I first started writing a journal twenty years ago when I was writing my first novel. At the beginning it was more of a writer’s notebook in which I jotted down ideas, scraps of conversations overheard on trains, anything that might one day end up in a story. Then it broadened out, particularly after the arrival of our daughter, when I wanted to record the things I knew I’d forget about life with a small child and the joys and challenges of motherhood. Some of that ended up in Stage Fright and Footfall, two of my Cassandra James mysteries, including for instance the time when, distracted by a furious toddler, I drove off with my handbag on the roof of my car.
I have two notebooks on the go at any one time, one for writing up at home and one for my handbag. At first I used whatever came to hand, and then I settled into using a black, hardback Moleskine notebook at home, and the most recent handbag notebook is a Leuchtturm1917, recommended by my writer friend Sue Hepworth. I am going to stick with those, because they have pages at the front for listing contents, which is something that I wish I had for my other notebooks. I am now on notebook 27 and there is an awful lot to trawl through if I want to find something and can’t quite remember where it is.
I don’t write in my journal every day – far from it. It is best to write it outside the house – sitting in a cafe, for instance. Not entirely sure why, but it is something to do with stepping aside from ordinary preoccupations for a while. It has to be hand-written. There is something about putting pen to paper that aids reflection.
I often refer to them. One example: I recently wrote a short story set near Cambridge during a heatwave. I wanted something to convey a sense of that. In one of my earliest notebooks I found a description of a farm lorry laden with hay bales lumbering along a road in the Fens: ‘Specks and stalks of chaff eddied behind it like sparks in the draught of a bonfire.’ That was just what I needed. Whenever I start a new novel or want an idea for a short story, it’s an invaluable resource.