Cornish Reading Challenge: Writing in secret places with Jane Johnson

Jane Johnson is from Cornwall and has worked in the book industry for over 30 years, as a bookseller, publisher and writer. She was responsible for publishing the works of J. R. R. Tolkien during the 1980s and 1990s and worked on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, spending many months in New Zealand with cast and crew. You can read about her Cornish roots here.

If you’re a budding writer – or even an established one – I have some revolutionary advice for you: ditch the laptop, escape the internet, grab a notebook and get outside!

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These days we spend so much time inhabiting virtual space, plugged into smartphones, forever connected, always online. Emails are coming at us left, right and centre; Facebook and Twitter notifications, breaking news flashes. Every writer I know finds themselves getting distracted when they go online – you mean to check a bit of research, remind yourself of the date of a battle, or the name of a fifteenth century fabric, and before you know it you’ve got sucked into a political debate, commiserated with a ‘friend’ you’ve never met about their relationship problems, and bought a dress on eBay you’ll never wear. (And probably forgotten the reason you went online in the first place. There’s even a new scientific name for our inability to fully concentrate on the task at hand: “continuous partial attention”.) Worse: you’ve wasted an hour and a half of precious writing time. Of course, you can impose some self-discipline, stay in and go offline: but there’s more to writing outside than simply the avoidance of distractions.

I am lucky to live in places where getting outside and finding quiet spots in which to write is easy. In Morocco, there’s the roof terrace, or the granite plateau ten minutes’ walk from the house. Great chunks of THE TENTH GIFT, THE SALT ROAD, and THE SULTAN’S WIFE were written in a collection of notebooks under the North African sun.

writing on roof terrace

In Cornwall, I have a number of secret, and not-so-secret, writing spots in the great outdoors. You’ll often find me in summer sheltering under a big hat on one of the many benches around Mousehole’s harbour, moving from one to another as the sun heads west, always ending up on the South Quay. I get some funny looks from tourists, and the occasional question – which I don’t mind at all – but the locals have got used to seeing me out there: sometimes in jumpers and windproof coats when the weather is not so clement.


When I’m in the throes of a novel I can write pretty much anywhere – I’ve written on trains, at airports, in parks and libraries, in wildlife reserves and friends’ gardens. But sometimes you need to wrestle with your work, to be energised and inspired. And that’s where going into the great outdoors can help.

First of all there’s the exercise – however minimal – that gets you out there to your chosen writing spot: that gets the blood pumping and oxygen flowing around your system and into your brain. You feel more alert outdoors, more alive. You’re out in the weather, under the sun and the sky, much as your characters will be unless your novel takes place exclusively in drawing rooms and parlours.

And then there’s the sense of space, which enables the imagination to flow, to break the bonds of your skull and your study. I like to write in wide open places – on plains, on cliffs, beside the sea, and I’m sure that’s because it feels, to me, less oppressive than in places crammed with people and the things they have constructed – cars, buildings, roads. It’s liberating, and it’s a big empty canvas on which to paint the pictures in your head. But if a park or garden is big enough it can be equally conducive: I wrote great chunks of COURT OF LIONS in the gardens of the Alhambra. Writing in the place where much of the novel is set felt very good: both authentic and inspiring.


I will sometimes walk for half an hour or more to get to a good writing spot: the further away the better – sometimes it’s the only exercise I can fit in to a busy life in which writing is squeezed between a demanding job (I work 4 days a week , remotely, as publishing director for a big London publisher, 4 days that often spill over into 5 or 6 if I have a big edit on my hands), and the usual chores of running a house. Walking is a useful tool for writers, too: it’s a lovely empty space in which there are no other demands on you: you’re just getting from A to B (I think the other reason I find writing in transit – on trains and planes and in station cafes, and airports – so amenable). And there are a lot of writers who will attest to the fact that you can tease out plot problems as you walk, so by the time you get where you’re going, there are a ton of words waiting to spill out.


I often walk out of our house and up along the coast path between Mousehole and Lamorna, and find congenial places as close to the sea as I can possibly get. Scramble down animal tracks that part the bracken and brambles, through tangles of summer wildflowers – mallow and thrift, kidney vetch and columbines – and down onto the granite wave-cut platform, above the barnacle line. Find a comfortable niche and sit back, face tilted to the sun, eyes closed. There’s something about the shooshing of the waves that calms me, sends me into almost a meditative state, perfect for wakeful-dreaming, or writing. There’s a theory that you can gentle your brain into producing theta waves – the state in which your brain produces the vivid dreams you get during REM sleep. Whether that’s at work when I’m writing beside the sea, I don’t know, but I do find I do some of my best work in such places.

On top of all this it would be remiss of me not to mention that my typing is really, really terrible. Even after 20+ books and many million words, I can still type only with two fingers: and even then I make loads of errors. So writing longhand is a welcome liberation from the keyboard and my own ineptitude, and I find that typing up the handwritten version is a perfect way to clean up the draft, sharpen the writing, check facts.

An added bonus to working outdoors like this is that not only will you have some tangible evidence of all your hard work (as opposed to only digital files): you will also, with luck, have spent time in wild and beautiful places, and will feel fitter, more connected to the natural world; more alive.



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