A long-haul flight doesn't just get you from A to B — it's the perfect time to stimulate creativity, says author Lynn Shepherd
Let's start with a little quiz. When you're heading to the airport with the prospect of a long flight ahead, which of the following captures how you usually feel?
a) Relieved that you'll have time to read those pre-meeting papers you haven't even looked at yet.
b) Stressed at the prospect of being incommunicado for hours on end.
c) Thankful for the chance to catch up on some sleep.
d) Relishing the opportunity to indulge in some really creative thinking.
I'm guessing — and it is only a guess — that most of you will have answered a), b) or c), and there won't have been many people opting for d). And to be honest I used to be exactly the same, especially when I was working full-time and flew more for business than for pleasure. So what changed my mind? Why would I now answer d) every time?
I had my road to Damascus moment on a flight from London to New Zealand, if you'll forgive such a dreadful mixing of travel metaphors. LHR/AKL is, of course, just about the longest plane journey you can possibly take, so there were acres of empty hours ahead. The meals eaten, the films watched, and the airport book-buy finished, I sat back and closed my eyes, and just let my mind wander.
Now the key fact you need to know at this point is that I write novels. My day job is copywriting for companies (as well as the odd piece for magazines like Business Life), but what makes my heart beat faster — the 24-carat-lifelong-ambition-finally-attained — is that by the time I was on that flight to Auckland I had both written and published my first novel. A re-working of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park into a country house murder à la Agatha Christie. So far so good. But what next? No-one wants to be a one-book wonder, but I was struggling to nail down an idea for that all-important follow-up.
I did know I wanted to pursue the idea of 'literary murder', and Charles Dickens was an obvious choice. I'd even gone so far as to choose Bleak House as the book I wanted to work with — partly because it's Dickens' greatest masterpiece (in my view), and but also because it's the first detective story in English, so there could hardly be more apt material. But the thorny problem that still remained was how exactly I was going to do that. A problem I had been mulling for months and simply hadn't cracked.
And that's when it happened. Somewhere over Asia it came to me that the answer was to write a parallel story — an independent murder mystery of my own that would run alongside Bleak House, drawing in some of Dickens' characters, and walking the same dark London streets. A story that might even answer some of the questions that Bleak House itself never resolves. And that, in short, is exactly what I did.
Fluke? Coincidence? Possibly. All I can say is that it isn't the first time it's happened. The book I'm working on now initially presented even more complex problems in terms of plot and time scheme, but once again, a puzzle that had been shelved in my brain for months fell all of a sudden into place at 35,000 feet. And I'm sure I can't be the only person to have the same experience — for me, it just happens to be novels; for you it might be a new business model, a new market, a new product idea.
It's a long time ago now, but there's a line I still remember from the David Hare film Paris by Night: the character played by Charlotte Rampling says she loves flying because it's the one place where nobody can get at her. Of course there will always be people who see that as a problem — no blackberry, no phone, no ability to influence events. But a flight can also be the most wonderfully private slice of time, where you can switch off your everyday preoccupations along with your mobile, and let your mind go free. And who knows what new ideas may emerge then — who knows what long-sought answers might suddenly materialise, and come to you — quite literally — 'out of the blue'....
Lynn Shepherd's first novel is the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park. Her second is published in the UK by Corsair under the title Tom-All-Alone's, and in North America by Random House as The Solitary House.
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