By Susanna Beard, author of psychological thriller, Dare to Remember published by Legend
For me, walking has always had a therapeutic quality. There’s something about putting one foot in front of the other, even if you’re plodding along with your hood pulled up over your head and your eyes on the ground, which helps the mood. And since I’ve started to write novels, walking has become a crucial part of the writing process.
There is a time-honoured link between long-distance running and writing - Joyce Carol Oates ran every afternoon, Louisa May Alcott felt that she "must have been a horse or a deer in some previous state" because she enjoyed running so much, and Murakami said his “real existence as a serious writer [began] on the day that I first went jogging.”
I’m not a runner – it hurts too much, in more ways than one. But walking, for me, clearly has the same effect as running has for these authors. As a writer, it’s when I walk that I wrestle with the twists and turns of a plot that won’t settle down, or the traits of a character who just doesn’t seem real.
Sometimes the walking just clears the mind; sometimes it offers the creative jolt that a new story (or a stuck story) needs.
Even when the weather’s out to get you – when it’s cold, wet and blustery, when the wind brings tears to your eyes and you can barely move your feet through a sea of mud, walking is ‘worth it’ time. The process of wrapping up against the elements, leaving the house and heading for the countryside (or a park, or a quiet lane) is in itself, I believe, good therapy for an overcrowded mind.
And if you add good weather, the countryside, wildlife, birdsong and air untainted by diesel fumes – then even better. Nothing raises the spirits as gently.
Except, of course, the presence of a canine friend or two. The unbridled, unselfconscious enthusiasm of a dog on a daily walk, the excitement of seeing another of the species - or quite often, just another human - repeats itself daily. Same place, new smells, sounds, dogs, people. Cats and birds. Squirrels! Such delight in the routine. It’s infectious.
It was on one of my daily walks by the Thames a couple of years ago – I’m lucky, I can get there in less than ten minutes – that I bumped into another dog-walker, a little late on her daily perambulation. When I remarked on this, in a friendly, dog-walking way, she replied that her husband had died in the night. What a shock! Of course, I did my best to comfort her, offering to tell people I saw who I knew to be her close friends, and went on my way.
When we parted, though, I couldn’t get the incident out of my head. The fact that she was walking on the morning after this terrible thing had happened to her fascinated me. Of course, when you have a dog, it needs walking. But it was more than that – it was the beginning of her recovery from the trauma: telling friends, getting out of the house, exercising, the fresh air by the river. The idea of walking as therapy struck me as a good theme for a novel.
That’s where my debut novel, Dare to Remember, began. It went through two working titles, some interesting critical discussions with my writing group and many drafts before I felt that it succeeded in doing what it was supposed to. But all through the novel my protagonist is supported by walking, and by her dog, Riley. The dog gets her out, meeting new people - however reluctant she is to talk - while the walking gives her space, room to think, to ponder over her life, to recover from her trauma.
I value my daily walks with my dogs, both for my health – physical and mental - but also as a way to continue working on my stories. I clear my head, problem-solve, get descriptive ideas and make friends at the same time.
Almost always I return with a sense of purpose for my writing as well as muddy boots and pawprints in my hall.