This semester I'm teaching a Writing and Location module at work. This year, I'm notably lacking in terms of locations. This module would ordinarily involve trips to various places around the West Midlands. However, in the times of COVID-19, class trips aren't exactly safe, and therefore other measures have to be taken.
Today I walked my students around the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (after some introductory free writing to set the travel mood), and we used a bank of digital resources that were put together during lockdown, to make these gardens a more accessible landscape for those who couldn't visit.
No, it wasn't the same; there's no pretending otherwise. What it was, for me at least, was an insight into how the face of nature and location writing may well change in the midst of a pandemic.
In my continued mission to practice what I preach, I wrote along with my students through these new landscapes. So here are some of the fruits of an afternoon's travel.
Solomon Islands - Morning chorus
The leaves are bigger than my head - fanned, their hands are spread as though in anticipation of free falling birds who might swoop and lunge through these morning calls. I can almost taste the green, enveloped like a blanket around me, not that I would need one. The warmth is a paradox against home, where leaves now are falling out of season. Meanwhile here fires are still burning, and sun still very much awake.
It could be snow, if we were in the right landscape for it. The blossoms belong to the gateway, though, to mark a passage of time, and I know they all fit together although I don't fully understand how - which I suppose is the point of my gaining an education here.
It occurs to me, then, that perhaps this gateway is one that leads to knowledge.
The following pieces were written in response to several gardens at Kew. Footage of their growth and maintenance has been made available to track their summer progress: Slow TV: Summer at Kew
I wonder whether this is the quietest it's ever been. There are only satellite sounds - more like the ghost of something, and even though nature must have been that way, once, there is something unsettling about it here. Still, unsettling nature remains beautiful.
The plants have rooted with purpose and something about their posture gives that away - upright, important. I'd name them all if I could but instead I give them fake names: Beatrice; Olivia; Edith.
Today I gave my first year Creative Writing students the below image. They wrote from their hearts, about nostalgia and childhood and boiled sweets, gobbled on their favourite beaches. It was, and is, great to see young writers with such enthusiasm.
And, in my continued series of practicing what I preach, I wrote from the same prompt...
The sky is a fruit forest: apricots, strawberries, unripened blueberries and plums. I see it every night but somehow see it differently. It gives me a sense of an ending, watching the horizon close, as though God or someone like her had spent the whole day creating the perfect shade of blue, only to wash it all away, dissatisfied with her creation.
Perhaps that's what the sealine is, where coloured clouds meet water - maybe that's why we have our high tides.
He makes it impossible to check my phone, pulls so much on the lead and at such a pace that the text message becomes a blurred string of half-letters. I give up quickly and instead pocket the device as in-case-of-emergency measure, should we get lost in the woods and become storybook characters.
He only watches the ground, and I only watch him, therefore –
I see the bed of autumn, a blanket of stripped garments shed by the trees that guard this place, as though we’re walking through their wardrobe. I sometimes expect a reprimand for treading through their quarters, but it doesn’t come. He and I are allowed.
I asked my students to get local with their writing - meaning, consider a space that's particular to you. "Give me a description" was the initial task, which eventually became specific details, and then, after that, a memory...
It would make for a good long angle photograph. Trees and leaves have started to collapse in, making it either a fairytale landscape or the opening of a horror scene, depending on the time of day. But I do know there's a graveyard at the end.
I walk by mallow on the journey down the lane - some open and full, others just cracking their leaves. There are stinging nettles forming parts of the path, coupled with greenery that used to be daffodils. There is another track that branches off from this one, one we're not meant to go down, although the "No Entry" sign is missing.
It's the first time I've known flowers by name. I can recall my excitement at recognising the mallow as exactly that. On the way down I didn't know it, but on the way back - as though seeing wild bluebells and fox gloves frame the headstones had shaken something loose - I saw the paleness of the flowers.
On this second week of practicing what I preach, during a lecture this morning I gave my students the following prompt:
"The first time I told my family about _________, they didn't believe me."
As a group we shared possibilities - the Area 51 conspiracy, being held in custody, the noises - and then we took six minutes of free writing time to see what might come out of it. The deal was that while possibilities had been shared, we could also use something else entirely to fill out the blank in the sentence. I chose "her".
