Start From Cold: Writing a Novel in Finland

13/05/2013 18:22 BST | Updated 12/07/2013 10:12 BST

At first glance, the Finnish town of Sysmä in early April might seem to have little to attract the casual visitor. A large billboard on the way into the centre on the three-hour bus ride from Helsinki proudly boasts of the country's only Accordion Museum, but in Finland April is still very much winter and the institution is closed; the instruments sag sadly in their unlit display units, with nary a mournful parp to be heard. The town is half painted wooden homes, half postwar prefab, and stands on the verge of the country's 'deepest, and second largest' lake - one imagines a certain scrabbling for prestige in the meetings of the tourist board - but when I arrive the lake is frozen solid, and the ice smothered in so much snow it's hard to tell land from water.

But I hadn't come to Sysmä as a tourist, or even an accordion enthusiast. I had come to spend a month at the Villa Sarkia, a literary residency for young writers, with the deeply hubristic stated aim of making 'significant progress' on my debut novel. I had sent a work plan, but no writing sample; I had written 20,000 words, but no detailed plot structure; I had vague aspirations that a cold, isolated existence would spur instant and frenetic productivity, but no sense of how this would work in practice - could I channel the energy of chattering teeth into frantic key-bashing? Would I automatically power ahead with my prose if I had no one to speak to to maintain my sanity and the Internet filter stopped me streaming Game of Thrones? I had a month stretching out ahead of me, a calendar of blank white pages which stretched like the dense-packed sheet of snow outside, covering both the supposedly-superlative lake ('It's pretty deep, right? Right, guys? Who's checking?') and the bikes in the backyard of the residence, distinguished only by their bells and handlebars, protruding like a snail's tentative horns. One question tingled in the crisp air: what the hell am I going to do for a month in Sysmä?

The answer, luckily, was 'what I was supposed to'. More or less. True, I may have written almost as many words in the long letters and emails to people I missed as the 42,000 which made up the rest of my manuscript; in hindsight, having a narrative based on the documentation of the hours my protagonist wastes on the Internet doesn't mean that twenty open tabs on Buzzfeed counts as 'research'. And yes, while it's interesting to know that subtitled reruns of the 90s British police soap Heartbeat are what Finns like to watch when they get in from work, it's quite plausible that my fellow residents - a young-adult author from Tampere, and an older British gent translating a fictionalised Hungarian memoir - had better things to be getting on with.

But we did get on with them - almost every day I wrote 1000 words before allowing myself to read my emails, and another 1500 before dinner. I gave full rein to my Catholic tendencies: restraint, reward. I went for long walks, and heard the geese waking up with the sudden on-rush of spring, and by the end of the month, the snow had vanished like so much wiped-off shaving foam, and brilliant blue water was nibbling at the edges of Lake Päijänne. There was a boat surrounded by ice that I'd hoped would thaw, allowing it to bob free - in less reasonable moments I equated this vessel with letters from agents, non-sensical advances, and importunate emails from literary magazines: 'you did what? In a month? In Sysmä?'

The boat stayed in place, and I kept at the grindstone for four single-minded weeks of writing, re-buffing, and utterly necessary cutting, trying to find my inner Medea. Then I sent the opening chapters of my novel, Wayback, to some agents, and went for a couple of even longer walks. It's possible - probable - that nothing will come of it; London, like Sysmä, has a number of piles of slush. But if it does, there's a small, quiet town on the verges of a remarkably deep lake that I'd suggest any writer move to the top of their travelling wishlist.