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Finding Writing Inspiration on Holiday: Advice from Alison Moore

12th Sep 2016

alison-moore-death-and-the-seaside
Image: Al Brydon
I’m often asked where I get the inspiration for my novels. There is invariably more than one source: my first novel, The Lighthouse, began with a scene that popped into my head, but I also took inspiration from a trip I’d made some years earlier. In fact, I’ve noticed that, with each of my novels, a holiday has played a crucial role in the story’s origination...

1. The Lighthouse and keeping a diary

In 2007, I went on a walking holiday in Germany with my husband. I kept a diary – of the ferry journey and of the walk itself – not because I was planning on writing about it but to help me remember the details of our trip.

Some years later, this scene arrived in my head: a man was sitting in the kitchen of a woman with whom he had lost touch, and his shoes were hurting him. The man’s compulsion to return to this woman he had known, made me think of that circular walking holiday, so I put this man on the ferry and sent him off to Germany.

Having had the experience myself helped me to visualise his journey, and the diary I’d kept proved invaluable, helping me with this kind of detail in the book:

‘His route takes him across cornfields and then into forest. It is late August, almost autumn, harvest time, but for now the leaves are still green and there are blackberries on the bushes. The undergrowth is busy with mice and lizards and the air is full of darting insects nipping at him.’

That walking holiday was essentially research done in advance.

2. He Wants and holiday versus home

I was finalising The Lighthouse and ready to start thinking about a second novel when, in the summer of 2011, we went on a family holiday to Dorset.

We stayed on a farm, without television or radio or newspapers. We saw the farmer’s wife on arrival, and passed the occasional person when we were out walking, but other than that we were in this secluded bubble; meanwhile, rioting was breaking out in cities across England, including close to home in Nottingham.

This sense of peaceful seclusion juxtaposed with action and upheaval, led me to the dynamic in He Wants, in which Lewis and his wife have been on a quiet holiday similar to ours:

‘He becomes anxious if he does not see the news for a while; he wonders what he is missing… Arriving home, they discovered that there had been riots up and down the country, starting in London and spreading like a forest fire to the Midlands and then to the north. On hearing the news, Lewis felt a flush of excitement, and at the same time a touch of disappointment at not having realised it was happening until it was already over.’

The experience informed the core of the story, in which Lewis’s peaceful retirement is disrupted by Sydney, an old friend and ex-convict whom Lewis finds sitting at his kitchen table.

3. Death and the Seaside and looking for a story

My new novel, Death and the Seaside, deals with suggestibility and manipulation, themes I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, but the actual story was inspired by a weekend in Devon.

In autumn 2014, I was trying to come up with a short, dark story for Nightjar Press. Visiting Seaton with my family, I found that I was looking at this seaside town in a certain way, trying to draw a story out of this setting.

I took some photos of the pub, the Hook and Parrot, thinking that ‘the Hook’ had potential, as a place that might draw a character and a story to it in some way; and of the ‘NO…’ and ‘PLEASE DON’T…’ signs, which turn out to be meaningful in the story I then wrote, in which a character crosses a line.

When that short story, The Harvestman, was accepted for publication , I was working on my third novel, Death and the Seaside, which makes use of the same seaside world and even incorporates elements of that short story.

Once I know what my story is, it’s often necessary to make a further research trip. Between drafts of The Lighthouse, we went on another ferry and I made notes about the departure sequence (the raising of the ramp, the untying of the mooring ropes), about the storm and seasickness we experienced, the details of the car deck and hazard warnings.

Halfway through writing Death and the Seaside, we went back to Seaton for a week so that I could take more notes and photos. It might be vital research, but it’s also a great excuse for an extra holiday.

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Alison Moore’s first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (New Writer of the Year), winning the McKitterick Prize. Both The Lighthouse and her second novel, He Wants, were Observer Books of the Year.

Her short fiction has been included in Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror anthologies, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra and collected in The Pre-War House and Other Stories. Born in Manchester in 1971, she lives near Nottingham with her husband Dan and son Arthur.

Her latest novel, Death and the Seaside, is available now from Salt Publishing.