The first time I told my family about her, they didn't believe me. But it was the most serious conversation we'd had in years. I tried to explain that I didn't mean for it to happen; it was one of those freak acts of life - not that my mother bought that excuse.
"Don't say it just happened," she cautioned me. She told me I sounded like my father, said, "He was big on things just happening, too."
My sister was the more composed out of the two of them, as though she'd always known this was coming. She calmed Mum down in the end, promised that she'd sort things. Then, when we were on our own, she asked what I'd done with the body...
Visualise a space, I tell my students, imagine a landscape and consider how you want a reader to see it...
There is a crunch underfoot. The world is burnt, as though someone up-ended a bag of Autumn over the forest and left behind early dark evenings, pumpkin seeds and the crackle of an open fire. The few greens that remain are making a gradient to yellow; I imagine a sweepstake among the evergreens, to see who will be the first to brown. The bark grains are deeper, too, wrinkled by the difficulty of a long year. This space feels changed and unaffected all at once. It’s a saving grace to be reminded that the grass will dampen, roots wither and trees undress – no matter what happens anywhere else.
Earlier today I met my new cohort of Creative Writing students for this academic year. I set them a free writing exercise - to respond, somehow, to the image below - and during their time working on this, I also practiced some free writing. I think, when you're buried under bulk amounts of editing or teaching plans or other real-world things, it can be (too) easy to misplace the joy of smaller endeavours, especially creative ones.
This writing isn't my best work by a clear mile and then some. But I sincerely enjoyed the seven minutes I spent writing it and, no matter how I spend the remainder of the day, I can at least say I've done some writing - which is exactly what I preach to my students.
So, here we are. Sunflowers...
She loved yellow; something about the inherent warmth of the colour. She considered it to be a shade of happiness. The first time she got lost was as a child, swathed in yellow, giants that made her worry for a moment that she might have tumbled into the sun - or rather, a land made of hundreds of suns, perched atop stalks with leaves that waved and clapped as the wind lapped around them. Her father had been wearing a summer yellow shirt that had disguised him against the backdrop of the forest -
For the longest time, I have greeted every new university cohort with the same writing prompt: The sealed envelope.
I've asked rooms full of students to answer the query of what might possibly be in the envelope in question. I've had answers from glitter (a surprisingly malicious thing to mail someone) through to a severed finger (which, against some of the other suggestions, wasn't actually all that surprising). Once we've created a list of possibilities, I give the students five to ten minutes to pick an option and "free write" - i.e. pick an option and let your imagination be an outrageous toddler for a while. If you write rubbish, you write rubbish; you can't feel bad over something it took you ten minutes to draft. But if you don't write rubbish, then you have a seed of something - all from a small collaborative practice that warmed your mind up a little.
For the past few months I've been working with Tortive Theatre, in conjunction with Worcester Rep and The Swan Theatre, Worcester, to convene the Flash Fiction 101 writing competition. It's a monthly competition that we run - judged by myself and Ben Humphrey - that asks entrants to adhere to one rule: tell your story in 101 words. But this month (September, as it was), we changed things by introducing a prompt into the mix. It was a small prompt, complete with a picture, about a siren that sounds at the same time in the morning and evening in a town. Why?
Ordinarily, Ben would read the first round of submissions before sending me the shortlist, and we'd work together to thrash out our top three reads. Because the prompt was one I'd set, though, we decided that this month I could have the pick of the litter and shortlist my top ten (or, as it turned out, my top eleven). What amazed me, though, and what prompted this post today, was the diversity of the responses to my prompt. For something that was part of a horror or science fiction setting, writers managed to make their responses intimate, unexpected and hilarious, stretching the prompt to fit an impressive amount of narratives. It was a beautifully welcome reminder of a) how effective prompts can be and b) how underrated they often are.
