Far from the Road

How do novelists escape the desk, the laptop and the virtual worlds of modern communications? How do they ‘plug in’ to the non-human world in order to gain imaginative access to it? In the final instalment of Gregory Norminton's Rewilding the Novel series, five fiction writers reflect on their creative process.

Natasha Carthew

There are so many reasons to write outside, the first being freedom. As a young writer, I was drawn to writing outside because of the independence it gave me. There were no distractions, no other voices but mine and I could escape to whichever world I wanted. Writing outside helped me to focus.

The second reason for writing outside is inspiration. Sit long enough and you stop being a bystander and become part of the world. Nothing coaxes jumbled thoughts into coherent sentences like sitting on a clifftop on a summer’s day or under a tree in a rainstorm.

So what does my daily creative process involve? Firstly, I stuff a notebook and pencil into my pocket and head as far away from any road as I can. I never worry about the weather, in fact the wilder the better; a canopy of trees are a good short-term solution for sitting when it rains, but beneath a clapper bridge is perfect. I live in the country in Cornwall where I was born and raised, and the routine of bringing a notebook with me whilst out walking was something I did as a poet in my teens.

Writing outside, especially because all my books are set in the wild, helps me to get really close to my characters. I feel what they are feeling, my senses become their senses; the early morning woodland scent of damp flora or the taste of burning gorse – it all finds its way into my work. When I wrote All Rivers Run Free, I spent a lot of the time sitting beside the River Tamar in Cornwall where the book is set, and in doing this I had access to whatever it was the story required of me; I could see my characters out on the water, they looked at me the way I looked at them, with rain in my eyes, they shouted over through the bullying wind and together we watched the river rise and flood the surrounding fields whilst we got colder and colder.

To be submerged in your outside environment means you are ready to be lost in the moment. We all know writing takes time and sitting outside watching the world go by helps in this process. Even if you are not writing, you are observing, things come to you and pass you by, and this world is beyond your control. It is fluid and that fluidity is exciting; you no longer think about writing but merely start to write.

Mandy Haggith

I live where the woods come down to the sea in northwest Scotland. This liminal environment is a huge influence on my writing: both trees and ocean underpin my generation of words and my creative process.

Trees have been important to me in many ways for years: a source of observations for poetry; an endless offering of ideas for structure; and perhaps most importantly a reminder that it is normal for fruiting and leafing to be followed by periods of dormancy. I grew up in a Northumberland village where I felt the woods as a place of solace, shelter from bad weather and a private playground where my imagination could run riot. Elves and pixies don’t give away your secrets to people who might laugh at you. Trees offer solidarity when human beings, out there among the buildings and concrete, are cruel. They breathe in what we exhale and turn it into oxygen – they are both literally and metaphorically sources of inspiration.

My first novel, The Last Bear, was set a thousand years ago, so I needed to imagine a world free of modern trappings. I found it in the woods – the flowers, birds, insects and trees would have kept the people company back then just as they do now. With a real setting that I can observe with my senses, my story characters can come to life – they share my sensations and respond in their different ways to these perceptions of the world.  They also guide my observations: a medicine woman will send me out seeking the herbs in season; a hunter tunes what I notice of the behaviour of deer and birds. I sometimes go to considerable lengths to understand what life would have been like for my characters. I made a bender from hazel rods and canvas, pretending it was deer hide, and gave my main character her home as well as providing myself with a writing den among the rowans, aspens and birches by the shore.

The sea is becoming, year by year, increasingly vital to my creative process. I drafted my new historical novel trilogy almost entirely offshore in a small sailing boat and edited it at anchor in remote bays and islands around the north of Scotland. The story is set in the Iron Age, more than two thousand years ago. I discovered that imagining that world is easiest at sea: winds, waves and tides are still as they would have been back then. Birds and cetaceans behave the same way they have always done. The landscape from a few miles off, once buildings are reduced to dots, is just as Iron Age travellers would have seen it. Although our boat is equipped with nylon and steel (not to mention electronic safety kit and waterproof boots), the principles of sailing have not changed since people first tensioned cloth or hide above a well-formed hull. As water ripples around the boat, words can flow from a common experience with our distant ancestors. I simply could not do this work in front of a computer screen.

