In the first of our new Behind the Book series, in which writers tell the story behind their book, Jasper Winn traces the research he did and the journeys he made that shaped his book Water Ways

Writing about writing – unpicking the story behind writing a book – seems an odd thing to do. Odd but understandable. I’ve always been intrigued by the ‘hows’ and ‘methods’ of those writers whose books interest me; Paddy Leigh-Fermor missing deadlines by years, even decades; the young Hemingway in Parisian cafes with his pad, sharpened pencils, a coffee and maybe a glass of marc; Murakami starting work at 4 am, writing for six hours, going for a ten kilometre run, and in bed by nine.

I was appointed the Canal and River Trust’s first writer in residence in 2016. They gave me full independence to write about the waterways - as did Profile for the resulting book. I thought of Water Ways: a thousand miles along Britain’s canals (though the title didn’t come till later) as a year of freedom to travel and immerse myself – never literally, despite some near misses – in the world of the ‘water roads.

Wildlife corridors, industrial heritage, live-aboard eccentrics, work songs, towpath dogs, all-night angling (its attractions still something of a mystery to me), the lore and hardware of traditional boats, the competing merits of regional breakfasts, the working of locks, the legacy of navvies, and anything else I found along the way. I tackled it as I would have explored Central Asia or researched the trade routes of cowrie shells; long slow adventures on foot, by bicycle and in a folding inflatable kayak.

My hardware consisted of Muji notebooks; small for my shirt pocket, bigger ones for writing up each evening. I wrote with a cheap, bombproof Lamy fountain pen - or pencil, in the many weeks of wet weather. I wrote in waterside pubs, in cafes, on buses and on trains. I spent 24 hours on the same bench by a rural stretch of the Macclesfield Canal, writing down everything I saw, heard and felt; a kingfisher’s azure streak and call, snatches of conversation with passing boats, the persistence of the rain through the summer night, the smell of crushed nettles.

I joined Kate Saffin of Alarum Theatre on her boat between shows on the Oxford Canal, and spent three days delivering coal on the heritage boats,Towcester and Biddeford. My notes when I’m learning to helm or handling ropes or hefting coal bags are short scribbles to be deciphered later.

When I paddled 160 miles coast to coast from Liverpool to Goole, or kayaked and portaged 125 miles from the Kennet and Avon to the Thames, notes were impossible. I relied on mnemonics to fix a day’s observations in my mind so they could be written up ashore, at night, by torchlight.

I read about every aspect of canal history and lore, visited museums, interviewed experts. When the travelling and notes were ‘done’ - defined only by the approaching deadline – and I was sentenced to months in front of a laptop, turning the piles of notebooks, reference books, maps, sketches and recorded interviews into chapters.

There is alchemy in the process of writing. And hard labour. And long rewrites as chapters were reshaped to reflect new insights - the largely ignored importance of horses in canal history, say, which required a chapter all of its own. Or the puzzling lack of canal songs - like Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark – a lack which provided clues to the hard lives and work of the people who worked the canals were and what their lives were like; more rewriting.

My editor Mark Ellingham tackled he hard-scrabble process of cutting, rewriting, shortening, explaining and cutting more to produce completed the MS. There were endless discussions on the architecture’ of the book: the cover illustration, the sourcing of photographs, the glossary, and – my particular joy – the end-paper maps. All my favourite childhood books – from Swallows and Amazons to Peter Fleming’s travels in Central Asia – had end-paper maps. And so does Water Ways. They showed the book’s journey from the first wintry footsteps on the Exeter Canal through the year of walking, cycling, kayaking and boating along the country's canals and towpaths.

Travelling slowly, researching the book at narrowboat speed, with time to talk, to read, to explore, allowed the story of the water ways to reveal itself at its own pace.

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