Only once have I built a character around someone I knew, and if I’m ever challenged I shall deny it. But I do borrow the physical features of people I meet or see, often in cafés. I like to write in cafés. The Fossgate branch of Spring Café in York is my favourite place to write. You can sit at the window, plug your lap top in and watch the world go by. I’ve picked up mannerisms and occasional snippets of conversation there. And once when I was searching round for the physical description for Leah in Girl Without a Voice she suddenly walked into the café. Everything about her was right: the way she stood, the unkempt hair and a cardigan with deep, crammed pockets. I sat there and discretely made notes.
But some years ago Gemma was giving me problems. Gemma is one of the young people in Back Behind Enemy Lines. I had a sense of her character but no physical description to fix her as a real person. I was in Cornwall, staying with my sister. We’d gone to Sennen cove, walked the beach and watched the surfers. It was a cold day so we went to the café to warm up. We found a table and the waitress headed our way. She was tall, about 18, which was the right age. She had a thin face and wonderful brown hair. It was the hair that fixed it for me. It was tightly pulled back from the face and tied in a single thick ponytail which hung down one side of her face. It was a striking look and I snapped it up.
In the book her hair becomes a metaphor for the person Gemma is. It plays a crucial part in her relationship with Nathan.
I suppose my message to readers is stay away from novelists. You never know when they are looking at you and what they are storing up for future use.