For me, place is as important as character and story in the planning stages of a novel. In fact, it can often be the starting point. This is certainly the case with my latest (and fifth) book, Her Husband’s Lover.
Two years ago this January, I was travelling up to Harrogate from Cambridge on a stupidly slow train that ambled up through the Fens. The skies were endless, the long horizon broken only by the looming skeletons of dead thistles.
I love train journeys – I see the carriage as a writing-pod with an ever changing landscape to draw on when it’s time to sip coffee and do a bit of gazing. It was in one of those moments that I saw a solitary house rising like an island from an icy grey, empty field. In an upstairs window, one light broke the gloom. It was, from my reckoning, miles from any other building.
Since I left my parents’ home, I have always lived in cities. The idea of inhabiting such a featureless landscape, so removed from other humans, is alien to me. I put down my Costa cup, stopped what I was working on and wrote a sketch about a heavily pregnant woman sitting looking out of that lit window, waiting for her husband to return from work in his too-fast car. The land is so flat she can see his progress for miles.
This became a situation Louisa, one of the protagonists of Her Husband’s Lover, finds herself in. Her character grew from it.
As I was developing the story, I explored the area around the house in Google Maps and found Roswell Pits – a series of disused, flooded clay pits on the outskirts of Ely. This seemed to be an ideal setting for the horrific car crash at the beginning of the novel. The Roswell Pits website: http://www.wildlifebcn.org/reserves/roswell-pits even starts with the following notice: Due to safety concerns, part of this Nature Reserve has now been closed to the public.
I wasn’t entirely sure, though, so last year, when I was driving up to appear at Slaughter in Southwold, I took a diversion to Ely to stretch my legs and scout around a bit. To my great joy, Roswell Pits couldn’t have been more perfect. Reflecting the massive sky, the water appeared so vast that it gave me a tilting feeling, something like vertigo,
Standing there, I could see the entire first scene play out. I even found the tree Louisa’s little white Fiesta is forced into by her husband’s big, red Porsche. Behind it, in the distance, Ely cathedral pierces the clouds.
Whilst the Fenland scenes grew from a chance encounter, the other two main settings in the novel are taken from places I know well. The apartment Louisa moves into is an upmarket version of the ninth floor flat where my two adult kids live in Elephant and Castle in central London. It’s in a converted 1960s office block where the fact that you are living cheek by jowl with 360-odd other households affords a strange blend of neighbourly anonymity/familiarity. This, and the changing environment around the building – Elephant is being developed and gentrified to within an inch of its former life – were important considerations when developing the themes of the novel.
The other setting, where Sophie (the eponymous husband’s lover) lives in Cambridge, is based in the rather glorious house of a boyfriend I had when I was fifteen – although, for the purposes of the novel, I’ve converted it into flats. I used this house because I wanted to take my teenage sense of it being glamorous and exciting, and give it to Sophie, because that would increase Louisa’s sense of injustice.
I’m always stealing friends’ houses for my fiction. So, if you’re thinking of inviting me round, do proceed with caution. But then again, you might not need to worry: I’m just as likely to be waylaid on the journey to your place by somewhere just a little more sinister…
Her Husband’s Lover is out in Trade Paperback on 26 Jan 2017
‘Psychological thrillers don’t come much better than this’