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Esme King: 'People watching can be a great source of inspiration when it comes to thinking about your own fictional characters'

BY Katie Smart
28th Jun 2022

Esme King took our three-month online Writing Your Novel course in 2018. Esme is a former news journalist and award-winning short film director. Her debut novel Reasons to Go Outsidewas published May 2022 by Hodder & Stoughton.

We spoke to Esme about her time on our course, where she finds the inspiration for her characters and her approach to writing...

You studied on our three-month online Writing Your Novel course in 2018. How did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?

The course was the encouragement I needed to adopt a proper writing routine. Previously I’d planned chapters and written sporadically, fitting these things in around the day job, kids, the constant emptying, and filling of the dishwasher, and being distracted by cushions with dogs faces on them for sale online. Suddenly, there were deadlines, and I was determined to meet them and not let anyone down!

Many of our students find their writing community on our courses – are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Absolutely! One of the great things is finding out how everyone’s doing after the course has finished. It’s great to hear about the publication journeys of other writers and how the CBC course has changed lives.

Your debut novel Reasons to Go Outsidefollows a remarkable friendship between an isolated 59-year-old woman and the teenager she hires as a gardener. Can you tell us a bit more about the novel and the inspiration behind it?

I started writing Reasons to Go Outside when I was working as a journalist and interviewed a woman living with agoraphobia. The meeting had a profound effect on me, and when I discovered there are one and a half million people in the UK experiencing this little-talked about mental health condition, and as many as seven million in a less severe form, I knew I wanted to write a novel where the protagonist doesn’t leave their home. So many questions came to mind. How easy is it to stay active when living within the confines of four walls? What happens if you suddenly need to go to hospital? How does agoraphobia develop? I wanted to research everything I could about the condition and talk to as many people as I could who’d been affected. Then I outlined my story.

So, a bit more about Reasons to Go Outside... (without any spoilers to ruin the ending). It is about fifty-nine-year-old, Pearl Winter, who lives in her childhood home on Dartmoor and hasn’t been outside of it for forty-three years. When her elderly mother dies, Pearl is forced to hire someone to tackle the advancing weeds in the garden. Connor Matthews, a grieving teenager from the nearest town applies for the job. The unexpected and heart-warming friendship that develops is transformational for them both.

Do you have any tips for writers looking to depict believable characters, particularly a friendship between an unlikely pair?

It sounds like a cliché, but my advice would be to ‘keep it real.’ I think it can be useful to think about people you’ve met who have made an impression, and any unusual situations that have happened. Sure, we don’t write about actual people or describe actual events, but people watching can be a great source of inspiration when it comes to thinking about your own fictional characters; the springboard to finding your own perfect, unique cast.

For me, I love an unlikely pairing! It encourages us as readers to widen our thinking, rather than narrowing it. And again, I think it’s about keeping the characters true to life, and the story. Without giving too much away, Pearl is wary and nervous of Connor when she first sees a tall, floppy-haired teenager shielding his eyes from the sun at her door. It would be odd if she wasn’t, given the fact that she sadly hasn’t seen many people at the house over the years. But that’s the beauty of a friendship – it can develop in the most unlikely of places.

When did you know you want to be a writer?

As a child, when I first read Enid Blyton – from there I wanted to be a writer. I needed a lifeline, an escape, and books provided that. When I was older, I wanted to write stories that would transport the reader in the same way.

Can you talk us through your writing routine?

I discovered fairly early on that writing very early in the morning worked for me. I think I must sub-consciously mull over character, plot, and dialogue in my sleep, because quite often I’ll wake up with an idea or a line. I’ve learned to keep an A4 pad and pen beside the bed! – it’s amazing how an important thought will completely slip from my mind in the short time it takes me to go downstairs in my pyjamas and switch on the kettle!

I’ll write until early afternoon, then walk my dog, Milo, on the moors, or we’ll head down to the beach.

What’s been your favourite book of 2022 so far?

I didn’t get to read this until this year, but The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman is my fav read so far – along with millions of other people who also love it, of course!

If you could only pass on one piece of advice to aspiring authors, what would you say?

Pick an idea you feel so passionate about you can’t not write it (apologies for the double negative).

Finally, what’s next for your writing journey?

I’m currently writing Book Two.

It feels strange and a little sad at this stage to be leaving Pearl, Connor, and Nate behind on Dartmoor, but it is also very exciting to be writing a completely new story!

Get your hands on a copy of Reasons to Go Outside.