The author David Nicholls recently wrote in The Guardian about the importance of visiting the places described in his novels. In a world in which we can click on google earth to research a spot, he argued for the need to visit the locations in which his fiction is set. I read the article en route to Bodmin moor - a 700-mile round trip from my Cambridgeshire home - and one of the settings of my next novel. A small part of me wondered if this was the ultimate in procrastination. Having come back newly inspired, I only wish I'd returned before.
My second book is set on a farm in north Cornwall, an area I know well having holidayed there each year since I was a child. But there's a section based on the moor and though I'd taken two trips down there in the past 12 months to interview octogenarian farmers and to visit its airfields, and raced over it for three decades, I hadn't explored it all.
One of my characters embarks on a quest to find a half-remembered farmhouse and I couldn't get these scenes quite right, sitting at my desk at home. I hadn't captured the peculiar claustrophobia of high-banked hedgerows or of tiny villages hidden in the folds between tors. Nor was I sure about the smell: damp grass; musky bracken; honeyed gorse? My character, an intrepid 83-year-old, gets lost, and it was clear I needed to do the same as her.
And so I did. For it's hard not to become disorientated when you're relying on signposts that turn in contradictory directions and interpreting a Cornish mile as, well, a mile. And then the mist came down. A mizzle that made it impossible to see the tors I was searching for; that seeped through my trainers and into my bones; that reminded me of quite how bleak and inhospitable any moor can become.
Daphne du Maurier came up with the idea of Jamaica Inn when she got lost in the mist while riding - just a few miles from where I was. And as I climbed out of tiny Blisland towards St Breward - the area in which Poldark's farmhouse in the recent BBC TV series was filmed - I became similarly disorientated by a visibility that, at best, was poor. Incapable of seeing any farmhouse, or even the track in front of me, I had to stop still. It was just me, the relentless rain, and some Highland Cattle grazing amongst the gorse.
I had wanted atmosphere; a sense of place that was almost tangible; images which would fill my notepad and fuel me as I completed this tricky draft. And here it was. Shrouded in the mist, I scrawled furiously and, when it lifted, found that other famous du Maurier moorland setting, Altarnum.
The picturesque village clustered around an imposing granite church where her vicar caricatured his flock as sheep, who hung on his every word. The air was scented with wild garlic; the hedgerows stuffed with greater stitchworth; bluebells; buttercups and red campion. Mallards waddled towards allotments; rhododendrons bloomed. There was even a tiny village hall, fringing a brook that, yes, really did babble.
It was time to head out. Back to the wildness of the open moor. To an area at the heart of Cornwall and at the emotional tipping point of my novel.
It's an expanse that brings back painful memories for my 83-year-old. Thanks to my return trip, I'm a little more confident about describing her experience.