Why do writers get drawn to a particular place when setting stories? Familiarity obviously, knowing your patch of earth and not writing total inaccuracies, yes, but to me its more than that. The characters have to feel alive in their placings, whether content or uneasy there; and I have to feel a connection with the environment to make the words convincing.
Not always the case totally. I’ve invented parts of deserts, the outskirts of Las Vegas, the interior of a mega-yaght, outer space and heaven; not so easy to visit as, in my case, London – my default choice.
London: place of my childhood and a large part of my adult life – I still find myself checking, (with horror-widened eyes) the price of a nine square meter box-flat in Bloomsbury every now and then . . .
I visit when I can; plan a day of galleries and museums and then find myself walking and walking, like a slightly arthritic greyhound let out from a trap in my sub-consciously chosen direction for that day.
Two nights ago I sat in my rented nine meter-squared box – (part of the wonderfully cheap and homely St Athans hotel in afore-mentioned Bloomsbury) and planned my ‘flaneur’ day. This time I had a sort of self-imposed directive: my character Smithi’s walk from Shoreditch church to the Princess of Wales pub on Lea bridge Road and back via the Hackney marshes. Although the tale is set in 2070 and everything would be no doubt somewhat different . . . I wanted to walk the route – Google Earth is incredible but not the same thing as actually pacing the roads.
Starting point outside the hotel
I left the hotel at 5.30 (insomniac writer) and walked – a lot, in the wrong direction, retraced my tracks and found all sorts of new places I’d never seen before such as St Georges gardens and a building called the Horse Hospital. I also wasted a lot of time trying to find a café that would resemble the steamy, formica interiors of my student-hood. Nope. In the hypercenter all those soul-warming places have disappeared under a tsunami of Pret a Manger and Starbucks. Sob.
The pub, Lea Bridge Road and boats
As, these days, my legs protest at too much striding I allowed the flaneur activity to include a bus: the number 10 to Clapton pond – not quite the same process as buses tend to stick to their decreed routes and don’t veer off, distracted to then take a new and undiscovered path. There is a pond! – smallish with ducks and trees surrounded by throbbing traffic and sulking pigeons. I walked on to the pub, which was was closed but I paced around it imagining the lama-roasting scenario I had planned – (good that works), then continued along the river lea and towards the Hackney Marshes, via an intriguing area of ancient reed beds used for filtering the water from the Lea; onwards over a metal bridge, up Millfields lane, stopped at the wonderfully-named Cooper and Wolf café (formica and ancient stuff, great tea and buns, yes!) up Mare street, Clapton Rd, Graham Rd and onto Kingsland Rd and St Leonard’s Church where I flopped onto a pew and imagined the interior of the vestry that features largely in my series of books.
Wilderness within London
So, the plot route was walked, photographed, sketched and is now firmly planted in my mind. Now to rewrite that section with all the colour and noise of streets and the strange tranquility of the river Lea, reed beds and the marshes.