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, Alison Layland extols the virtues of a nomadic writing life as inspiration for creating a sense of place and creates some serious caravan envy.
Where I write? There’s no easy answer to that question. For sure, my base is in my office, library and writing den that we converted from a garage when we moved house five years ago (who uses a garage to keep their car in, anyway?) There are French doors overlooking canal and trees, and a succession of narrowboats and towpath walkers to distract me.
I love repurposing things – the small wooden box with brass knobs was in my grandpa’s garage, used for storing nails and screws. With the black grime removed, it polished up nicely and is now not only a family memento but a lovely stationery box. I seem to have a bit of a garage theme going on – small wonder that the protagonist of my most recent novel, Riverflow, is an all-round mechanic and engineer.
However, I’m quite a writing nomad. Having such a lovely space at home begs the question, why am I so fond of taking myself off on writing retreats? I think it’s largely because, having worked in the same space as a freelance translator for many years, it’s difficult to separate out time to write – as many people found working from home during lockdown, when the work-life boundaries became blurred. When I was really busy with commercial work, even setting aside the early mornings for writing time wasn’t always possible when a tight deadline demanded attention, and old habits die hard: I still find it hard to ignore emails and phone calls. I also have a number of village and other voluntary commitments and as someone who finds it hard to say no (and an introvert), I like to get away. So, particularly when working on a first draft, or untangling a sticky spot in the novel, I pack up my trusty laptop and head off, shutting out the world and getting truly in the zone. I often combine it with research by visiting locations related to my work in progress.
The idea that I’ve booked the time away from work and home, and the self-imposed deadline of having to produce something worthwhile by the time I return home, concentrates my mind and imagination. I don’t usually go on organised retreats, although I was thrilled to be accepted on a month-long residency in Hawthornden Castle, Scotland, in 2017. This was a unique experience and it was lovely not only to have time to write, but to get to know the other half-dozen writers on the retreat.
It’s usually a more homespun and solitary affair, though. At first I used to house-sit when friends or relatives went on holiday – even if they didn’t have pets, and their houses didn’t really need sitting, they understood where I was coming from. From a village on the Devon coast to suburban Basingstoke, the location was secondary to allowing myself total “me time” and not being bound by anyone else’s routine. As it became clear that I couldn’t expect people always to plan their holidays around my writing needs, I started to use AirBnB as a great way of finding reasonably-priced accommodation. I’ve stayed at a permaculture farm and an off-grid glamping site where my laptop was powered by a solar panel, both of which, as well as providing time and space to write, gave valuable insight into the background of Riverflow. My daughter and I revisited the latter for location shots when making the video for the novel.
For a few years now I’ve been fortunate to have my own writing caravan – I keep it permanently sited on a seasonal pitch, available from spring to autumn for me to disappear to whenever I can. With the help of my family during lockdown, I’ve given it a makeover (known as ‘the battle against caravan beige’) and it really feels like a second home. I find it the perfect combination of familiarity and apartness, and spending a few days hermitlike in the caravan never fails to move the novel along.
Until last year, the caravan was sited on the Llŷn Peninsula, overlooking Ynys Enlli, or Bardsey Island. Over the course of a couple of day trips to the island, I fell in love with it and have since enjoyed a couple of stays in their atmospheric accommodation which is beautiful but whose charms include no electricity or internet, and limited running water.
Of course, this is all in the name of research, too, as a substantial part of my work-in-progress, set some 30 years into the future, involves a remote, self-sufficient community on an island off the coast of Wales. Immersing myself not only in my novel, but also in a way of life where nothing is taken for granted – including the weather and whether the return crossing to the mainland will be possible when planned – gave my time there a feel of “method writing”.
Just as a sense of place is important in my novels, my ever-changing writing location is also a huge source of inspiration.
Both Riverflow and Someone Else’s Conflict are published by Honno Press, and can be bought direct from the publisher, from your local bookshop, or online at Amazon here: Riverflow / Someone Else’s Conflict.