The more I write, the more surprised I am by the places that it takes me. It happens quite without guile or planning. I am conjuring a setting and suddenly I am thrown back into the memory of walking down a particularly grotty alleyway on my route to work. It always featured a half-drunken Nurishment can and fragments of a brown glass bottle. Blossoming buddleia pushed its way through the cracks between the bricks. The pathway is stained and concrete.
It amazes me that seeking a location for a scene, my brain instinctively reaches out for this place. I return and I return to this alleyway as I write. It is bleak, yet interesting. It is grey, yet colourful in noise and the traffic, which steams past me. It is exactly the place where my characters must live and I see them walking down it or it morphing into something more extravagant for them, as required. It is now both the same alleyway which I knew and somewhere new to discover. I do not need to physically go to this space; to revisit the feeling of it is more than enough.
My debut, ‘Boy in the Tower,’ was the story that, whether it wanted to be or not, was set around this alleyway. Other places that I experienced, a flat in one of the towerblocks, the school that I taught at, came into play but I surprised myself how much I returned to that particularly pungent alleyway. Things got wild and woolly for that patch of concrete (in the form of brick-eating, alien plants, of course) but the connection to the place, for me, held it together.
My second book took me off into the highlands of Scotland, something that myself and my editor had their concerns about, after the very familiar, urban setting of my first book. However a four-year-old holiday to outside of Dufftown, Moray, spun its darkly green webs and the landscape built up around me from a very precise memory of looking out at the hills from a car window and one of picking berries off an old, craggy tree outside of a distillery.
I find this ‘anchoring’ to a place, the memory of a place, the feeling of a place, something that returns to me each time I write. It might not be where I expected to arrive but I trust in my subconscious to take me in the right direction and I find that my stories seem to breath and live in these remembered spaces and have the ability to expand them.
Today, I have walked up and down the front garden path to my parents’ house but with an imaginary friend in tow who swung around the branches of the cherry tree that grows there. Yesterday, I revisited a road I used to pass through on my bicycle that has become the home of my character as well as the secret entrance for another world.
It reminds me that writing is about living, something that when you spend much of your day typing on a laptop in a quiet room is worth remembering. Each experience you have, even walking down the most miserable-looking alleyway, will fuel your writing.
Just be prepared not to know where you are going.
Polly Ho-Yen was born in Northampton and brought up in Buckinghamshire. She worked in publishing for several years before becoming a primary school teacher. Somewhere in between five o'clock in the morning and sitting down in front of a classroom of five-year-olds, her debut novel Boy in the Tower was written. Boy in the Tower was published in July 2014 by Random House Children's Publishers. She lives on a boat, mostly in London, with her husband and a great many (free-range) spiders. Find out more about Polly on her website and follow her on Twitter here.