The Quixotic Nature of Inspiration by Ruth Leigh


As writers, we’re all different, and thank heavens for that. Some of us are planners, with notebooks full of plot development, story arcs and carefully researched facts, distilling each precious drop into our literary efforts. Others (and I include myself in this category, at least most of the time) are pantsers, seizing at random facts (Colchester’s Dutch Quarter is so-called because the inhabitants called anyone foreign “Dutch”, even Flemish refugees fleeing Catholic persecution). 

So, let’s start with the Dutch Quarter, or at least what it represents. I’m fortunate enough to be paid for using both sides of my writer’s brain, factual and creative, spending much of my week writing for freelance clients, and the rest of it marketing my first novel and writing my second. 

One of my clients is an exclusive estate agent, covering East Anglia and a little further beyond. They came up with the rather splendid wheeze of hiring a team of freelance writers (me included) to interview their clients and write up lifestyle pieces on their properties. Honestly, it is the most fun. One day I’ll be struggling to find something interesting to say about a new build (rambling on about the surrounding countryside is often a good way to go), another delving into the fascinating, chequered history of a Grade II listed Georgian townhouse. 

I’m an Essex girl, and I’ve been to Colchester a few times. I never knew it had a Dutch Quarter, nor that Flemish Protestant refugees set up home there in the sixteenth century. Writing up that property was loads of fun and in my mind, I could hear the rustle of silk dresses, the clip clop of horses’ hooves on cobblestones and the shouts of market traders. Who knows where those thoughts will end up?

 Often, I find myself sitting at my desk gazing at a floor plan and a slide show of a property and racking my brains for new adjectives. “Delightful”, “charming”, “beautiful”, “immaculate” and “full of potential” are words I find myself typing again and again. From time to time, I’m thrown a curveball. A chocolate box cottage with a steeply pitched roof, in which sit two bedrooms with severely restricted head height? I got round that one by describing them as “fairy-tale sleeping spaces.” Which they were. For pixies. Or perhaps children.

 Occasionally, the vendor is a person of few words and I must employ my special, patient voice to elicit – well, anything at all. This is the time where a firm grasp of local history and the ability to write at least one paragraph about the surrounding area will pad out a difficult assignment. I’m an expert on Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Suffolk and Essex rivers, peninsulas, castles and churches. And while this benefits me in my freelance writing, it also spills over into my creative work.

 I started writing my first novel, The Diary of Isabella M Smugge, in May last year, at exactly the same time I got the job with the estate agent. Gazing at delightful interiors, finding out what those bits of wood stuck in the wall over fireplaces in old houses are called (bressumer beams) and soaking up new and exciting knowledge about the world of house selling informed my book, which fortunately was about a pretentious lifestyle blogger moving into a vast Georgian pile in Suffolk. 

When I found that I needed a name for an annoying, posh property blogger, naturally, I called her Bressumer Beams (real name, Portia Waldegrave). I found myself able to write believable descriptions of interiors thanks to my new knowledge. I don’t live in a large, posh house, but I certainly spend a lot of time looking at properties which are simply awash with period features and delightfully expensive fixtures and fittings. What a joy that is for a writer. 

So far, no-one has asked me The Big Question. “Where do you get your ideas from?” But when they do, I’ll give my standard answer, “Life is copy” (because it is), adding that you just never know when inspiration will strike and from what quarter. Dutch or otherwise.

Images from Pixabay

Ruth is a novelist and freelance writer. She is married with three children, one husband, three budgies, six quail, eight chickens and a kitten. Her first novel, “The Diary of Isabella M Smugge”, came out in February this year and she is writing the sequel, “The Trials of Isabella M Smugge.” She writes for a number of small businesses and charities and blogs at She has abnormally narrow sinuses and a morbid fear of raw tomatoes, but has decided not to let this get in the way of a meaningful life. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at ruthleighwrites.


Peter Leyland said…
This gave me some thoughts Ruth as I know Colchester very well. My friend Alan Skinner was principal of Grey Friars, a beautiful Georgian house in the centre. It was then an adult education college where I taught my Detective in Fiction courses but was sadly sold off by the county council. I didn't know there was a Dutch quarter either but his wife Sylvia still does city tours so she can probably tell me more. You probably know that PD James was a local too.
Ruth Leigh said…
You must know it better than me, Peter. I come from the other side of the county in Epping Forest. Yes indeed, and she often wove Essex locations into her books. I was fascinated to dig into the Dutch Quarter a bit more - Colchester has so much history.
Reb MacRath said…
'Life is copy.' I like that! It does help to have standard answers because no one really wants the labyrinthine truth. When strangers ask out of idle curiosity what I'm working on at the moment, I know how to shut the conversation down: Oh, it's my life dream, I tell them--a mystery about chess in ancient Babylon.
Ruth Leigh said…
True, Reb! Only other writers. Don't we love a back story?
Wendy H. Jones said…
Great post. I love the way you use both sides of your brain.
Ruth Leigh said…
Thanks Wendy. It makes a pleasant change!
Love this! Being Dutch, I can totally relate to the Dutch quarters containing anyone not speaking English. To be fair, at that time the Flemish were part of the Netherlands...just... I love the house descriptions!
Ruth Leigh said…
Thanks Maressa! I actually have two Dutch friends in total and I feel I need to tell the other one about the Dutch Quarter. Were they? I did not know that!
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Ruth, late as usual, apologies!

Your blog is the perfect example that to write life, you need to live life, to pay attention to all those details - which to a lay person might seem mundane ... but to a writer - they're the details that set your writing apart from others.

Really interesting post, thank you for sharing.

:D eden

Ruth Leigh said…
Hi Eden. Thank you so much! I've always said that life is copy and even things that others might think trivial lodge in my writer's mind and get used. Strange creatures, we writers!

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