Author Louise Millar lives in London and feels that London is her home, but she was born in Scotland and has lived in several other more rural parts of the country. Here, she talks about the importance of where her character lives in her novel The Hidden Girl, and how she uses writing as a way of living in other places herself.
How do you start a book – with a character, a plot idea or a setting? For me, the location of my psychological thrillers is as important as the other two. ‘Where is home?’ for my characters is a crucial part of their story.
I’ve always been interested in location. Where is the place that inspires and moulds you, and gives you roots? And what if the place you come from is not the place you can be yourself? In my book The Hidden Girl, human rights worker Hannah hits a crisis in her life and abandons London for the Suffolk countryside, in the hope that it will fix things. But will it?
It’s a theme I return to often in writing. In my own life, place has always been complicated due to a peripatetic childhood. After school, I moved to rural Kent then Oxfordshire. I lived with college friends. We swam in the river on summer evenings, walked through fields of wildflowers to the pub and built bonfires on the beach. Many of my Twitter writer friends live in the countryside today, and I still feel a pang when they tweet similar images.
Yet at 24 I left the countryside. By nature, I was not a self-starter. I knew I needed fresh motivation. So I moved to London and, before I could catch breath, life changed fast. I found a job in magazines. I studied photography and film-making, and saw movies and exhibitions that gave me ideas. New stress entered my life but also new excitement. It was a relief to feel a first sense of belonging among all the other incomers.
The pull of the countryside, however, wouldn’t leave me. It’s why I write about it. There have been many times, after a busy day, trying to relax amid loud music, traffic and sirens, that I’ve dreamt of my old cottage. I’ve bored my husband – a city-lover – many times about the idea of returning. Yet London is my home now and truly I know I'll never leave.
So instead, I sent Hannah...
What Hannah finds is that moving to a peaceful place is different from finding peace of mind. She wants to recreate someone else’s ideal of a perfect family home to improve her chances of adopting a child. Yet within days of arriving in Suffolk, Hannah sees a gun for the first time, and is burgled. In the isolation of the countryside, the cracks in her marriage emerge.
The Hidden Girl is not a story about city versus countryside, or about the character of Suffolk. It’s about people finding home, wherever that is. My way of finding home was to give myself an annual countryside ‘fix’ in the summer. The rest of the year, my favourite Sunday walk is through Soho. At night, I wear earplugs.