Writing in nature is not about getting away from the modern world. It’s about being in reality, being at home where we really belong.

‘The novel may have been born of the city but it has never been that way for me. I cannot write in cities. I can rarely write about them. The novel is about understanding people, but at its heart it is a process of making connections.’

Tom Bullough

February this year, early in the morning. The sun sinks into a muddle of cloud as I’m crossing the field above Llanspyddid. There is an ash tree to the right of the gate; its spindling branches have upwards-flicking twigs. The ragged grass has lost its frost, except here, where the shadows last fell, where the shape of the ash tree remains like a photograph.

March, at night, in the same, banking field, wading now through deep, wet snow. The gate at the top end is a space in a line of hazels and hawthorns, long unpleached. The ground is mud because of the sheep, which have, on the far side, continued up the hill then branched away to the left and right. Their paths look so much like a shadow that I find myself checking behind me – for the tree, for the source of light.

What to say about the ‘non-human’ world and writing in 400 words? The novel may have been born of the city but it has never been that way for me. I cannot write in cities. I can rarely write about them. The novel is about understanding people, but, as Russell Hoban suggests in Riddley Walker, at its heart it is a process of making connections – seeing past the walls and fears and routines into, in those moments when your writing works, a fuller, fully intertangled reality. This means allowing that this room, here, say, is not, cannot be a separate space. The room inhales some things and exhales others, which have their own effects elsewhere. The room only exists at all because of pressures in our past and pressures in our present – and, of course, it will change and change again.

Sometimes I worry that walking is indulgence. There are routes I take across the mountain, through beech woods and spruce plantations, through fields, on the moor, by a tree-hidden pond, where you never see anyone and can swim without clothes. There is astonishment in the effect of walking; it catches me almost every time. The reverie that comes from its rhythm. The space, the time to wait and look; it lets differences collapse and connections emerge and writing happen unconstrained; it lets you see yourself briefly as you actually are: just one species among other species, and one with, really, no better understanding.

As Ruth Bidgood, the poet, says of life in mid-Wales: ‘I never wanted to escape from the world by coming here… This is the world.’

Sylvia V. Linsteadt

In truth, I do not do my best writing outside. Nevertheless, I bring my notebook with me literally everywhere, on all wanders through the pine-forests and oceansides of my coastal home, even though it is a rather unwieldy, fat leather notebook of some two hundred pages. Notes, impressions, inspirations, the sounds of birds, the shapes of leaves, a sudden thought that feels like it has wafted right from the burl of a resinous bishop pine—all of these will go in to the notebook in hasty scribbles, but as for cogent composition, I have learned that I can’t manage it half so well outside as I can within the focused quiet of my studio, or some other hermetic space.

What I mean by this is that when I am in the pinewood, or by the ocean, or out in coastal prairie bluffs among the wild iris and the tule elk herds, I find that the wild world so suffuses my senses from all angles that writing feels downright futile. How could I possibly bring down to the page in inked shapes the immensity of such lifeforce, such webs of interconnection? I tend to try to put them there all at once, and the result is generally worse than if I hadn’t written anything at all, because I am trying to translate the untranslatable, while in the throes of it. Words, in such settings, sometimes constrict. This is just my personal experience. I get easily sensorily overwhelmed. I have to let all the feelings and sensations and impressions blow through me in order to really see or know them. ‘You are a sensualist,’ someone once told me while I was exclaiming with delight about the vigorous beauty of a cold, wet day. Not always a good thing, but I’ll take it.

