Writing Routines

Louise Penny’s Writing Routine: “I had to be hurt into novel writing.”

Louise Penny is a Canadian author, best-known for her mystery novels centred around Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. She has won the Agatha Award for best mystery novel of the year five times and the Anthony Award for best novel of the year five times.

I had to be hurt into novel writing. I had to get to a certain stage. I had to lose enough people, I had to have a lot of ego pounded out of me and pride, I had to learn compassion.

Bestselling Mystery Writer Louise Penny Discusses Her New Novel | Time

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When Louise Penny was 21-years old, fresh off graduating from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute with a Bachelor of Applied Arts (Radio and Television), she joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and embarked on an 18-year old radio journalist career.

According to an interview with Time, the Canadian author had always wanted to be a writer, but she started down the path of journalism because she was at first too scared to fail as a novelist.

“I think I was a combination of I was too afraid to try to write, in case I realized I couldn’t and then I would lose the dream,” she recalled in the interview. “And also I was very fortunate in my upbringing in that nothing bad ever happened to me.”

During her broadcasting career, Penny worked in various locations that took her away from her close ones, resulting in her feeling isolated and turning to alcohol to help with her loneliness. This carried on years, until, at the age of 35, she admitted she was an alcoholic and has been sober since. Shortly after this, she met her future husband, Michael Whitehead, on a blind date.

The two married in 1996, two years after they met. Thanks to Whitehead’s profession as head of haematology at Montreal Children’s Hospital, Penny was able to quit her job at CBC and focus on writing full-time.

After trying her hand at a historical novel, Penny had trouble finishing the project and switched over to mystery writing. She published her debut novel, Still Life, in 2005 which featured the introduction of her famed character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The novel was a success, garnering numerous awards, including the “New Blood” Dagger award in the UK, the Arthur Ellis Award in Canada for best first crime novel, the Dilys Award, the Anthony Award and the Barry Award for Best First Novel in the US.

In 2013, after her husband was diagnosed with dementia, Penny became his full-time caregiver and juggled these responsibilities with her work. While taking care of Whitehead, Penny continued to write and publish several Gamache novels, including two New York Times bestsellers.

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Louise Penny’s daily writing routine

In a 2015 interview with Time, the Canadian novelist described her daily routine as a full-time writer and caregiver for her husband.

I get up at 5 and feed the dog and walk the dog. My husband isn’t well so that’s why I get up at that hour, it gives me four or five hours just to myself with quiet in the house to write. And then by 10 or 10:30 I’m generally finished. I set a word count for myself. When I first start the beginning of a first draft, I set it very low because it’s so frightening to start a first draft. I set it at about 200 or 250 words, which I can do perhaps in 20 minutes and then have the rest of the day to myself. It’s so scary for me still. I wish I could say at book 11 or 12 that I was over the hump, but there are different humps. I’ve gotten over some, but then lo and behold, there’s another one right there. So I set the word count very low, and then I raise it to about 1,000 words minimum. And once I’ve finished the 1,000 words, for the rest of the day I can focus on my husband and on me.

Bestselling Mystery Writer Louise Penny Discusses Her New Novel | Time

During her writing sessions, Penny enjoys listening to various music genres. “Lots of Celtic – some classical, some classic rock like Don McLean, some rap,” she told fellow mystery author Deborah Crombie. “I love Eminem, though I suspect he’d be humiliated to know a middle aged white Canadian woman was listening to him. Alicia Key, Ali in the Jungle, Lux Aeterna, Foo fighters. All a bit of a smush up.”

After her husband passed away in 2016, Penny went through a period of not writing as she dealt with her grief. In her mind initially, she wasn’t going to write another Gamache novel again, mainly due to the fact that Whitehead was the inspiration for the chief inspector character.

“Not simply because he was the inspiration for Armand Gamache, and it would be too painful, but because he’s imbued every aspect of the books,” she explained in a post on QWF Writes. “The writing, the promotion, the conferences, the travel, the tours. He was the first to read a new book, and the last to criticize. Always telling me it was great, even when the first draft was quite clearly merde.”

But slowly, word by word, Penny began writing again. Not only did she write, she began working on a new Gamache. It was all done in secret from her publishers out of fear that she might stop again. It wasn’t until six months into the project that she told them she was working on a new novel. And that was how Kingdom of the Blind, the 14th instalment to her Gamache series, was created.

I began the book not with sadness. Not because I had to, but with joy. Because I wanted to. My heart was light. Even as I wrote about some very dark themes, it was with gladness. With relief. That I got to keep doing this.

Writing Through Grief—By Louise Penny | QWF Writes

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