Every now and then, one of our Crime Cymru authors is brave enough to offer us a glimpse of the place where they write. This week, in a very crime-writerly twist, Gwen Parrott speaks in praise of a particularly daring way of finding a place to write.
I wish I could tell you about my wonderfully peaceful study, beautifully appointed with a comfortable chair that doesn’t kill my back, shelves full of useful reference books, a coffee machine and a glorious view from the window of trees gently swaying in the breeze. Sadly I can’t, because it doesn’t exist and never has done.
Many years ago, before I’d started writing properly, I was given a piece of advice from a very prolific author. It was ‘Don’t lock yourself away. Train yourself to write anywhere. It’s fatal to feel that you can only write in a particular place or in particular circumstances.’ Perhaps I took his advice to heart too literally, but I found myself seeking out the noisy and unsuitable and taught myself to block most of it out. I may have had a head start in this respect, living with a husband and two teenage sons who were obsessive computer gamers. Our living room frequently reached decibels that would have drowned out the Battle of Britain, so cafes and pubs were actually havens of peace and quiet in comparison.
Of course, there are other very good reasons for learning to ‘write anywhere’. As a crime writer, the main one is to familiarise yourself with ways of living that bear no relation to yours. One of the problems with some authors is that they seem to be confined by a mental straitjacket to the narrow world they inhabit every day. You can’t imagine their tackling anything outside it. This isn’t entirely a middle class phenomenon, but I find it unreal however it manifests itself. In particular, crime no longer lends itself to such a constrained view of the world – the days of the country house murder mystery have largely gone. Crime goes right across every class and country.
P.D. James, a great crime writer and wise woman, once told me that she considered crime to be a cornerstone of being able to illustrate essential truths about humanity and society. ‘Look at Dickens!’ she said, ‘So much crime in his novels. That’s because there’s so much crime in society and always has been.’ The point is, you have to understand it, and to do that, you have to find it. I can’t claim to walk twenty miles in a night like Dickens, loitering around dangerous places, watching and listening, but I do my poor best.
I write in the back garden of a local pub which is rough enough to require a frequent police presence, where I’ve witnessed fights, verbal altercations, the attentions of seriously disturbed people and, most memorably, once had to skirt around an actual taped-off crime scene, being careful to avoid the bloodstains. The bar staff were very apologetic about that – not because it happened, but because I missed seeing the SOCOs working by half an hour. You’ll have gathered that they know me quite well.
Where else, in my privileged, respectable life, would I meet people so utterly different from myself, from career criminals to those who are merely dodgy, and folk who live hand to mouth on the margins of society? If you never see or speak to people like this, how can you hope to write convincingly about them?
Apparently, to those who only watch me typing from a safe distance, I’m known as ‘the posh lady novelist’, which is kind, if untrue. It makes my friends there laugh. Over the years I’ve made a lot of friends at the pub. I’m not the only one who frequents the place without being on parole. Others turn up from time as their circumstances allow, and their tumultuous lives are a constant fascination. They live in hope that some particularly juicy episode will find its way into a book. ‘You can write about this,’ they say, settling down to give me the latest unlikely instalment. You just have to listen and not judge. Some of the tales are tragic, some comic. Yet more are the product of pure imagination.
You start to realise that large sections of society think in a totally different way to you. Conspiracy theories, however far-fetched, are entirely possible. All forms of authority are corrupt and out to get you. Paperwork of any description is deliberately designed to confuse you and, in particular, to prevent you from getting benefits, a house, a hospital appointment or anything else.
Oddly enough, I feel safer there than in many more salubrious places. Possibly because they recognise that I’m an oddity in their midst, they go out of their way to protect me. On more than one occasion when things have kicked off, I’ve looked up from my laptop to find people I know casually forming a barrier between me and possible harm. I appreciate that. It’s humbling to think that all I can do in return is decipher forms, explain why they should take their prescription medicines and just….listen.
Then came the first lockdown.
I did wonder how I was going to manage, until I realised that all was not lost. Our house stands on a corner, and our garden runs alongside it, separated from the road by a high fence. It isn’t a private garden by any means, but there is one spot, tucked in behind a rampant buddleia with a fence and trellises on three sides, adjacent to the steps leading up to the front door. I colonised it during the beautiful weather back in April and May, when everything was green and growing and I was well hidden. Early on in the experiment I nearly gave the postman a heart attack by calling out a cheery greeting. He recovered his composure well, fair play to him, but I have noticed that he now glances warily over before climbing the steep steps.
I thought that the downside would be the lack of interesting company, but that hasn’t been the case. People live their lives out loud on the street, possibly believing that they are inaudible. Mobile phones help in that respect. Even now, in winter, when I am bundled up like the Michelin man against the cold, there is a constant stream of folk walking past, talking away. I may not get the detail as I did in the pub garden, but I certainly get the flavour, uncensored. I am merely sitting typing in my own garden, and they are nothing more than anonymous voices. But am I eavesdropping? Of course I am. You might want to consider that, the next time you have a loud argument next to a high fence.
My family have given up wondering why I write where I do. Perhaps it would be truer to say that they still puzzle over how I manage to write anything at all, considering how much time I spend talking or listening. To be honest, I don’t know how other writers ‘fill the tank’ so to speak. We all write from our subconscious and it seems to have an endless capacity for absorption and transformation. Mine, by now, must be a very dark and dubious place, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Read more about Gwen Parrott
To discover Gwen’s books, follow the link here to her Amazon page.
While you’re here, don’t forget the amazing new Gŵyl CRIME CYMRU Festival, Wales’ first ever international crime fiction festival, which will be making its home in Aberystwyth in spring 2022. And if you can’t wait until then, we’re staging a ‘taster’ festival online this year, completely free, from 26 April to 2 May 2021. To find out more, just join us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @GwylCrimeCymruFestival and @CrimeCymru.
Keep checking @GwylCrimeCymruFestival and @CrimeCymru, and take a look at our Festival website. We’ve got some exciting news coming your way soon.