We are all in a certain place at a specific moment in time. As you may have guessed I love using images in writing and creating a sense of place. Scenes in fiction have to be set somewhere; not only does setting characterise it can also dramatise a piece of writing. Setting can make your fictional world more convincing for your reader. It gives it life. If the setting is strong enough it sometimes becomes a character in its own right. In The Road To Somewhere, Helen Newall sums up setting in the following: “If narrative is a journey, character being the driver, and plot the vehicle, then setting is the scenery along the way.” And where would we be without scenery? Below are some pictures I’ve taken over the past few years that have sparked ideas. Take a look at what’s around you and whether there is a story hiding, 9 times out of 10 there will be.
I am aware that the concept of time and place is very strong in my writing, not just fiction but poetry too (see Stories And Such). Setting is an important part of my current piece. Cormorano is all about Liverpool. I want the reader to feel as if they have been placed right in the centre of Liverpool, to feel the hope and spirit. Cormorano is just as much about our beloved city as it is about the war. I want the setting to not just create character but enhance the narrative, and be the main connection between me, the writer, and you, my reader. See Current Novel section for more.
My latest project has led me back in time to my family’s heritage and so far it has been thoroughly enjoyable. Admittedly, researching a piece is one of my favourite elements of writing. I like to write about the things that have shaped our lives, whether they be happy or sad, but most of all I believe it’s important to know where we come from.
In the previous post is an excerpt from Cormorano. This is set in wartime Liverpool and based on my Nanna’s life as a young girl. Her family moved from Picinisco to Liverpool and settled in the Little Italy area of the city. Like many grandparents do, she told me stories from the war that changed the way I think about the world. Going through that at such a young age is unimaginable to me but I want to try my best to tell the story of where she grew up and what it was like to live through the war years.
Cormorano is the latest piece I am working on. As do many other writers, I draw upon past experiences, family history, and images to create a story. This piece is set in war time Liverpool but with a twist. It focuses on the Little Italy area of the city and on the protagonist Joseph Ventre. My grandmother grew up in this area and time so there are stories a plenty. Below is an excerpt of the piece. Please read, enjoy, and try to figure out the title
‘The siren wails just after nine o’clock. I jump up and Mam is already pulling her shawl around her shoulders. The sound pierces the air, filling my body with dread and fear. I try to find my way to the door in the pitch black, pulling my jumper on and taking my gas mask from its box. I tie the laces on my shoes; one has got a hole in the heel. Mam stops dead and holds a finger up in the air.
‘Listen.’ I turn my ear to the window. ‘Can you hear the planes?’ She stays quiet. They’re coming all right. God knows how many there is tonight. Mam grabs a bag she has ready in case of an air raid. As we leave the house, Uncle Fran runs down the street to get us. I know Mam feels safer when he’s around. He’s tall like Dad was, well built too. He hides his messy black hair under a hat; sometimes I think he sleeps in it. The siren becomes louder as we reach the end of the street. A fire bobby turns the handle at the top of the siren tower, shouting at the crowds to wear their masks. In the distance the sky is a mixture of deep orange and black. They’ve started bombing the docks again and I pray that the Cormorano make it till morning. It’s a few minutes walk to the nearest shelter. I strap my mask tight onto my head. Every breath I take is shorter than the last. Babies are screaming, mothers are scared; the men lead the way onto Scotland Road. I don’t know how everyone’s going to fit inside the shelter. Panicking, I reach for Mam’s hand and follow Uncle Fran across the pitch black cobbled streets. Up ahead, seven planes fly lower than normal, lined up perfectly. They’re heading our way. The noise rips through my ears. I feel the vibration in my chest. People are shouting, ‘Quick, get the kids inside!’ ‘Pass me the baby!’ ‘Oh God, this is it, hurry up!’’
In the words of The Cranberries, dreams are impossible to ignore. Sure, we might forget most of them entirely by dinner time , but what about the ones that we can’t shake off? How important are these dreams to a writer? Think about how the drama of a piece can be emphasised when a character steps back into a memory, a dream, or enters the subconscious. For example, the protagonist in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is a shepherd named Santiago, who follows the path of a recurring dream. This leads him on a journey of self-discovery and destiny. The Alchemist wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Santiago’s dream. So if our characters believe strongly in the powers of vision, then we too should embrace our subconscious.
