‘I have come more in hope than in expectation’
This is one of my favourite lines in my novel Lost Property.
But it’s not mine.
I heard it spoken by an elderly gentleman who came in to Lost Property in London’s Baker Street wearing a rain splattered raincoat in search of his lost bag.
It’s lovely isn’t it? Poetic. From that one line I found a whole character, one who goes on to play quite a pivotal role in my story.
Even though novels are works of fiction, spending time in the place you are writing about can enrich your creative process in ways you might not imagine. Certainly this has been my experience.
Knowing where my story is set is key. This might be partly due to the fact that as well as writing books I am also a theatre maker – when I make a show the first thing I need to know is where it takes place, which might be a theatre but which might also be a boat, a house, or a forest of redwood trees…!
I worked in the Baker St. Transport for London Lost Property office for a week doing research for a theatre piece some years ago. The cavernous basements are filled floor to ceiling with lost objects, each sporting a mustard yellow tag, all waiting to be found. I would have been able to imagine the lost phones, brollies and shopping bag that fill the shelves without spending time in situ, but I would never have guessed about the false teeth, the two-and-a-half hundredweight of sultanas, or the jar of bull’s sperm! Truth is indeed stranger than fiction!
Another thing I learnt from spending time in Lost Property was that loss is a barometer of the times. Seasons are marked by loss; mislaid umbrellas flood in during the winter months and there is always a sudden flurry of lost tennis racquets during Wimbledon. Mobile phones now outrank umbrellas in ‘items most lost.’
It’s not just the place that informs, it’s the people. I was touched by the level of care and attention the Lost Property staff gave, no matter what had been lost, whether it was a diamond ring or a teddy bear with one eye and half its stuffing missing. Value was apportioned equally. This level of care, of attention being paid, threaded its way into my novel.
And I am not sure I would have been aware of the importance of details to Lost Property life! I remember a woman coming in one day who had lost her wedding shoes, and how hard she tried to get the description just right.
‘Ivory, but really pale. Not like a pump, like a shoe shoe. Size three … It’s called a ‘junior shoe’ on the receipt’. Suddenly hopeful she started rootling in her bag, ‘I still have the receipt!’ she exclaimed, pulling it out, as if that proof of purchase might suddenly make the shoes appear.
She was right to be so precise in her description. If your item has been handed in the more details you can give about it the greater your success of it being found on the shelves and returned to you.
All of this informed my novel writing both in terms of the description of the setting with its cavernous basements and tagged items as well as the character of Dot Watson, my protagonist who works in Lost Property.
‘If you write woman’s Handbag, dappled burgundy rather than ‘Woman’s Handbag, red’, it can make all the difference as to whether that bag is reunited with its owner of languishes in Lost Property for ever. Leather handle you say? What kind? I ask. Looped? Stitched? Bucked? Chewed? Admittedly it's a challenge to make one collapsible umbrella stand out from another, but I do my best. I pay attention to the details.’
Of course, lockdown makes a lot of this site-based research impossible, and we have to get inventive! To research the Swiss mountains for my next novel I am hiking the Alps on my NordicTrack cross trainer! I have to imagine the crisp Alpine air but the pull in my calf muscles as I ascend Matterhorn feels very authentic!
Good luck with your writing!
Lockdown has brought anxiety; reflection; confusion; frustration; sadness; loneliness and even to some people, elements of enjoyment. For me, it has been a combination of all of these things and then some! Being a writer is very often a secluded labour of love anyway, but since March, I found myself purposefully setting aside more reading time. Lockdown also meant the closure of non-essential shops and as I usually write in my favourite tea shop, that meant trying to write at home. At first, it wasn’t easy. I found my mind wandering to what I should be doing in the house. Did I remember to put the washing on? Have I sorted out the ironing? Let’s just watch this You Tube video of a dancing baby and her puppy for the eighth time!...