The Crime Readers' Association

Writing as Escapism by AJ Waines

30th April 2018

Have you ever been caught daydreaming? Missed your stop on the bus because your mind was miles away? Been hauled up for staring out of the classroom window as a child? If so, you probably learnt that escapism was best avoided. But the ability to switch off, to transport yourself, to imagine possibilities and ‘think outside the box’ is essential to creativity and it’s the bedrock of a writer’s existence.

We all indulge in escapism: watching TV or films, listening to music, reading, playing games, sports and daydreaming. It’s completely normal. Escapism is useful for managing stress. It’s the mechanism by which we can step away from our problems. When we’ve spent all day fretting about work, for instance, an evening at a comedy club helps us to relax and let go. A game of tennis, a walk around a lake or an hour in a bird-hide, clears away our tangled, murky thoughts, so that when we come back to issues, we have a fresh view of the situation.

My first forays into escapism take me back to when I was around nine years old. The girl next door lent me a box brimming with small Bunty magazines, from a range called ‘picture story library for girls’. These little books transported me. There were around fifty of them and I devoured each and every one. I became the ballet dancer in one story, the gymnast in another. Spurred on by such stories, I learned to do the splits and have been able to, ever since! The Mallory Towers series by Enid Blyton had the same effect on me. I was totally immersed in those adventures. I still get a tingling excitement when I type the title. They were my first recognisable ventures into escapism.

Escapism allows us to drift away from our own life – the routine, the humdrum – for a while. To leave our known reality behind and enter an existence somewhere else. Avid readers find this when they open a new book. Within moments, they have entered a new world with all their senses. For me, as an author, each time I write a new book, it’s like stepping through the back of the wardrobe in Narnia (CS Lewis) or opening the gate to The Secret Garden (Frances Hodges Burnett). A new place, new people and a new mystery. I become a new self, identifying with the characters in the book, joining them as they unravel the threads of a murder, facing their dilemmas, responding to their emotions from the safety of my writing desk.

I have one of those minds that naturally seems to take off somewhere. Very easily. I tend to do a lot of ‘what if’ thinking with regard to my own life. I think a crime writer needs that much maligned part of us that tends to slip into ‘catastrophe thinking’. I’m often dreaming up nightmare scenarios, asking myself ‘what’s the worst that could happen here?’ and running with it in my mind. I visualise. A lot. I have a second life going on inside my head all the time – a constant film running that jumps around from planning, rehearsing, daydreaming, reflecting and making stuff up. It’s busy in there!

This kind of ‘wild mind’ is useful when looking for ideas for writing a new novel. Brenda Ueland (If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit) calls it ‘moodling’ – daydreaming with a pencil in your hand. It’s the process of brainstorming and letting your imagination wander, then catching whatever comes out, like netting butterflies.

Someone once asked me why I don’t do more travelling and I told them that I do all the travelling I need inside my head. This is true of many introverts – instead of spending time ‘out there in the real world’, we go inwards into our thoughts, reflections, memories and imagination. The books I read feed this rich inner world and the books I write emanate from it. I forage around in these other lives in order to gain insights to bring back to this one.

In my writing, escapism means I take myself into the scenes I’m creating and explore them as though I’m physically present. I look around the room, the boat, the cellar and feel the cold, see the shadows, smell the mould, taste the dust, hear the footsteps, sense the foreboding. Then I describe the experience. Of course, there were many times during the writing of my latest thriller, Don’t you Dare, when I didn’t know what something looked or felt like. What does the cellar of a pub smell like? How warm is it? How fast can you go in a speedboat? So I looked these details up, but most of the time I’m inside the story. And that’s where the fun starts, because I can design who does what in a novel. I’m in control. I can make people become who I want them to be. Make things happen in the way I decide. Like an adult playing with a train-set or model village! (It makes the process of writing sound like a doddle, which it really isn’t –  but it is all-consuming.)

There are no two ways about it, I’m hooked on escapism and admit to being a self-confessed daydreamer! I wouldn’t give it up for the world.


AJ Waines has sold over 450,000 books worldwide and topped the UK and Australian Kindle Charts in two consecutive years with her number one bestseller, Girl on a Train. Following fifteen years as a psychotherapist, she is now a full-time novelist with publishing deals in UK, France, Germany, Norway, Hungary and USA (audiobooks).

Her fourth psychological thriller, No Longer Safe, sold over 30,000 copies in the first month, in thirteen countries. AJ Waines has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The Times and has been ranked a Top 10 UK author on Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). She lives in Hampshire, UK, with her husband.

AJ Waines latest book, Don’t you Dare, is published by Bloodhound Books on 8 May and is available from all Amazon outlets. Find AJ Waines’ books here, visit her website and blog, or join her on Twitter, Facebook or get her Newsletter.

Waines, AJ

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