Writing is a thoroughly weird job. You spend about a year sitting alone and telling a story to an audience you can’t see. You can’t pause to chat with office-mates because there aren’t any. You’re trapped with the contents of your own brain, and the hypnotic stare of the computer screen.
My little study doubles as a store-room, so it’s full of junk, boxes of books, wrapping paper, broken things and water pistols. I love it, but sometimes I need to escape from it, so that I don’t go stir crazy.
Walking helps me think, and lets me work through plot knots in my head. I’m always happiest when I’m on the move, and I feel like my imagination has more room to stretch out when I have sky above me. I like the pace of walking too – you see so many details you’d miss if you were racing past in a car or train.
My house is only ten minutes’ walk from the Thames, so I often stroll along the towpath. Big, grey herons nest in the ‘aits’, the little mid-river islands. You often see cormorants drying their wings, and crested grebes diving. Sometimes the riverside fields flood and become gull-cities.
I was on a Thames walk when I came up with the central idea for The Lie Tree – a tree that fed on lies, and whose fruit could be eaten to learn secrets. I remember stopping halfway across Richmond Lock, and knowing that I had the heart of a story.
One of my favorite places for walking is Richmond Park. The wild deer are very patient with tourists lurching through the bracken to take photos of them. The trees are full of silver-eyed jackdaws, making sarcastic ‘chorb’ noises, and a thriving population of chatty, feral, bright-green parakeets, who don’t seem to mind the chilly British weather at all. Better still, the park is big enough that you can get lost in it, and almost forget that you’re in a city. When you’re standing on Sawyer’s Hill, with its view down towards the centre of London, the distant, silvery skyscrapers look unreal and out of place, like a mirage.
Sometimes I set off to explore new places, either planning a route using an Ordnance Survey Map, or just setting off to see where my legs take me. These are longer walks – usually at least ten miles.
Because I’m not in a hurry to get anywhere, I notice where I am, spotting details that might be story material. A house with slender tree branches mysteriously sprouting from its walls. A scruffy, surly man living on a riverboat with seven well-fed, beautifully-groomed cats. Graffiti conversations. A puppet-theatre-boat. A double rainbow against a murk of storm haze. A woman taking a leashed polecat for a walk.
Ordinary life is never ordinary. Ordinariness is just the camouflage it wears. The more you look, the more you see.