Monday, October 26, 2009

Rainy City Stories: Writing About Place

A creative writing workshop with David Gaffney

It would be appropriate to begin by writing about the place, but I feel this may mislead you. The weather was dull and wet, appropriate as it was a Rainy City Stories event, the venue itself, Friends Meeting House, was a little bland, white walls, brown carpet, a cluster of tables formed into one large one. None of this reflects the mood of the event. Torn-out pages from a Manchester road atlas lay scattered across the table for no other purpose than to add a bit of ambiance. Pretty soon we were all sat around the cluster of tables and people became the walls, people from a multitude of backgrounds - journalists, screen writers, wannabe novelists, academic writers, self publishers.

Writer David Gaffney, largely associated with the ‘flash fiction’ genre, sat at the head of the table with a check list of points for this flash course in writing about place. Our first exercise was to write down three things we noticed on our journey to the Friends Meeting House, and share our observations. A variety of things were mentioned: big issue sellers, filmy street pavements, the old disused Odeon, the hat shop opposite Albert Square. Most were somehow personal to the person; the places associated with memories or with things that interested them. We learned that in order to write convincingly about place we need to separate ourselves from the environment and put a character in our place. What would they see on that same journey?

Gaffney then proceeded to tell us an anecdote regarding a lady who sadly lost her sight. She asked her husband to describe the streets, what was happening on them, what could he see? He began “Well there’s a sign over there 10 to 1 on United vs Liverpool game. That pub has an offer, two main courses for a fiver,” and so on. She stopped him and said, “Now start again, only this time tell me what I would see.”

Gaffney spoke comprehensively on the subject, mentioning how other authors approached writing about place. How authors such as Ballard and Will Self would use psychogeography and algorithmic walking. He also showed a few examples of how not to write about place. Much to my personal pleasure one example was taken from Dan Brown’s The De Vinci Code . We discussed a passage and decided it was too heavy in information, it didn't tell us anything about the story or how the protagonist was seeing the surrounding section of Paris. Gaffney then informed us that it was what is known as a ‘research dump.’ It doesn’t really have a place in the text, but it does show that the author has researched.

Another ‘how not to...’ came from Bill Bryson. We all scowled when Gaffney spoke of how he dismissed our beloved city in print. His point was that everyone perceives things differently, so when writing about place try to explore the place yourself, do not rely on the words and opinions of a (unreliable and very very incredibly wrong) travel writer.

Our final task was to write a few sentences about a character and their mood within a place. Gaffney handed us a list of variables which we then selected and swapped with our neighbours. I was handed this combination of variables: a 20-year-old girl, who is an art student, situated in a snowy church yard, feeling happy. I had it easy, I was a 20-year-old art student not so long ago. Others found themselves writing about divorced 40-year-old taxi drivers in an art gallery or an unhappily married man on a Sunday afternoon in Eccles. We shared our flash fictions. It was great to see that in the space of ten minutes everyone had managed to conjure up a glimpse of a story and the beginnings of a character.

If you want to know how to write, well, I am afraid nobody can answer that. If you want to know how to write about place, David Gaffney can take you halfway there. There are no rules, but there are devices, tools and methods that can help you. The best way to write about place is to experience the place yourself and view it through another's eyes. That, and this little equation I wrote down: Story + Character + Place = Whole.

Now I am off to write a short fiction which I will the submit to


Mandi Goodier is a graphic designer and artist bookmaker.

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