Keep that Commonplace Book about you

TSH_cover_final_cf[4]I was cleaning the stairs. It really isn’t the sort of activity where you would expect inspiration to strike. But that’s what I was doing, polish and duster in hand, when two part-formed ideas merged and, very quickly, I worked out the main plot of my children’s novel, The Serpent House.

Ideas for stories catch us at strange places and times. Often these ideas are only half-baked, but they are mentally filed away for later use (that’s why using the commonplace book is a good habit to form).

I’d long wanted to write something based on the lives of my three maternal great-aunts, all of whom were in service in Newcastle and Cumbria in the early years of the twentieth century. When my grandmother died of tuberculosis in 1924, leaving three young children, these sisters collectively looked after their little nieces and nephew, saving their money to ensure that all went on to further education. Their stories were passed down through my mother and aunt and part of me felt an urge to pay some sort of tribute to them. A vague thought, filed away for later.

Somewhere beneath the streets of the village where I now live, Spittal, in Berwick upon Tweed, are the remains of an eleventh-century leper hospital. The village gets its name from a corruption of the word ‘hospital’. Little is truly known about the daily lives of its patient but legends abound. So that was another story I felt should be told, but again, I had no real idea as to how.

Getting back to cleaning the stairs. It’s a tiresome task because the Victorian balusters are twisted and elaborate, prone to collecting dust. But as I was poking my cloth through the little curls and loops, I imagined how some poor servant not unlike my great-aunts would have had to clean these very balusters, rather more often and certainly more thoroughly than I do. And the character of that little nineteenth century servant girl formed in my head very quickly.

The thought process led me to wonder whether, if these strange wrought iron shapes were some sort of portal to enable time travel, where might this servant child be taken? Back to the medieval leper hospital, of course, which could conceivably have once stood on the same site as the Victorian house where the character now worked.

As I got further into the research, it turned out that marrying the nineteenth and eleventh centuries worked well, because the Victorians were fascinated by romantic notions of medieval times and rather morbidly interested in illness and death.

I’m sorry to say that although I’ve cleaned the stairs a few times since (I promise!), I’ve never again been rewarded with quite such a moment of clarity. Like lightning, perhaps inspiration won’t strike in the same place twice. But like all writers, I’ll keep looking for it – anywhere and everywhere.

Where did inspiration strike for you? Does the commonplace book work well?


  1. Liz Cashdan, tutor 21 March 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Good to hear Barbara’s recommendation on the commonplace book and how useful it is for a writer. Sometimes even if you don’t have it with you, it’s worth noting down something you have seen, heard or thought of, on a scrap of paper and then sticking it into your commonplace book later. A comment from one mum to another overheard on a bus, about their two daughters: “They are so looking forward to being sisters”, led me to write a children’s play which was subsequently published in a book of plays for children, and even performed at least once, to my knowledge, by a youth drama group. So you never know when something quite small can lead to a piece of writing and beyond.

  2. Bryan Eccleshall 22 March 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Coming from a visual arts background, I suppose this is similar to a sketchbook. I do keep a note book with me most of the time. It’s funny how doodles or half-baked whims re-surface as useful ideas. I’ve just been writing a chapter for my PhD research and having fragments of text helped immmensely. By starting with some text, rather than no text, the pressure is off and, in fact, there’s something to work on immediately. Editing is the sometimes overlooked part of writing, but it can generate material too.

    Roland Barthes, just before his death, presented a lecture series called The Preparation of the Novel. He’d only ever written threoretical texts and criticism and had often toyed with the idea of how he might go about writing fiction. Although he didn’t live long enough to get past speculating on how he might start to prepare, he did offer the idea that making notes about life in Haiku form would allow note taking, but add some restriction, which forces invention.

    I don’t write fiction or poetry, but I recognise the impulse. By making the discipline a bit tricky we’re obliged to improvise and – hey presto! – new stuff.

  3. oliviairvine 28 March 2014 at 8:39 am

    I love the fantasy about the wrought iron balusters becoming time portals. It strikes a chord with me because I am doing a painting at the moment of a staircase with a banister and balusters (thank you, I couldn’t remember what they were called). I have memories of looking through balusters when I was a child. After bed time, life downstairs, glimpsed through the gaps was like forbidden fruit. In this painting, I have made the balusters semi permeable, so it is not clear what is the gap and what is not.In my first childhood house we had wrought iron ones. They were repainted so many times that the shapes were rather rounded and filled in. I tried to recreate the shapes but found I could not remember them. A quick search on the internet came up with nothing that jogged my memories. It is the feel of the thick cream paint, the gaps where little fingers could get stuck and the bright lights of the hall below with intriguing murmurings seeping from behind closed doors which I remember most.


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