It seemed worth touching base, then, to remind other writers - aspiring and professional alike - of the sheer joy in writing a story based on a seedling of an idea - like a sealed envelope - and just seeing what happens. I've picked a pack of tarot cards as the illustration for this post because, earlier this year, that's where all of my prompts came from. I would pick a card at random in the morning, read its meaning, and see what happened. Nothing I wrote was ever longer than around 700 words (with some pieces being as short as 300 or so words), and I don't have strong aspirations to do anything with the works once they're done. They were just a morning stretch, if you will, to get me thinking - and it worked! I sincerely enjoyed the practice and, were it not for the stress of 2020, I would have continued with it (but maybe one day).
So pick a card, or a colour, or an object in your kitchen - and write! Give yourself ten minutes and enjoy the time, safe in the knowledge that it doesn't have to be a masterpiece; it just has to get you started.
It’s one of the oldest pieces of writing advice that to write good characters you must know them well. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? But it can sometimes be a lot harder than it sounds. If we start with the basics of learning about our characters, we can Google whole lists of questions that we should be asking:
When I published Intention, how Gillian (my protagonist) made her tea was one of the hot topics – aside from her being a psychopath, that is. So, these fine details do count for something.
In asking questions of our characters we build them into something authentic. But this doesn’t just mean giving them the good bits or the quirky bits of humanity; sometimes it means giving them the rotten elements, too, which is where developing character comes in.
While you shouldn’t have a whole book of characters who are severely unhinged (I mean, sure, it would be interesting, but where’s your hook?), you also shouldn’t construct a cast of angels either. For me, after I’ve dealt with all the basics I like to move on to the existential:
And, perhaps the most important of them all…
Character motivation is essential to so much in a story: plot arcs, pacing, satellite characters – the list could go on! Working out what your character wants and what that motivation can bring to your work is hugely beneficial, not least because it pads out your protagonist/antagonist. In the bid to develop our characters better we need to know them from the inside out; which is to say, we need to know them as well as we know ourselves (on a good day). You can also yourself:
All of us – humans, not characters – have something that drives us and, likewise, all of us have things or people that bring out the worst in us. While it might take some time to develop your character with all of these things, it will surely be worth it when someone reads a chapter of your someday novel and says, “Wow, I do that too…”
Intention was my first novel - not only with Bloodhound Books, but ever. It also formed the basis of my Doctoral research, which was to investigate the misrepresentations of female violence in contemporary crime fiction. In short, I wanted a real female psychopath; not a candy-cane version, which was all I'd encountered in my reading and research up to that point.
So Gillian, my narrator, is as authentic as I could think to make her. Hailing from an abusive household, leaning towards animal cruelty (consider that a content warning), and looking for a space to cut her teeth in the summer months home from university, Intention is a look into the mind of a killer coming of age - and you can meet Gillian in the snippet below.
You want to know what it’s like. I can understand that; I wanted to know as well, I suppose. Ultimately, it’s like anything else that any one person does despite knowing that they shouldn’t. But they do it all the same, because they’re too familiar with the feeling that they’ll experience afterwards.
Life is so heavy most of the time. You’re struggling under the surface with a weight on you and what do you do? How do you find a way to breathe again? We’re all dying to know the answer – and don’t think that I haven’t noticed the wonderful irony there – but, lacking any feasible explanations for life’s largest dilemmas and questions, instead we simply guess. We assume things that will improve our little existence. And these assumptions, they then become our unashamed justifications for whatever condemnable behaviours we throw ourselves into. ‘It makes life a little better,’ we say, excusing our tendencies to cheat on our partners, overeat unhealthy foods, smoke. It makes life a little better, and for the majority of us that is reason enough for anything.
Does any of this sound familiar? There must be something – one mostly harmless little thing – that you allow yourself. That one cigarette at the end of the day; that eye contact with a colleague you hold for a beat too long?
‘No human beings were harmed in the making of this bad habit,’ we remind ourselves; a disclaimer to our misdemeanours. It’s only a problem, you see, when people become aware of it, when people are hurt by it. That’s when the masses will frown and judge – as though that has become the benchmark for human depravity. You’ve hurt another human being? Well, that’s a line! But it’s a line that we love to see crossed, don’t you think? There’s nothing better than finding someone more evil than ourselves because those people really put things into perspective.
If you'd like to know more about Gillian - and what she gets up to - you can download Intention on Amazon Kindle now for just £1.99 right here.