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The Windmills of My Head

I don’t know if this is true for all writers but, for me, there is a particular place in my head that holds the landscape of my writing.  There are certain topographical, geological and natural attributes that fall into place; the streets pave onwards, the gates open here, the land rises to a ridge and as this happens the characters come out of the woods, leave their doors and begin.

My landscape, I can see it clearly, is a broad plain surrounded on three sides by hills and beyond them, bigger hills that might be mountains, in the way of Snowdonia or the Highlands. There is also a coastline. There must always be a wood which often grows outwards and becomes a forest, the trees that bank up against my other thoughts, the reality and the worries.

The houses that my characters occupy are generally old. I love vernacular architecture and my favourite pastime in visiting any town is to wander the streets and have a good old nosey at the houses. I love this one. I adore that one. The house abandoned in Stromness was most affecting. We parked up and I looked up at the most beautiful double-fronted house, sheltered by trees, clearly empty and abandoned. It had a forcefield that drew me. I sneaked in through the rusted gate, picked my way through the meadow of overgrown grass that had once been a front lawn and peeked in at the window. It was a shock, the house was a ghost. There was no-one inside, just the crumbling remains of a life that someone had lived, a newspaper folded on a leather swivelly chair, like something from a James Bond film, beside a more traditional armchair, now a home for mice. Bookcases with broken ornaments, the books fallen and fleabitten. Wallpaper struggled to stay upright. There was a powerful sensation from that house, as if, if you stepped inside, you might end up somewhere else entirely, another time. The house had stopped, held its breath as time whirled on around it.

The houses I love best are Victorian or Georgian, I like dilapidation, what some might call ‘shabby chic’ or ‘distress’ although I prefer the term ‘lived-in’. I love Cob houses and their quirkiness, hence the building of Cob Cottage by Pike Lake in The Witch Ways books. I like a winding stair and a belfast sink.

My characters usually have a garden, always overgrown. Only villains have edged borders. I’ve realised I place my heroes into comfortable homes, higgledy-piggledy places. Others might inhabit dilapidated bungalows, a sixties or seventies house that hasn’t been gutted out or painted over, it might have a serving hatch. There are plants growing in the guttering, the door sticks.

My bad guys live in modern boxes, crisp white houses with no soul and a sleek designer kitchen. I am not the kind of person who keeps their kettle lead in a drawer, and neither should you be. I’m just saying.

Where does it all come from? My theory is that a writer’s landscape is mapped out with all the places that have ever spoken to them and this works two ways. There are the places that coddle your heart, the places where you take your shoes off and you make yourself at home. There are also the other places, with the door that traps your fingers or the barking dog behind the gate. These places are where the protagonist must escape from, is trapped by. These conflict backgrounds are very useful and lend credence to the notion that nothing is wasted on a writer. If I dislike a place, if it gives me a bad feeling I make notes, rich notes, on why this is happening, what is it that I don’t like and how does this feel?

Home is big in my writing. I like to go away and see new places but, for me, the idea of coming home is always a good one. This is a story point too, the conflict of home under attack, of being denied the right to go home. Your home is your castle. Oh yes. I love a castle. Welsh for preference.

The forest and lake aspect of my writing has its origins in the Lake District. When I was a child we had holidays there every year, staying in caravans at first with my parents and my grandparents, travelling there in my grandad’s Ford Cortina estate (ahem, I think I can feel the 1970s coming on). Later, when we had a car, we would head up there for a week, staying in B&B accommodation on farms.

One day we walked from our B&B farmhouse up at Rydal to Grasmere. At Grasmere we hired a rowing boat to go out onto the lake. I wanted to have a go and my dad showed me how and I rowed the boat with the four of us in it. Dad is not a man to do things by halves and so I rowed around the entire lake at Grasmere. I was ten. Lakes and rowing boats are in all my writing.

We spent many an afternoon hunkered down at a lakeside, usually Ullswater, sometimes Coniston or Derwent Water,  in the driving rain. My parents would sit in deck chairs and read under whatever makeshift shelter we could cobble together from waterproof sheeting and umbrellas, as my sister and I paddled in the lakewater, tracking minnows. There was always a flask of ‘picnic tea’. My best memories are of rainy days such as these, of a particular boat trip on Ullswater where it lashed down and we stood on the deck of a pleasure cruiser, zipped into our anoraks, a visceral, elemental day. Rain, therefore, is my favoured weather system.

We also walked, although we did not ‘hike’ as people might now. We did not have hiking boots. Most of my Lake District walking was done in sandals and we did not have performance outerwear. My dad had flares (alert, alert 70s approaching) and a casual shirt and jacket, my mum would be wearing her ‘mac’, that is her mackintosh or raincoat. My mum always had a ‘mac’. Myself and my sister would have our poplin macs. Poplin is a cotton fabric and has nothing to do with Goretex. I don’t think Bear Grylls has a poplin mac and I don’t imagine he wears Clarks sandals and knee socks on his expeditions either.

We didn’t have GPS, we had a little paperback book of Lake District walks, not written by Wainwright. This little tome took us, on one particular day, to Shap Abbey. On another we visited a spot called ‘Seldom Seen’.

This walk involved a long stroll through woodland, uphill of course. I remember bracken fronds almost as tall as we were and the forest ranged around us. We looked down through the trees to a farm that clung to the side of the valley. This was the only sign of civilisation. On and on we walked and encountered no one save for a couple of nonchalant sheep. The forest deepened and it seemed that we were away from the world. At that point in time, the 1970s! (fanfare please!), my favourite books were Enid Blyton’s ‘Enchanted Wood’ series. I was never a ‘Secret Seven’ kind of kid, give me Silky and Moonface and the Saucepan Man every time. I loved the Enchanted Wood and that day, heading to Seldom Seen, the idea of my mythical wood took root in my head.

Forty years later and the branches grow strong and leafy, the trunks are gnarled and mossy. In the distance sometimes you can hear the sound of coppicing. Squirrels scurry up and down. The canopy holds roosting owls and raptors. A rookery. Two ravens. Foxes walk in the twilight to their earth. Badgers bustle in their sett in the banking by the stream. Rabbits burrow beneath the blackberries that spill out of the sides of my forest. Always, always, there is a red spotted handkerchief and a piece of cheese, a rosy red apple, cut with my mum’s little fruit knife, in a faux leather case, with a pearl effect handle.



If you’d like to be the first to know more about my Witch Ways series, just tell me where to get in touch (I might send you a book for free too)

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‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge


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