Finding Ruby in Whitstable – a writer’s search for her character’s home

Novelist Alexandra Campbell writes as Nina Bell and lives in the historic, creekside market town of Faversham.

Whitstable Harbour by Lucy Duff

Recently she’s been spending time along the coast, in Whitstable, to help her discover more about one of the characters she is developing for her new book.

The first piece of advice most people give to anyone wanting to write a novel is ‘write what you know’.  But one of the joys of reading and writing fiction is being transported into different worlds and my advice would be ‘know what you write.’

Even before the Internet, people used research to find out what other places were like and now there are blogs, photos, videos and histories online to furnish you with the most obscure information. But relying too heavily on these can make your story feel over-researched.

As a writer, you interpret the world through your own unique viewpoint. Nobody else sees it the way you do. Little details matter.

Ultimately, that’s what a publisher or reader will pay for. So when I set a scene or a character in a place, I often visit it.

Old_Neptune_WhitstableI like to know exactly which house in which street a character might live in – although I always change the name of both. Does she live in a narrow Victorian terrace or a converted fisherman’s hut by the sea? Is it a box on a small modern estate or a rundown farmhouse? It may be because I also write books on interior design, but I feel that once you know a character’s home, then you and the reader know that character.

I’ve wanted to set a character in Whitstable since I was artist-in-residence at The Little Blue Hut, on the slopes of nearby Tankerton beach. The book I was writing at the time didn’t work out, but I still wanted to write one set in a world of pebbly beaches and brightly painted beach huts.  I don’t want to write about the town I live in, in case anyone thinks I’ve written about them. Novelists create characters and situations – we don’t copy them from life, but if we depict an atmosphere accurately, then people can easily be confused.

I know Whitstable reasonably well, as I swim there during the summer months.  But as I got further into writing my latest novel (currently untitled) I realised that I didn’t have a clear idea about where in Whitstable, my main character, Ruby, lived.

I realised that I hadn’t got Ruby clear in my mind, and part of that was feeling vague about her home. So I drove round Whitstable until I found it.


Whitstable High Street by Jon Bidson

The first glimpse of Whitstable is from the hill as you drive in. The bay stretches out ahead of you, often glittering in the sunshine.

On the horizon you can see the silhouettes of the old World War 2 observation forts, along with present-day wind farms. Down in the town itself, no two buildings are the same. There are weather-boarded cottages, the statuesque Victorian pub, a few grand houses from Georgian or Victorian days, modern bungalows and now a scattering of contemporary ‘New England’ new-builds.

There is not a single straight line – the roads, based on ancient pathways and smugglers’ routes, curve and kink, and the alleyways between the houses are so narrow that one is called ‘Squeezegut Alley’. The sea is at the heart of it. Whitstable grew up through fishing, oyster beds and diving. Now the main businesses revolve around its fish restaurants, yachting and kite-surfing, while artists are attracted by the quality of the light.

Whitstable sunset 1I won’t tell you which road Ruby’s house is in, except that at one end it has traditional family semi-detached houses. As you walk towards the sea, the houses get smaller, and are mainly terraced, with ‘prairie’ planting in their front gardens and misty-grey historic paints on the windows and doors.

In trying to decide whether Ruby would live in the traditional semi or the fashionable cottages, I’ve learned a little bit more about her. She’s reached a point in her life when she needs to repaint her front door – and in Whitstable that means making a decision about whether you’re arty, fashionable or traditional.

Suddenly she is no longer a character on a page. Now that I can envisage her choosing a colour for her front door, I know her much better.

Alexandra also runs workshops on blogging, writing content for websites, and writing to promote your work.


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