So while I do go on regular walks through the bishop pine forest near my home, or to the outer edges of the land where the sand dunes are vast and golden, to keep a balance with my time over notebook and computer, it’s all about the quality of attention I bring. If I am walking the woods trying to plan a scene, or plot the rest of a book, or worry over some personal details in my life, I can walk and plot all I like but it won’t bring that quality of wildness into my words that we are talking about in this series. I’ve got to really be there, for the sake of being there, for the sake of my feet on the earth, for the sake of breath and pine-scent, huckleberry and woodpecker song, dream-fear of mountain lion and scat of bobcat, for the sake of that language. I’ve got to sink into it and let time go, let my writerly needs and strivings go, and only later bring that language back to my desk, in the silence and stillness of studio-space, so that I can discern enough of its patterns to convey an essence through pen and page. Presence and embodied memory, in ongoing dance—this is one way to break the letters open, to dance the Other through.

Cynan Jones

I write with a pen in a small room, and don’t talk to people when I’m doing it. I leave my emails unchecked. I don’t open my post. My phone stays switched off. When it comes to typing up the manuscript, I don’t plug into the internet.

The desk is the final destination. It’s not the place to work out what I want to say. I do that on foot. Walking. Working physically. Cooking. Driving. Ideally, I don’t go near the desk until I’ve built the story in my head. Then I sit down, and write like I’m remembering. Or watching.

Most of my stories come from the landscape I grew up in, where I still live. In that, my story-making process now is very similar to the imaginative reflex I had as a child. It’s make-believe, fired by engagement with the place around me.

When things prevent me from spending time in that environment – the necessity to field emails, to answer interviews, to complete commissions, to travel to talk about writing – I feel dislocated from my base material. I’m a product of this region, and so are the stories.

Because I’m writing about a place I know intimately, I’m not overtly conscious of bringing in a sense of setting when I work. I keep my eyes on the characters and what they do. I just need to flick my eyes to one side of them, and I see the setting clearly. That, I think, really contributes to embedding a story in a place. That’s not achievable from a short visit, or from internet research. That results in a tourism. Equally valid in writing, but different from belonging. And readers will sense that.

It took me some time to recognise I could set stories here, and I trust that now. Even Cove, which was my attempt to break free of place, is deeply located.

I’m sure a story will come along that won’t conform to the things I’ve said above; but I believe writers should always be trying something new, so I’m expecting one day to create something from an ‘outside in’ perspective. Until then, it’s about keeping my feet on the ground here. It’s always too easy to make an excuse not to write. To find a distraction. To rail against encroaching technology. It’s less easy to turn off your phone and go for a walk.


Natasha Carthew is a working-class country writer from Cornwall who has written all her books outside, either in the fields and woodland that surrounds her home or in the cabin that she built from scrap wood. She has written three books of poetry and three Young Adult books. Her first Adult book, All Rivers Run Free, was published by Riverrun/Quercus in Spring 2018.

Mandy Haggith is the author of several works of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Her novel, The Last Bear, won the inaugural Robin Jenkins Literary Award. An activist and former scientist and academic, Mandy is Co-ordinator of the European Environmental Paper Network and has lobbied at the United Nations. She lives in the northwest Scottish Highlands.

Tom Bullough has published four novels, most recently Addlands (Granta). He grew up on a hill farm in Wales, where he still lives. He has worked as a sawmiller, a music promotor in Zimbabwe, a tractor driver, and a contributor to various titles in the Rough Guides series. At present, he is a Visiting Fellow at the University of South Wales.

Sylvia V. Linsteadt is the author of Our Lady of the Dark Country, a collection of short stories that explores the roots of patriarchal conquest in ancient Europe, and the post-apocalyptic folktale cycle Tatterdemalion (Unbound 2017) with artist Rima Staines. Her latest book is the middle-grade novel The Wild Folk (Usborne 2018), set in a re-imagined version of Point Reyes Peninsula in California, where she lives. www.sylvialinsteadt.com

Cynan Jones lives and works in Ceredigion in Wales. Jones published his first novel, The Long Dry, in 2006. His other novels include Everything I Found On The Beach, Bird Blood Snow, The Dig and Cove.

Dark Mountain: Issue 13

The Spring 2018 issue is a collection of essays, fiction, poetry and artwork about what it means to be human.
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