Tonight as I sit at my writing table, a lopsided moon hangs over the choppy waters of Greenland Dock, the wind pelts at the window and I only have about twenty-odd pages left to wrap up my third, yet-to-be-named science novel. It’s the eighth and final day of a designated writing holiday that started, appropriately enough, within sight of one of the points of interest in the story:
Squalls over Sheerness The Isle of Sheppey, as seen from the beach at Seasalter
Sheppey was originally chosen for narrative convenience: I wanted to set some of the action in Estuary Kent, and the infectious disease plot required an island. But on various research trips to this remote and desolate locale, I became captivated by its brooding atmosphere. The names alone are evocative; for example, the body of water that separates the island from the mainland is called The Swale, and the acres of mudflats between are known as The Oaze. The marshlands on either side of the Swale are full of rippling grasses, semi-wild horses and skylarks tearing overhead like an aerial bombardment.
After rocking up muddy and exhausted at the Marine Hotel in Whitstable with a heavy pack on my back, feeling rather like Harriet Vane in Have His Carcase, I spent a few days swimming in bracing cold high tides and typing busily in my room. After returning to London, I spent long days and nights at this table. It’s been slow going now because I have dozens of threads that need to be tied together; as most authors know, writing is the easy bit and it is the detailed plotting that takes up most of the time. Nevertheless I am very happy with the 21,000 words I’ve managed to get down.
When I wrote my second novel, I was on the dole in Amsterdam. Life then took on a very strange cadence; I would write for twelve hours a day and the rest of the time, wander around in an almost semi-permanent daze, a state of mind that felt more like convalescence than anything else. The biotech company in Leiden where I’d been happily employed had gone bust and none of my interviews for academic positions were going anywhere. Surviving on a generous government handout and sporadic freelance journalism, I had no idea where and when my career would restart, or even what profession that would entail.
And so I wrote, and I walked. I used to pace a houseboat-lined rectangular stretch of the Amstel near my house: across the Stadhouderskade Bridge, down the Weesperzijde, back across the Berlagebrug and home along the Amsteldijke. Sometimes I’d frequent cafés and obsess over plotting: Kapitein Zeppos, de Jaren, Zotte, Café Sarphaat, De Ysbreker. This week, I found myself falling into those same solitary patterns when I needed a break in reality: I strolled along the Rotherhithe Thames or though the meadows and woodlands of Russia Dock, witnessing the precise moment (I believe) that summer morphed into autumn. I can report that the blackberries are withering on the wine, the sloes are ripening, the cow parsley blooms have curled into perfect, violet-tipped green cages and the rose hips have swelled to the size of plums.
Tomorrow I’m back in the lab, but at this moment, it doesn’t quite seem real.