Some authors sit down to write and the physical act of typing or holding a pen causes ideas to flow, whereas others can find themselves staring at a blank page for hours and have to take themselves outside or do an activity, like walking or running, to unscramble the words racing through their mind. Some people stop reading books during this process, while others read everything from newspaper articles to poetry. Many participate in writing exercises to find inspiration.
I do a combination of all of the above (except I’ll always read) but I’ve noticed that my strongest story seeds grow when I’m travelling on buses or trains.
My stories are mainly set in India and Tibet. I grew up between the UK and Dharamshala in India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. Travelling around India, public transport often lasts over eight hours. There’s nothing better than being tucked into a corner of a train, knees up or legs crossed, and armed with a notebook. Sometimes, the passing view outside or the events around me are enough to spark stories.
Once a woman boarded a bus in Haridwar, arms full with a basket of dripping wet, washed clothes. She took the seat in front of me. Over the next few hours, as we sped along the highway towards Delhi, she waved each garment individually out of the open window next to her to dry them in the breeze. By the time we arrived, I had a complete fictional narrative in my head stemming from why she needed to dry her clothes so urgently. This is one of the things I’ve learnt about writing fictional stories – you have to ask questions about your characters’ motivations: why are they doing this and what will they do next?
There’s something magical too about writing a place as you’re surrounded by it. I’ve learnt the hard way that it’s all too easy to forget the little details, the tastes, sounds and smells of a setting, when you’re far away from it. Now each idea gets its own notebook filled with photos, notes, maps, clippings and tickets from its setting.
Perhaps I find writing on public transport inspiring because in a world where we’re surrounded by the buzz of social media distractions, epic to-do lists, and long working days, it offers the freedom to think and be present without the pressure of sitting at a desk and having to come up with an idea; your only goal is to reach the destination. In India, this often happens several Bollywood movies and a midnight dinner stop later.
Jess spent her childhood between the UK and India, and grew up hearing stories about the Himalayas from her grandmother. She completed an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University.
Running on the Roof of the World will be published in June 2017. For readers 9+: a richly atmospheric story of survival and hope set in Tibet and India, filled with friendship, love and courage.