The question I’m most often asked by readers, budding authors and befuddled guests at dinner parties is: ‘Where do you write?’
When my stock replies of ‘on paper’ or ‘on the walls of public lavatories’ have been merrily laughed away my answer is ‘on location’. Now after stating this the amused faces are sometimes replaced by furrowed brows, at least until I explain, succinctly, what I mean by this phrase.
Even through this digital, virtual, mire I can see, dear reader of blogs, your brow too is furrowed. So I shall explain to you exactly what I mean by writing ‘on location’, and why I choose to do so.
Twenty-nine years ago, to my surprise, I saw Alan Bennett sitting on a wall in the Yorkshire village of Heckmondwike. He was wearing his customary tweed jacket, slacks and a comfy pair of shoes, I’m sure you can picture him, this is Alan Bennett after all – one of our national treasures. Mr. Bennett was not sitting on the wall just to pass the time until the pubs opened or merely soaking up the glorious Yorkshire sunshine. No. He was actively and intensely staring at passers-by. In one hand he had a notepad and in the other a pen. He was writing on location! Now he may have been actually taking notes rather than constructing a cohesive comic narrative, but at this juncture let us not argue the toss. As I strolled past, with my father – two southerners exchanging comments about the place with the strange sounding name, he scribbled in his pad! It would be immodest of me to believe that I made it into one of his pieces, but one can but dream.
Years later, and without at the time making the connection to Alan (I’ve mentioned him several times now, so feel we should be on first name terms) I found myself doing the same thing – writing on location. Except I wasn’t sitting on a wall in Yorkshire rather I was on the terrace of a Kyiv café sipping chilled vodka and watching the ‘new Ukrainians’ strut by. Like Alan, I had too discovered that I preferred to ‘write on location’.
“Hang on,” I hear you say. “Isn’t this ‘writing on location’ business just note-taking? An aide-mémoire? ”
Yes, it is and more. For the non-writer (I’m sorry, I agree that title makes me cringe too, but please bear with me), who is not surreptitiously making notes it is called ‘people watching’. For me, however, it’s writing on location.
When an artist, painting a landscape, starts to sketch out their idea as to how they will interpret the panorama in front of them they usually do so with light pencil strokes, until the basic shape of what they will paint has been formed or if they dive straight into the painting the pencil strokes have been visualised in their mind’s eye.
As an author, an artist using words to colour his page, I look at the world around me and do the same. I try to create an authentic narrative by inhabiting the setting of my writing. I may sit and ‘notice’ that in this street, opposite the café I am camped in, there is a jewellery shop with a black door, or that a fish mongers is incongruously located three doors further on. Perhaps I’ll write this down, or I may just make a mental note. I’ll sit for a while and watch the comings and goings at the chosen location. This part of my process appropriately equates to note taking, and like the painter once I have a general idea of how I will interpret the scene in front of me I put pen to paper (I’m not one for dragging a laptop around or tapping away in a coffee shop as I find this insular), and start to physically write. And in this writing, I may mention that a certain character entered the jewellery shop via its black door, and the character I am writing about may, or may not be a real person I have seen do that very same thing. They could very well have gone directly from the fish mongers to the jewellers. And this throws up questions that I can explore. Why would they do this, what were they carrying, is there a link, is something fishy going on?
Stories are all around us and it is up to us to interpret them. The beauty of writing is that we are free to use as little or as much of our personal experience and observation as we dare, legally and morally.
Of course, sometimes it is just not practical to actually ‘write’ on location and note taking prevails. This could be for a myriad of reasons including time, the weather, finances or security issues.
I’ve been lucky enough to undertake a large percentage of my writing on location. I’m primarily a crime thriller writer. My hero is named Aidan Snow and is a former SAS man turned MI6 operative. Aidan Snow’s published adventures to date, three novels, a novella and several short stories, have taken place in part in Ukraine. I myself lived in Kyiv during the mid and late 1990s and now return several times a year. I’ve sat, as mentioned above, in cafes writing about what I see and I have also physically walked routes that characters have taken, noting details which I hope enrich my writing.
Occasionally I get a follow-up question, “what are some of the strangest places you’ve written in?’
Now I want to say, ‘read the books and find out!’ But I don’t. I rattle off a few places: Moscow’s Gorky Park, The Westin Hotel Dubai, Morristown New Jersey, Barbados, Worthing Pier, and at a bus stop opposite Kyiv’s SBU (KGB) headquarters (well in this case just note taking). And they nod and or raise their eyebrows before telling me about their most recent holiday escapades. You see unless you are a writer you can come across to everyone else as being a tiny bit ‘mad’ when you talk about craft, location and narrative etc.
BUT sometimes I just make things up.
When I’m in the UK, I’ll sit on my settee, in my lounge, watching odd daytime telly and tapping away merrily. You see if my reply to ‘Where do you write?’ had been ‘In my underpants on the settee’, this blog post would have been both shorter and less appealing to you, dear reader.