Evoking the world of your novel: A Guest Post by Jessica Ruston

Jessica Ruston’s latest novel, The Lies You Told Me, is a riveting novel about one girl’s search for the truth about her mother…

I’m sure you’re already familiar with the idea that you should use all of the five senses in your writing - describing the smell of a croissant as well as how it looks, the crunch of footsteps as the killer walks up the path towards his victim... All of those kinds of details that can help bring the scene you are writing to life. But it can also be worth thinking about how you can use these different senses, as well as other forms of inspiration, to evoke the world of your novel as you are planning and writing it - and to help bring it to life in the minds of readers once it’s published.

Here’s what I mean. My new novel, The Lies You Told Me, is a psychological thriller of sorts - a family mystery about a woman in her thirties trying to find out the truth about what happened to her mother, who disappeared when she was small. The novel begins when Klara, the daughter, is sent a key in the post, which turns out to belong to a lock up garage containing a box of her mother’s possessions, including her diary. We follow Klara’s search back into her mother’s past as she - and we - read extracts from her mother Sadie’s diary. Sadie isn’t always the most reliable of narrators, so Klara has to piece together the real story using various types of evidence - the diary, her memories of her mother (which of course are unreliable as well), what her father has told her about the woman he loved and who left, others of Sadie’s belongings contained in the trunk...

People always ask where writers get their ideas from, and in this case the original seed of the idea came from a line in one of my favourite poems, Autumn Journal, by Louis MacNeice. The line - ‘All of London littered with remembered kisses,’ had always haunted me, and one day I began to build a story around it. The idea of these memories floating around London, ready and waiting to trap their owners as they went about their business... it caught my imagination (still does - I’m not yet done with the theme of memory and these mental maps that we all carry about with us). As I was writing the book, I kept returning to the line, turning it over in my head. What sort of a love affair might have littered London with these recalled moments? A passionate one, an obsessive one... (another theme I return to again and again). And so, bit by bit, the novel grew from that single line. Of course it grew beyond that original image - but that line, that snag of interest is still at the heart of the story, for me, at least, and as I wrote, I kept on returning to that poem, reading it over and over as I try to hold on to the feeling that the line first gave me, and somehow imbue the writing with it.

I don’t know whether any of you listen to music as you write - in general I don’t. Even lyric-less, classical stuff fills my head too much, distracting me and pulling me towards the world it is trying to evoke, when what I need to be doing is immersing myself in the world I am creating. But sometimes when I’m writing I will hit upon a song that seems to sum up the mood of a scene, or chapter, or even of the whole book. When that happens I’ll listen to it on a loop, over and over again, while writing (do all novelists have a touch of OCD? I suspect maybe so...). With The Lies You Told Me this song was Love Her Madly, by The Doors. The line ‘don’t you love her as she’s walking out the door,’ could have been written about Sadie, or a woman like her, and it filled my head with images and emotions that flowed directly into the novel. Now, post-publication, I’ve put together a playlist of songs that link to the novel somehow, and this is, of course, top of the list. It’s one of those things that can link the fictional world of your book to the real one, tying the two together in a way that I always find interesting, and that I hope others do.

I’ve always been a visual writer, and I often use images as I write, for research and inspiration. The internet has helped with this, of course - it’s easy to find all manner of old photographs and other memorabilia online. So for The Lies You Told Me, I looked at old fashion photography and advertisements from the late 1960s and early 1970s (Sadie was a model in her youth), video footage of London from the same period, newspaper and magazine features, and maps of the city that Sadie fell in love with (and where she fell in love). Youtube is fantastic for this - though it’s easy to spend hours and hours lost in it, calling it ‘work’.

Inspired by some of the images I had used while writing the book, when it was published I created a Pinterest board that gives a teaser of the story using 10 images - it’s here: and tools such as Pinterest are useful while you’re writing and planning as well. I now collect images relating to ideas on themed boards (you can make them private so no one can see them until you’re ready), and refining the spine of your story down to a selection of carefully chosen images can help you clarify where the heart of it lies, if you’re that kind of thinker.

So a poem, music, imagery - inspiration and atmosphere can come from all sorts of places, and by actively surrounding ourselves with them we can help ourselves create a piece of writing that contains something of the spirit of those other works, other worlds. I’m sure there are a multitude of other ways that I haven’t stumbled upon yet - some writers include recipes in their books, and maybe cook their characters’ food as they write?! How do you go about finding and retaining inspiration, and working it into your books? 

Jessica Ruston’s bestselling debut novel, LUXURY, was published in 2009 by Headline Review and was the winner of the Debut of the Year 2009 category at the Elle Magazine Literary Awards. LUXURY was followed by TO TOUCH THE STARS in 2011 and THE DARKER SIDE OF LOVE in 2012. Her fourth novel, THE LIES YOU TOLD ME is now available. She is the author of two non-fiction books as well as a number of screenplays.
Jessica’s journalism includes a weekly fiction serial for The Lady called COME FOR DINNER, features for Grazia, Red, Woman and Home, Scarlet, the Guardian online and Mslexia, as well as book reviews for Mslexia, The Lady and The Spectator.
Luxury is under option to Lex Filmed Entertainment.
Jessica is represented by Simon Trewin at William Morris Endeavor London. Her website is: http://jessicaruston.com/


  1. Your novel sounds intriguing. And I love the idea of using Pinterest as a storyboard! (Don't you wish they would let you reorder/arrange the pictures, though? Very annoying.)

  2. Hi jscolley - thanks :) I love Pinterest but yes, totally agree, the inability to re-order the pictures is v frustrating! Hoping they'll change that at some point soon...

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