rampant, the cost of either may be higher than they realize. Will any one of them be willing to pay the ultimate price?

But one question I've been asked repeatedly in interviews may have value to ICFW readers. "I know you weren't on the ground over there that long nor able to travel widely due to security concerns. How were you able to portray such a realistic depiction of Afghanistan and its people?" Here are a few of my own stratagems in writing Freedom's Stand which any good novelist can duplicate to bring alive a distant place and people:

Google Satellite Mapping: Where exactly does the Kabul Stadium, where the Taliban once stoned female offenders before soccer matches, lay from the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, home to embassies, private contractors--and my main character's humanitarian project? What is the landscape around Afghanistan's notorious top security prison, Pul-e-Charkhi, or its interior layout? Can I triangulate a villain's luxury compound, a refugee's sanctuary, and a defensible escape route in the reality of the high, dusty plateau overlooking Kabul where Pul-e-Charkhi sits?

All of this and so much more is possible with today's technology--and those once-classified global satellite maps. Even in Kabul, Afghanistan, zoom will get you close enough to track your characters through every back alley, plot every location, mark every prison access entrance. [Looking for the US embassy? It alone is missing from close-ups. But if you know where to look, what's behind that sudden blur is clear.]. For continual reference, I kept mounted on my office wall a full-sized, fold-out driving map, available quite reasonably on Amazon from Nelles or International Travel Maps, for virtually any country.

Boots on the ground: Yes, I had boots on the ground for every aspect of my book--military, private security contractors, humanitarian aid, medical, pilot, State Department. These were the same who read the manuscript before press to ensure I had no errors. Finding boots on the ground is not as hard as it may seem, thanks to that 'six degrees of separation' principle we hear about. If you don't know experts in the fields you want to write about, you likely know someone who does, or their friends know someone. It is often just a matter of putting the word out. And since human beings do like to share their expertise, you'd be surprised how available most prove to be for input, if only to make sure you get their world right on page!

Blogs: But there is another type of 'boots on the ground' far more accessible and often fruitful. In this day and age, one can find people anywhere on the planet with time on their hands and a willingness to spill their daily lives, post pictures of their environment, vent their opinions and feelings in blog form. During the writing of Veiled Freedom and Freedom's Stand, I followed numerous blogs representing the worlds of all my main characters. Military and private security. Humanitarian and state department. Afghan medical students and journalists.

An embassy security bash with those demining robots for which your tax dollars paid purloined and reprogrammed to serve drinks--all in living jpeg! A UN secretary's chronicle of daily life and romantic liaison with her Afghan driver--including a non-subtle advertisement of his upcoming availability when her contract is up. [No, I couldn't possibly make this stuff up!]

An Afghan journalist's frustrations and hopes for his nation--until he suddenly disappears from internet existence like so many other journalists under the Karzai regime. The frustration of being a female aid worker in a Muslim country. The pride of mission in a Special Forces medic saving an Afghan villager's life. The confusion and anger and curiosity about Western life of a Pakistani medical student.Living on the ground with your character counterparts can add details of daily life, personality, emotion, motivation that I can personally testify the best interview will not produce.

Research: And of course there is no substitute for just plain research. Before starting to write, before even traveling to Afghanistan, I literally saturated myself in the country. Histories, biographies, country studies, political commentary, regional literature, travelogues, I had easily read 30,000 pages material before I ever picked up a pen or computer keyboard. I kept a Google Alert to follow daily news happenings there. I explored Afghanistan's streets, food, art, culture, restaurants, hotels through such expatriate resources as Lonely Planet, Bradt, Essential Field Guides. I studied its setting through watching on-site films and documentaries. Here is just a small sampling of my bookshelf from this project alone:

Ghost Wars-The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden by Steve Coll, Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile, First In by Gary Schroen (the Pakistan CIA field agent who was first into Afghanistan after 9/11), Kabul Winter by Ann Jones, The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad, Inside Afghanistan by John Weaver, Opium Season by Joel Hafvenstein, Prisoners of Hope by Dana Curry and Heather Mercer, The Sewing Circle of Herat by Christina Lamb, The Hunt for Bin Laden by Robin Moore, Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Along with many, many others. Empathy: In the end, there's no substitute for empathy with a country, culture, and people group to bring it alive on page. And that can't be taught. I have personally learned empathy in part by walking the streets of more than thirty countries on five continents, getting to know and love people from countless different backgrounds, listening to their viewpoints, identifying with their pain, burning with their injustices. And coming to see through their eyes as well the beauty in very different landscapes, cultural practices, social styles than my own.

But some of the best novelists I know have such a natural gift of empathy, they bring foreign places alive without ever leaving home [check out ICFW member Kathi Macias' international fiction titles like No Greater Love and People of the Book for a great example]. Bottom line, empathy with others learned in any circumstance and background can be applied to any setting with enough good research.

And for that, just follow the tips given above.


  1. I'm reading Freedom's Stand right now, and enthralled with the detail and scope of this story. I've been on the edge of my seat, not just because it's a suspensful, heart-wrenching story, but because it is so realistic of the times in Afghanistan. My hat goes off to this brilliant author for such a brilliant work.

  2. Oh, Jeanette, what an amazing amount of time spent on research. I pray your books will really take off because most of us don't understand the inner workings of the Taliban culture and why it is such a threat.

    Thanks for spending so much of yourself in this empathetic work!

  3. Marion UeckermannJune 4, 2011 at 10:46 AM

    Jeanette, I'm stunned at the amount of research ... where do you find the time for so much reading - and then still writing? Your books sound fascinating. With my son praying about going to Afghanistan as a missionary, I'd definitely love to get your books to read. Blessings!

  4. It seems like a lot of research, but I am a VERY fast reader. I was States-side in 8th grade and was enrolled in a speed reading class for my school English credit, which lasted one day because I could already outread their machine's fastest setting with 100% comprehension. No personal credit there; it's something you're born with, BUT definitely useful for education and research.