My last novel, Silent Saturday, features a secretive group called the Koekoeken, who break into empty buildings around Brussels for kicks - either to explore or to enjoy the luxurious interiors. In return for the experience, they always do one small piece of maintenance or repair - sometimes something as small as rewiring a plug or tightening a screw on a window catch. Heroine Veerle De Keyser and her friend Kris Verstraeten enjoy a series of these adventures, until one night they turn up at a house and find a murder taking place...
Today I had a tweet from mum and English teacher Lisa Farrell, who is reading Silent Saturday and wanted to know "Do people actually do that - squat in empty houses? Where did you get (the) idea? Intrigued!" I did my best to reply in chunks of 140 letters, but actually I thought there is enough to say about this to fill a blog post! So here goes (and thank you for the question, Lisa!).
Yes, people really do squat in and/or explore empty houses. I guess everyone's heard of actual squatters, who occupy empty houses as living spaces, but exploring abandoned buildings falls more into the category of urbex (urban exploration). There are whole websites devoted to photographs of these haunting and often beautiful locations. Here is one: Abandoned Scotland.
There are other "architectural" pursuits too, such as "buildering" (climbing up buildings), which inspired some of the goings-on in The Demons of Ghent, due out on June 5th and the sequel to Silent Saturday.
Some urban exploration is done by permission of the landowners; on other occasions it is entirely "unofficial" and the explorers post their reports anonymously. So the secrecy observed by the fictional Koekoeken is well-advised, especially since some of them explore houses that are not abandoned at all - the owners are simply out of town. At the time of writing Silent Saturday the Koekoeken website with its carefully concealed forum was simply something I invented - I was quite surprised when an article appeared in the Daily Telegraph in February 2011 describing how squatters were pooling their information about properties on the internet. So the idea is not as far fetched as you might imagine. The Koekoeken, however, do not occupy the buildings they enter; their aim is to go in and out without their visit ever being detected, and to do one single piece of work inside as a repayment.
That piece of maintenance work is also mirrored to a certain extent by reality. I'm intrigued by the Guerrilla Gardening movement, which promotes "illicit cultivation" - the improvement of drab public spaces by planting flowers. The Koekoeken's explorations include some derelict buildings, such as the castle that appears early on in Silent Saturday; these too are unloved spaces which the members improve in small ways.
Researching these books - and especially the third one, Urban Legends (out in 2015), was very interesting indeed. But more of that later...
Above: this is more rural than urban exploration (rurex perhaps?). Here I am exploring
a ruined church in Scotland.