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Discovering The Tibetan Cherry

Researching in the back yard

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I don’t travel easily as I suffer from migraines. And one thing I learned from doing a PhD was that I hate research. I like anecdotes. My father told great anecdotes about an Anglo-Irish/Russian aristocrat who lived near the Galway pub where he grew up. Her story would make a great novel, I thought, because it comes from great anecdotes.

Soon, my pen was travelling from the West of Ireland to Russia and back again, via WW1, the Irish War of Independence and the Russian Revolution, none of which I knew anything about. I say my pen was ‘travelling’ but, in truth, it was limping between plot points. My principal experience of writing had been in theatre. Dialogue and character came easily: descriptive prose did not.

The redoubtable writing group, of which I am a member, were underwhelmed. They couldn’t see the world I was trying to create. So, I wrote…and wrote. Eventually my book was 150,000 words long. But of course, they must be the right words. Despite my copious word count, the world of my story still evaded the page. I remembered what my PhD supervisor had said about the first (disastrous) draft of my thesis, ‘Helen, It’s too long…and at the same time, too short.’ Somehow, I’d done it again. My novel was both too long and too short.

It is said that your greatest strength can be your biggest flaw. I’m a ‘completer-finisher’: I was too far into this journey to turn back now. I went back to the ‘drawing board’. I’d studied life-drawing at FE College in my teens for A Level Art. I realise now that we’d been taught to look, to see. I was a walker long before lockdown. (I don’t own a car and feel vulnerable on a bike). I began to seek out things on my walks that I could describe in my book. It took a bit of googling too. Could this tree actually thrive in a snow-bound ‘oblast’ of Russia? Was that species of bird one that frequented the West Coast of Ireland in late winter?

I looked at objects as I had when I’d drawn them all those years ago. When I had to describe something for my book, I tried to find an object that closely resembled the thing I was writing about. I’d look and write, look and write, look and write… If I couldn’t find the physical thing I was trying to describe, I went online. Pinterest was great for outfits and images from the period. Online searches dug up antique items on sale. I’d squint carefully at the pictures and write down what I saw as accurately as I could. My favourite ‘offline’ source was a coffee table book of black and white photographs from the period.

All this was not enough. My writing group now insisted that I didn’t evoke interior worlds sufficiently. The interface between my characters and their environment was somehow missing. In response to that criticism, I began to touch the objects that I found. When I went on my walks I listened; closed my eyes and felt the sun, the rain, the breeze on my face. I described the sensations in my body that were provoked by my surroundings.

Within half a mile of my house in Birmingham, there are multiple settings for my story (none of which takes place in England). I live near to two great parks. One is home to a horticultural college, and the other comprises a grade II listed house and gardens. I can trace many descriptions and locations from my book back to these spaces. A path lined with sixteen linden trees became a seemingly unending avenue, leading towards a Russian mansion. Joseph Chamberlain’s prized rhododendron collection echoed my Victorian Anglo-Irish aristocrats’ gardening tastes. In the corner of the nearest park, my eye was caught by the unusual, silvery-red sheen beneath the peeling bark of a cherry tree. Some basic research revealed it to be a Tibetan cherry. I compared its smooth, satin feel to that of silk in my story.

There are also fragments of the world I’ve described that literally came from my own back yard. In the book, the woody fuchsia in my garden is a firmament of red stars, gazed upon by dreaming girls, trapped in rural domestic service. A tiny wren’s nest, wedged beside the drainpipe by my kitchen window, was where I heard the frenetic alarm call of a terrified mother wren that would signal danger in my first chapter.

If my book ever makes it into print, I could run a Bloomsday-style tour. We’d start in a Victorian pub, at the bar hatch where a long-lost character reappears, as if framed in a picture. We’d end up at my house, where the actual picture exists. The print is a family heirloom that I thought naff, until the girl pictured in it appeared in my story. It’s tucked behind my filing cabinet. I suppose I’d tug that out too. I’m starting to wonder how much I’d charge…

I’ve realised my attitude to travel and research is changing, a little. I once saw a film in which the actor Spalding Gray performs a self-written ‘to camera’ monologue. He’d had a small part in the film The Killing Fields and afterwards wrote his piece called Swimming to Cambodia (directed by Jonathan Demme). In it, he explores his passion for experiencing new places. He describes his approach to travel as consisting of a long journey to a far-flung place. The object of travel, for him, is to arrive somewhere and encounter a perfect moment. As soon as that moment happens, he comes back. Sounds like a lot of effort to me. I haven’t seen the film for a long time, but from what I remember, his journeys always involved travel abroad. The monologue was filmed in the 1980s. I wonder if he still takes as many flights.

There are some signs that my health problems are, slowly, beginning to resolve themselves, and I’m now writing something set close to home. I’m looking forward to getting out into the ‘field’ (by which I mean the city); feeling the flow of imagery; the sounds, textures; the wheels of the bus, the tram, the train beneath me. My new piece touches upon a Midlands news story from years ago. I may even find myself looking at old newspapers in dusty library collections or local paper archives (if such things still exist). I’m up for travel and research now — if I don’t have to go too far.

But enough about me. How are you? Finding it difficult to enter a literary world, of your own making, or someone else’s; feeling like life is elsewhere and in need of a soul-nourishing adventure? What if you didn’t have to get on a plane, or into a car, to go somewhere? What if you just went up the road, or even took a tour around your own body, using all your senses. Put down the Sunday supplement travel section. Move away from the cheap flights website. I’m Dr Helen Kelly and I prescribe a walk around the neighbourhood, starting with your own back yard. Perhaps (like Spalding Gray but without the travel) you could find your own perfect moment and come back changed: a zero-carbon adventure.

Helen has written theatre for casts of one and casts of sixty. She is currently completing a novel spanning the Irish War of Independence and the Russian Revolution. She is a member of BOLDtext Playwrights and Tindal Street Fiction Group.

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