Stranger than Fiction
I don’t make a habit of peering through people’s letterboxes.
But yesterday I was on one of my ‘walkabouts’, in search of images for a crime scene in my new novel, something sinister on the shore maybe, evidence of rubber gloves pulled off in a hurry, the use of ship’s rope washed up on the tide.
To get to the Thames I took a detour down a backstreet.
On the railings of one of the lovely terraced houses I passed were small tasteful carrier bags containing Dahlia corms and cuttings; the very things I’d been wanting for my garden. A notice asked for small donations. There didn’t appear to be anywhere to put the money, so I rang the doorbell. (Brass bell, Farrow and Ball ‘Verre de Terre’ paint on the door) There was no answer. And so I pushed open the letter box to see whether it was possible to shove the money through.
On the other side of the letter box was the hallway I’d envisaged for the fictional house in my novel. Every detail seemed to be etched there; the children’s wellingtons lined up on one side, the carved table with large vases of shrubs- probably the very ones that had produced the cuttings I now had in my possession. The view all the way through the house to steps down to a glass door onto the back garden. Even the children’s coats slung upon a hook. Banisters curving up the stairwell. A country style London family home.
I’d imagined it all and now here I was looking at it.
This seems to happen when I walk about.
Bits of stories throw themselves into my path. It sounds a bit whacky- a bit airy fairy arty-farty as a fellow writer used to say when he described similar inexplicable phenomena about the writing process.
But it does happen.
Once I was working on the character of a Polish beautician. I knew what she looked like (pasty blonde and pale with a skin condition.) I had the character but couldn’t imagine the details of her life, what had brought her to the UK, how she spent her weekends. That evening I was passing a nail bar on my way to a party. I’d never had a manicure, and had an hour to kill, so decided on impulse to go in. The girl who did my nails was Polish, a beautician who traveled every weekend back to her hometown in Poland to see her boyfriend, commuting across the European continent back to the UK in order to earn a living. Here was the very character I’d imagined painting my nails red. She even had scars on her cheek. No- she really did!
The moral of this story however isn’t that I have some weird kind of psychic ability to conjure up places or people from my imagination, but rather that when you are out and about, your attention is drawn to things which confirm or bolster ideas that might seem nebulous or uncertain when you are alone at your desk.
So lately I try to take at least one day every couple of weeks to simply walk around. Walking through London is particularly rewarding for me. I have stumbled upon places I wouldn’t have known existed if I always took the bus or tube. Silent public gardens, tiny churches, pubs tucked away, statues (many of which I used in The Darkening Hour) characters and stories.
After discovering the hallway through the letterbox, I walked on down to the river path, and then down steps to the shore. Luckily the tide was out and it was the ideal time for beachcombing. I soon found the very sinister pile of belongings I’d half imagined, and needed as clues to a murder in my new story. Here they are- in case anyone thinks I’m making all this up…
Even if I hadn’t stumbled upon the hallway, the ragged rubber gloves and the knotted ropes however, I still have the corms and cuttings – somehow knowing the plants I am about to nurture in my garden come from a fictional place in my imagination gives me a curious kind of sense of satisfaction and says something about the symbiotic relationship between what we imagine and what is really going on out there.
It also says something about planting ideas, about things developing, about the creative process- I’m not sure what else…so your comments would be very welcome please.