Guest Post: Lockdown or On Location – What’s your ideal Writer’s Retreat? by Matthew Lightfoot
What’s your perfect environment for writing? Do you prefer to lock yourself away in a silent room, away from any distractions, in order to focus fully and immerse yourself in the story? Or do you prefer some external stimulation? Does noise, colour and movement stimulate your senses and creativity?
It wasn’t a question I’d really considered until I completed my second book, Snapshots, in February 2021. I began the writing process in April 2020 and the entire time period I spent writing the book coincided with Covid lockdown. The contrast with the production of my first book, The Two Week Traveller, couldn’t have been more pronounced, as that was written on the road, during a round-the-world trip.
Whereas Snapshots was produced almost wholly sat at a desk in my home office, enjoying the same view from my window every day, Two Week Traveller was tapped out on a laptop while sheltering from a storm in a New Zealand campervan; rattling around in a bunk on a Thai night train; bumping along an Andean Mountain road in a rickety chicken bus; or laying on the sand of a secluded Fijian beach.
Travel writing requires the author to take the reader on a virtual journey to the location described. To do that successfully, he must conjure up mental imagery which describes the smells, sounds and sights of far-flung sites around the world. To paint pictures of the people and places in the story, to transform mere words into imagined experiences. I found that a whole lot easier when I was immersed in a foreign culture myself, than when I was gazing out upon a cold winter’s day in England, almost a year into an international travel ban.
But my travel wings were well and truly clipped, and instead of grabbing spare minutes where I could in order to write while travelling, I was faced with endless, repetitive days of the same scenery, and at times, was even restricted to exercise within a defined radius of my home. I was forced to draw upon my reserves of determination to switch on the laptop each morning, to cast my mind back and revisit adventures of years past. That was painful. Unable to travel freely and unaware of when it would be possible to indulge my passion again was tough, and recalling those now distant memories made it even harder.
I was faced with a decision. Either I postpone writing Snapshots until I could once again hit the road and stimulate my creativity by visiting some distant lands. Or I buckle down, make best use of the resources available to me, and crack on. With no end in sight to the Covid pandemic, as a three-month lockdown extended across various levels of restrictions to a full year, I felt I had to adopt the latter strategy.
Snapshots, as its name suggests, draws on travel memories from a series of old holiday snaps. I, therefore, had the visual assistance I needed to remember places and times, people and buildings. Sitting in my apartment in the North of England, I was unable to recreate the hubbub of the streets of the developing world, the silence of the mountains or the wildlife chatter of the forest canopy. What I did have at my disposal though was my collection of world music, sourced from market stalls around the planet. After switching my laptop on, my first task of the day was to select an appropriate playlist for the chapter I was working on, and my days were filled with the sounds of the West African kora, the Ganun Zither of Zanzibar and the drunken horn sections of a myriad of Son Cubano bands. Days of endless rain, driving snow and early darkness were enlivened by the musical accompaniment to my writing. As Spring turned to Summer and I was finally able to take my laptop outdoors, I made sure my phone was uploaded with the relevant sounds to deliver an appropriate soundtrack to my work.
It seemed to take a lot longer this time around, but maybe that’s because time in lockdown has often seemed to stand still, with every day very much the same as the last. Eventually, though, the book was finished, just as light begins to appear at the end of a long tunnel, and we anticipate release from lockdown in the UK.
I’ve learnt a lot over the last year and I hope that my next book can once again be written in uncomfortable, snatched moments in a distant land, with sensory stimulation all around. If not though, I’ve learnt that it’s still possible to get creative wherever you are, if you set the scene and atmosphere for the book you’re writing. So if you’re writing a travel book, dig out some old photos, play some local tunes, cook some authentic street food. Dim the lights and light the candles for romantic fiction. Maybe adopt period dress for a historic book, and if you’re writing horror, wrap up warm, pluck up your courage and take your laptop for a writing shift in the local graveyard at midnight!
What are your shortcuts to creativity? Let me know the secret tips you employ to stay focused and productive when writing….