Something about travel clears the writing mind

I am writing this sitting in a narrow rock tunnel several hundred feet beneath the English Channel. On a train I might add. To Paris. The work in progress is getting there but it needs a nudge. Or perhaps a kick in the pants. Or a few fresh ideas.

Waiting for Eurostar at the station I got one just looking round and thinking about my fellow travellers. Yes, you middle-aged happy chappies in the the thick black Mickey Mouse beanies, on your way to the grey concrete hellhole of Disneyland a la française… I mean you.

That one got noted down straight away. Making notes, short, pithy ones, sometimes useful, sometimes not, is a really important part of writing a book. There will be lots more though I just know. Because I’m travelling and travelling does something to the creative mind.

Here’s a true story. About a decade ago I was writing the sixth book in my Italian crime series. I was thirty thousand words in and, to my shame, had got that far without visiting the scene of the crime I was writing about. Sitting on the tarmac at Gatwick waiting for my plane to Rome to depart I was having distinct wobbles about the whole thing. Usually I think about setting first then build a story into it. This time round I was trying to do things the other way.

Then came an announcement: the plane was delayed. We were going to sit on the tarmac for another 45 minutes or so before we took off. I reached down into my bag and pulled out a notepad (paper) and a pen. In that forty five minutes I redrafted the entire story, beginning to end. After a week in Rome I came back, revised that first draft and wound up with ten thousand words.

‘Poor thing,’ said a writer friend. ‘Losing all that work.’

I hadn’t lost anything at all. I’d found something, mapped out the whole novel beginning to end. Writing’s not about getting down words. It’s about finding the right ones, and the route to them came in those forty five minutes sitting on a plane going nowhere.

Why does travel do this to me? I hesitate to ask in case I find the answer and break the spell. But here are a few thoughts.

  • It takes you out of your comfortable home context. Perspective is something I always seek in writing. An author is god of his or her own little world. You need to be part of that world up to a point. But you also need to be able to step back from it, see the place from afar, pluck up the courage to do all those devilish things gods are allowed to do to their creations.
  • You travel alone. Writing’s a solitary journey, for me anyway. I don’t show rough drafts around. I don’t seek second opinions unless I feel they’re really needed, and then only from people whose opinions I truly value. When you step on a plane or train on your own you leave behind phone calls, emails, social responsibilities… normal life. As I’ve said before writing a novel is essentially a kind of partly-planned progressive breakdown, a descent into a barely-controlled form of madness. It’s best to do that on your own.
  • The world of the book is the only world you have. For the next week I will be living, breathing, eating this project and nothing else. I’ll be making notes in cafes and restaurants, reading drafts and associated material morning, noon and night. At home I rarely work on a book at weekends, and never at night. In a good hotel with nothing else to do life’s different. You can take an obsessive, monastic, devotional approach to the work and there’s no one there to stop you.

Will it work? I think so. It usually does. And now we’re coming out of the tunnel, with sunlight breaking over the Pas de Calais. In twenty minutes beneath the Channel I’ve just written this post. Which I’d never planned to do at all.

Hell… it’s working already.