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Writing London: Romance and Sarcasm in the City

I am a proper Londoner. I don’t make eye contact with people, march through crowds of tourists like it’s a Mario Kart race course, and whilst I will get up on the tube to let someone have my seat, I’ll do some with a terrible English awkwardness, in fear of the older/pregnant person being offended.

 

London is home, and it’s been home for all my novels. There’s nothing quite like the conversations you have on the nightbus, rambling along listening to drunk teenagers talk to tourists, everyone so drunkenly sincere. I love 2am kebab shops, and shabby chic coffee shops where everything is overpriced, but you pay because the environment is so lovely.

 

I love Hampstead Heath on sunny mornings, and the shops in Highgate village. I love the nostalgia of passed out punks in Camden market on Sunday mornings, and having lazy conversations on Primrose Hill as it starts to get dark.

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People set romcoms in London for a reason, but it’s usually peppered with shots of Big Ben and the London Eye, people all somehow affording to live in these flats in the centre of town. It’s the same with New York. People love a city, they love the possibility it affords: today you might meet someone who changes your life. That’s not really how it happens in the countryside, unless an alluring new stranger comes to town.

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But that’s not why I write about London. Sure, I love the prettiness of it, chic fashion and historic architecture, but my characters love London like I do- because it’s home. They don’t talk about wandering down to the Millenium wheel, because that’s not what Londoners do. My characters visit the places that I have been, the little secrets of the city that I’ve made my favourites. In The Last Word, Tabby and Rhi live in Tufnell Park, because that’s what I’d love to do. They alternate between snazzy cocktail bars in Covent Garden, and backstreet old man pubs that just appear out of nowhere, hidden away and perfect in their dim light and beer-drizzled carpets. The Type offices are set just off Regent Street, in the offices where I interned for Vogue. 

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London is this massive sprawling living thing, beating and breathing, and I hope that my books will always give a little of the ‘real’ London, the London of Londoners. At least until I can find an excuse to set a book in Italy, and then I’ll see you later, London!

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Motifs of Life: Writing your own story

If you’ve studied English Literature, you’ll find motifs came up quite often. It’s a musical term, meaning a small repeated collection of notes/image. The more I write, the more I start to notice these little motifs and symbols reoccurring in my own life and my own writing. 

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It’s subtle, but you’ll start to notice the same images popping up- for a while, I kept using trees. Trees grow tall and strong, and up into the clouds, so they symbolise freedom, but they’re also rooted and heavy, so they’re grounded. The more I wrote, the more I found trees came to symbolise a whole bunch of things that I felt.

It might not even be a symbol, but a certain phrase that reappears. This phrase becomes a mantra, and the minute you recognise it from your other work, realise that it’s a repetition, it opens up doors for you.

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Writers often talk about the themes that interest them, or what they like to write about. But what about what they end up writing about, when they’re not setting out to do so? That unconscious leaning is what fascinates me, and what can give us an insight into how we’re feeling.

 

A few months ago, I kept writing about apples. Apples are seedlings, they symbolise growth, spring, Englishness. You can link them to the Garden of Eden myth, conveying innocence. I was writing about apples in response to children, to having children, to problems with childbirth, to the possibility of never having children, to responding to family members who ask these questions lightly. Are apples the best literary symbol for any of these things? No, probably not. But they became my personal marker. Every time I found an apple symbol creeping into my work, I could think ‘Ah, so I’m thinking about that again. Why is that bugging me today?’ and I could get to the root of what was worrying me. Often it’s just something that needs to be expressed, but if you’re being haunted by an image, and you don’t know why, then it has power over you, instead of you using it in a powerful healing way.

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There are no particular writing exercises for this- it’s just about being aware of the space that you’re writing from, and what it means for you. Have a look back through some of your old journals/stories/poems, and see if a particular time or event created a motif for your life at that time. It’s always fascinating, and can be useful.