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Train travel and the writer

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I come from a family of train enthusiasts. My dad spent the weekends of his childhood on platforms, scribbling engine numbers and dates into notebooks. My sister, a commuter, races to sit at the front of the automated Docklands Light Railway service, to make believe, at the age of thirty-one, that she’s the driver. A good day out for both involves a restored steam engine.

My love of trains is bound up with a love of books and, from the earliest journeys I remember, the two have gone together. Annual Christmas trips from Cornwall to London to visit my mum’s family meant five glorious hours on an Intercity, which meant five hours reading all the library books I’d crammed into a bag that should have held more clothes than novels. Delays were welcome. I only looked up from the page when sandwiches made an appearance.

These days, my train journeys have shifted gear; I travel light, e-reader in hand, and buy my own ticket. My sandwiches are sushi rolls from M&S. There are other, deeper changes, too: I write books on trains, rather than reading other people’s.

It’s often said that a crucial part of writing time is ‘staring out the window’ time, and what better window than that of a moving train? Panoramas slide by in a constantly updating field of inspiration. Thoughts drift, allowed to wander and make connections they might not when the blank page waits. Daydreaming — is that what trains offer writers?

For me, travelling by train is a chance for something much more tangible: pen in hand, notebook open, words on the page. I get a lot of stuff written on the train. For poems, this can be central images, development of narrative, whole lines. For fiction, scenes find their logic and scraps of conversation appear. Words come, and so does certainty: I find that trains grant a kind of confidence. Perhaps it’s the time they offer. I’ve begun to think of the carriage as a moving cell of contemplation and resulting action. I might stay in my seat, unmoving, for several hours, most of the day, even, and this forces me to spend time with ideas and language. Forces me to concentrate, and so commit. Forces me to risk thinking something through, then find it doesn’t work in the way I want it to. I try again — a different angle. I keep at it, and that takes courage, which trains give. I haven’t moved physically and yet the train has moved me somewhere else, from A to B, from flash of idea to words on the page.

This is achieved by a peculiar rhythm, the train’s own song. I think of ‘Night Mail’ here, the 1936 film about the Post Office’s mail train in which W. H. Auden’s script matched the clatter of the train so expertly. Though modern trains have a smoother, quieter motion than the steam train Auden wrote about, I have wondered if it’s the echo of that metronome that transports me into a rich creative space, the train’s forward and back, its chunt’ring along, its clickety clack. But there’s another kind of rhythm that’s more important for my work: the rhythm of arrival and departure, the seat beside me emptying and filling again.

The layout of the carriage helps me get the most from this carnival of strangers, because within its perimeters are a series of self-contained sub-spaces: the twin seats walled in by the pair in front and the window to the side, the table for four, even the luggage racks used for seats on over-crowded trains. These spaces, I’ve found, can be akin to the confessional, but I’m not the penitent. I’m the priest.

I don’t know the elderly man who gets on at Birmingham New Street and takes the seat next to me. We might have nothing in common apart from the fact we’re both passengers on the same train, but as such we’re united by delays, the price of tickets, annoyance over the loud woman on a mobile. This connection invites temporary intimacy, and it doesn’t take much to set stories loose. Just a willingness to listen.

He tells me he’s just had dinner with his niece so he’ll not have the Custard Cream I’m offering, but thanks. He’s on his way home to Newtown, where a neighbour is meeting him off the train to see him home safe. His wife passed away the year before. People have been so kind, he says.

The transience of such encounters makes people bold. The man heading home to Newtown and I will likely never meet again. We’ll each reach our destinations and part ways. We share something on the train and then return to our lives, each changed in some small way. Or not so small, perhaps. In Strangers on a Train, the novelist Patricia Highsmith shows how such encounters can lead to interconnected journeys with dark destinations. Two men – the ‘strangers’ of the title – each agree to murder someone for the other. It’s the perfect crime, they believe, because their relationship won’t be traceable; the train in which they make their pact is but a temporary meeting place. Things soon become more complicated, of course.

I try to avoid making murderous bargains with my fellow travellers. Instead, I let conversation meander, learn of small victories, fears, the reverberations of loss. I listen. I let language and narrative fill the luggage racks. I have written poems about the conversations I’ve had on trains, the carriage foregrounded as the site of action, the stages of the journey driving the theme, the imagery. The man from Newtown has a star turn: ‘Rain comes / at the carriage. He peers through the gloom / and says, we could be anywhere by now’. The italicised line – his words – is the working title of my second poetry collection. I’ve also had ideas on trains that have nothing to do with the events of the journey, but it’s the journeying that drew them out.

I was editing draft number five of my novel Falling Creatures on the train from Aberystwyth to Cambridge: six hours of writing time as Wales’ mountains slipped into the flatness of the fens and fields of solar panels. The trip had given me the longest uninterrupted spell of time to work on the book that I had had for months, and it was much needed. I was frustrated that the relationship between the central characters lacked spark. Without some kind of transformation, the story was going nowhere.

As I began the last page, the announcer crackled that the train was arriving at Cambridge. I rushed to finish reading so that at least I had reached the end of the story before the end of the journey: some kind of achievement, even if the book still needed work. I wasn’t properly concentrating, half my attention on the platform appearing at the window, and that’s when I had an epiphany. In the last paragraph of the novel was the answer to making the central relationship more dynamic: it was only there that the protagonist’s fatal flaw became properly problematic for her detective partner. Right at the end of the book. The moment had been there in earlier drafts but I hadn’t seen the full implication until I looked at it aslant, until the train took me out of myself after all those hours of immersion. I bagged up my laptop and dashed for the platform, and on to a major re-write on the return journey that afternoon.

That trip to Cambridge was pivotal in the development of Falling Creatures, but I was only on a train that day because someone else paid for my ticket. It’s sad to say that trains aren’t always an affordable way to travel, and for writers the time they give for reading, thinking, writing can be a rare luxury. This has led me to some creative financing in which I cost the as-yet-unwritten. I find myself thinking, if I take the train, I might have a breakthrough in that tricky plot, or find some crucial lines to unlock a new series of poems. Such achievements could recoup the cost of the ticket, so that would make it an investment, wouldn’t it? You have to spend money to make money, after all.

But this is risky finance, akin to dabbling in the futures market as I bank on something that hasn’t been written. So, I take the more reasonably-priced National Express coach to London, the TransCambria bus to mid-Wales, and because I suffer from travel sickness, I take pills that make me drowsy, too far into a fug to do anything productive. Or rather, I think at the time that the headspace is productive, that I’m on to those good ideas, and then I wake up to find it was just dribbling. The seat beside me is empty, and so is my notebook. The train clatters on elsewhere, and takes my next novel with it.

Katherine Stansfield is a novelist and poet. Her latest book, The Magpie Tree, is a historical crime novel set in Cornwall in 1844, the sequel to Falling Creatures (2017). Playing House, her first book of poems, was published in 2014.

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