Some months ago, my writer friend Helen Jones of Journey to Ambeth was asking if anyone wanted to beta read her latest book, A Thousand Rooms. Yes, please, I said. So she sent it over to me, and I have to say, it’s one of the best indie books I’ve read. And as of yesterday, it’s published! So, in honour of that event, Helen has come over and written a guest post for us here. One of the things she and I have in common is that we’re both Europeans who’ve done a fair bit of travelling, so I asked her to talk about how the things she has seen in her wanderings inspire her writings. Over to Helen:
‘The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.’ St Augustine
Recently, a writer in a group I’m part of commented that she was feeling short of ideas, the stories that used to come to her so easily tapering off. The group response was unanimous. ‘Go outside.’ ‘See the world.’ ‘Come back to real life.’
As writers we create, our stories born of inspiration. But where do our ideas come from? I realise that writers need an interior landscape to plunder – after all, the Bronte sisters lived quite sheltered, shy lives, yet were able to write stories of deep passion and emotion. As I’ve said before, you don’t have to live with dragons to write about them. Yet they were no strangers to love and loss and emotion, and that is the landscape they chose to wander with their words, creating tempests from what, in their own lives, may have been more like gentle breezes. We each of us have our own unique life history, our own moments seen and experienced, and each of those moments can be the spark for a story. However, as we told the writer in our group, sometimes you need to step away from the desk and look for ideas elsewhere, or take yourself somewhere where ideas might come and find you. As writers, by nature we are observers, and we pull detail from the world around us wherever we are. I’ve written a short story sparked by an unusual outside light I saw on a walk in my neighbourhood, and another one inspired by a spate of leaks in our newly purchased home.
On my Instagram profile, I describe myself as a traveller. I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of this planet, though there are many places I’d still like to visit. But travel is not always about moving through space – in recent years I’ve wandered worlds within imagination, stories taking me to places beyond anywhere I’ve seen.
And yet, they still hold echoes of real world locales, a gleaming palace on the California coast transplanted into the magical gardens of Ambeth, a castle in Wales, favourite childhood haunt, now holding a secret that could change the world. And a dead girl roaming the streets of Sydney, her erstwhile home my old apartment, her old office the same one where I used to work.
My latest novel, A Thousand Rooms, was inspired by a real event. When I lived in Sydney I used to walk to work and, one sunny morning, came around a curve in the road to see a woman lying on the pavement under a blanket, two police officers crouched next to her. The accident hadn’t happened long before – there were no other emergency services there yet, and the bus that had hit her was pulled up to the kerb a little further along, the driver sitting on the verge with his head in his hands. The area wasn’t cordoned off, either – I walked right through the group, past a young woman on her phone in tears saying ‘she’s dead, she’s dead’, past the police officers and the dead woman. As I passed her I looked down. One of her arms was sticking out from under the blanket, the skin smooth and unmarked, adorned with a silver charm bracelet. I remember thinking that she’d got up that morning and chosen that bracelet along with everything else she was wearing, not imagining she’d be dead before lunchtime.
Then I kept walking. I had a busy day ahead, there was nothing I could do to help and I needed to get to work. I made it through the day but that evening, when my now-husband and I were driving somewhere, I made him stop the car, opened the door and threw up. Reaction hit me hard – even now, fifteen years later, I still feel sorrow for that unknown woman and her sudden death.
In A Thousand Rooms my protagonist, Katie, like the woman on the road that morning, dies suddenly. And then nothing happens. No angels or relatives appear, and she doesn’t feel any different – she just remains Katie, wandering around Sydney, unsure what to do next. As I wrote the story it unfolded from that initial event, research taking me through different afterlife mythologies, imagination adding characters and twists. But without that first spark of inspiration, who knows whether I would have written the book at all.
Of course, you don’t need to travel far or be part of dramatic events to find inspiration. When we told the writer in our group that she needed to see the world, we meant only that she needed to find a different outlook, whether that was in her garden, or farther afield. You don’t have to go far to find stories, but you do have to go outside, once in a while, and help them to find you.
Helen Jones was born in the UK, then lived in both Canada and Australia before returning to England several years ago. She has worked as a freelance writer for the past ten years, runs her own blog and has contributed guest posts to others, including the Bloomsbury Writers & Artists site.
When she’s not writing, she likes to walk, paint and study karate. She loves the idea of finding magic in ordinary places; as a child she and her grandmother used to visit the woods on Midsummer’s eve to look for fairies – whether they found any or not, is a story for another time.
She now lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and daughter, and spends her days writing, cleaning, thinking, and counting cats on the way to school.
A Thousand Rooms can be found here: myBook.to/AThousandRooms
And you can follow Helen on her blog, Amazon page or Facebook page: