Take a walk with me, will you? No, I don’t mind how you’re dressed. Come in your pyjamas if that’s your thing. This walk isn’t about dining in fine restaurants or checking out where the elite meet. This is a not-so-virtual tour of your characters’ landscapes.
There are all sorts of ways of researching a writing project. Reading is a great place to start. Books and internet articles will suggest the questions you should be asking, and will provide you with factual details such as when a place was built or what was standard equipment for Victorian policemen.
You’ll also find it hugely helpful to talk to people who have real-life experiences in common with your characters.
Then there’s the walk. Well, I say walk, but what I really mean is existing in your character’s landscape. Seeing through their eyes.
Two weeks ago I returned to London. It was just a few days, a holiday with friends and a chance to go to the theatre. It was also a golden opportunity to visit a couple of places that feature in some of my works in progress.
Because time was a factor, I limited my walks to two areas. The first was from the Barbican, past the London Wall, up to St Paul’s. This is a route taken by my hero in The Forgotten Knight. I wanted to take this journey, not as myself, but as him. Although I know the City pretty well from St Paul’s side, I don’t know the Barbican area. Most of this would be new to me.
The second area, Holborn, I have been to many times. All the same, there were things I wanted to check for my next Sherlock Holmes story. More importantly, I wanted to immerse myself in these places so I could imagine my characters in them. What would they see? How would they react to this environment?
I was accompanied on my bimbles by friends Jane and Sandra. Initially, I worried that they’d be bored, but I think they enjoyed themselves. I suppose there is a certain entertainment value in seeing an author standing in the middle of the street talking to herself about gaslight, crypts and murder most foul. They were very kind, though, and didn’t mock once. At least, not in my hearing.
We went to the Barbican area first. It helped that we were going to see Hamlet in the theatre there, anyway, so the trip also served as reconnaissance.
I had already written the first draft of the scene where my hero walks to St Paul’s from the London Wall. My thoughts at the time were that he’d enjoy himself. He has free time, is on something of an adventure, and the day is bright and clear. However, once I started to walk around those streets myself, I realised a man with such an old-world nature would hate to be surrounded by great towers of steel and concrete. Brutalist architecture is well named. I felt my hero’s annoyance with every step.
Before I set out on my walk, I anticipated stopping periodically to write down my observations. This didn’t happen. Partly, it seemed a bit pretentious, like I was wearing a giant red hat with the word ‘AUTHOR!’ on it. But more to the point, once I got into the exercise, I realised that absorbing the atmosphere was much more important. I could look up maps and factual details later, but nothing replaces just being.
That’s it. Stop. Breathe. Take it all in.
It wasn’t until I came home that I wrote my observations. Probably there are things that I have forgotten, elements that I will remember inaccurately, but the exercise was never about precision, rather about letting my subconscious absorb the atmosphere. I think that worked really well.
The second area I wanted to walk through was Holborn. Unlike Barbican, this is a part of London I have visited several times and an area I really like. This visit was different, though, because I was retracing the footsteps of several characters. I think I startled Jane when I stopped a certain spot and said, “This is where XX is murdered…”
The challenge with Holborn is that it has changed so much since the Victorian era. It suffered badly in the Second World War. Still, the streets, many of them, follow the same course. Some places survive almost intact.
There were specific places I was anxious to see: The Olde Mitre Pub and St Etheldreda’s Church being two. These have not changed in any significant way since the 19th century. Of course, there are electric lights and the crypt of the church now is a function room for weddings, but that’s where the writer’s imagination comes to bear.
Obviously, there is a huge difference between imagination and memory. But for the writer, taking a walk down a street and letting those two things overlap can yield powerful results. It doesn’t come easily, of course. You have to train your brain.
Begin by observing. Start in your own neighbourhood, and go for a walk with a specific objective: Decide you are going to pay attention to colour. Or to architecture. Or to signs of the area’s level of poverty or affluence. If you were describing this street in your story, what words would you choose? Paint a picture in words.
Go sit in a cafe and watch the people. Who are they? Do they fall into a particular ‘type’? What sort of things do they talk about?
Now, bring your imagination into play. Take a snippet of conversation and imagine you’re a spy. That innocent chat you just overheard about a baby’s teething is obviously code. Make up a story to go with it.
Plan a crime. Walk around your town and decide where you would hide a body. Where you would hide out if you were on the run. Decide on a local building that should be haunted and write a story about it. Oh, the places a writer’s brain can take you!
It doesn’t happen all at once, of course. You have to train yourself to observe the right sort of things. I don’t need training to look for bookshops, for instance. I have a nose that can smell print from at least half a mile away. But noticing things above my eye-level–the bane of life for someone vertically-challenged–takes some work. Finding the quirky, out-of-the way places that visitors seldom visit can enrich a story. They can enrich your appreciation of your home town, too.
Absorbing the elements of the modern world, adding a filter for age, and a prism through which your character will view the setting, doesn’t come easily. It requires an ability to divorce yourself, to some degree, from reality. Walking through the real world but seeing it from a fictional perspective is an art that must be learned, but great fun, and pays huge dividends in your work.
And if all else fails, you can always take a break in an appropriate establishment…