The insatiable desire to peer through windows …

Over the past five years, I’ve come to pride myself on my instinct about fiction writers. I can’t tell who’s going to be a best seller or a dud, but what I can tell, with a reasonable degree of certainty, is which writers will be around in a year or two’s time, and which will already have given up. In other words, I can spot those who will have a long writing life and those who will be a brief, brilliant flash in the pan.

And the key determinant is watching other writers when something interesting happens: if you’re sitting in a pub or a café and a fight starts in the street outside, or wandering along the seafront and pass a particularly well or badly dressed person, or see a mother trying to cope with a child having a tantrum … Writers with staying power tend to lose the thread of the conversation. Their eyes and ears turn to whatever is happening and they focus intensely on the drama in front of them.

When they finally return to ‘reality’ it’s almost always with some thoughts on what they’ve seen, and it’s not usually a straightforward comment like, ‘Did you see that?’ but a much more tangential approach such as, ‘I wonder why she chose that hat’ or ‘Do you think he’s really angry, or is he playing to the audience?’ In other words, they are already shaping narrative out of an unexpected incident and this ability to absorb, transform and re-present the quotidian as fiction is a key marker of a long writing career. For those who aren’t endlessly fascinated by (okay, nosy about) the world around them, the only route to fiction is to plumb their internal resources, and sooner or later, unless they’ve led a particularly fascinating life, they will begin to bore themselves, or bore their readers.

And what have windows got to do with it? Well, my husband points out that whenever I go on a long journey by train, I take my camera and come back with loads of pictures. The first two or three will be glorious scenery: the Kendal countryside or Highland lochs, but after that all the pictures will be blurry images of peoples’ back windows as seen from the train.

“What’s this supposed to be?” He’ll point at a blurred, beige image.

“Oh, that was a woman who was ironing a shirt and talking on her mobile at the same time. I couldn’t help wondering if she was flirting with her lover while pressing her husband’s clothes.”

“And this?”

“A child’s bedroom, with no child in it. The curtains were open and the light was on, but the bed was neatly made. Don’t you think that’s odd, at ten o’clock at night? Perhaps there is no child to come back, perhaps it ran away and the parents have kept the room just as it was …”

And that’s one of my particular addictions, making stories out of what I see from train or bus windows. Glimpses of other people’s lives are endlessly fascinating and feed my desire to write – in fact, if I ever get stuck, I get on the bus and simply sit on the top deck with my moleskine, noting down all the things that interest me. One round trip to somewhere remote can provide a dozen stories, for less than the cost of a cup of good coffee …

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