Dreams and observations are so very important when it comes to our writing process, without them there would be no stories, no drama. Cultivating images and vision is an essential part of the initial stage of our writing process. It’s all down to our imagination, which comes from the same place as our dreams do; the unconscious mind. Some of the greatest novels of our time have been born from a dream. For example, many of Stephen King’s concepts and plots were conceived from dreams. In particular, his 1987 psychological thriller ‘Misery’ was derived from a dream while he was asleep on an airplane. He dreamt of a fan kidnapping her favourite author and holding him hostage, Not only was a novel produced but it inspired a successful film, starring Kathy Bates, who went on to receive an Oscar for it. Just goes to show that in the dream world, anything is possible.
The powers of observations are essential when cultivating our visions and images. In The Road To Somewhere; a creative writing companion, Julie Armstrong suggests in order to develop our observation skills, one should “Look at everything from the point of view of a child trying to capture the freshness and innocence, the fascination children have for the world around them. Try and look at things as if it’s for the very first time.” She also states “It’s not what you see but how you see it.” I found this relative to my personal writing process as I have always believed in observing and, knowing I had to start somewhere, the easiest thing to do in order to write, was to simply look around me and delve into the world in which I lived.
Absorbing whatever’s around you is like having your own personal library of writing ideas. Because there is a great variety of places and people in this world, I believe we will never be and could never be short of good stories. Imagine for a second, a world without books or any type of text. I certainly can’t. I have faith in the world around me allowing me to indulge in reading and writing at every possible opportunity. It’s just a case of opening our eyes; everything is waiting to be turned into a story.
Writing is considered to be a form of meditation. I’m almost certain you’ve all sat down, relaxed, and tried to zone out, cleanse your mind, forget about your problems and become receptive to the ideas floating around in your head. I have, and it’s like a starting gun goes off and I set myself free to write. All we need is a prompt and fortunately these are all around us and unlike many other things in life, they can’t be taken away from us. In 2005, Corinne McLaughlin stated that “creative meditation is using the mind to build positive pictures and giving them life and direction with the thought energy of the mind.” Our heightened awareness untangles our mind, allowing us to feel a sense of order and harmony, therefore unlocking our best writing ideas.
Dorothea Brande recommends that we consider the conscious and the unconscious sides of the mind “as two separate personalities.” So when you’re next staring out the window, and those around you think you’re trying to get out of doing the dishes or abusing the phrase “sorry I can’t, I’ve got work to do.” Remind them that a writer is never off duty. We have to treat our own mind well. Some may not fathom that the time we spend ‘daydreaming’ is of course the most important time of all. We need to allow ourselves solitude and headspace. Looking back at a time when I’ve been incredibly receptive to writing ideas and a place where ‘writing meditation’ came alive for me was working in the Alps a few years ago. We know different life experiences, positive or negative, can encourage us to write, but at this particular time in my life, my writing was lacking. Maybe because I had just finished university and had written one too many essays or was drained of words because of my dissertation, I don’t know, but less than a week into my stay in the mountains I was bursting with ideas and the urge to pick up a pen was so prominent that once again, writing became my release. The entire setting was completely idyllic and fortunately I was inspired to write every time I opened my curtains, spoke French, or stepped off the chairlift. I remember lines of poetry popping into my head as I was flying down a red run. It was bliss, and has become a life experience that fed my hunger for inspiration and thankfully re-ignited and developed my love for writing. And thank the lord for photography.
The pictures I took during those five months are now my very own writing prompts, they act as my golden ticket into a story factory. Each time I look through them, I’m right back there, looking around, observing, dreaming, and writing. Relating to this is one of my favourite quotes from the influential thinker, Sigmund Freud. He commented on how creative writing assists in dream analysis and said that “storytellers are valuable allies, and their testimony is to be rated high, for they usually know many things between heaven and earth that our academic wisdom does not even dream of. They draw from sources that we have not yet made accessible to science.” This backs up the notion of the powers of observation because as writers, 99% of the time we see things that others don’t, being why the world around us is a powerful tool. We know dreams and cultivating images work hand in hand with our observations skills, but how I do I use these concepts in my writing process? I remember skiing for the final time during those five months away, treasuring the world around me. I now know it’s ok to treat the unconscious as a valuable tool in my writing abilities. Because without it, my conscious would simply not exist.
To me, writing is who I am, it’s a part of me and I fear I couldn’t express myself without it. The author of Imaginary Girls, Nova Ren Suma, sums it up beautifully. She says:
“I write to make sense of things. To re-imagine. To re-remember. To hold close. To push away. To live again. To invent. To fight, and to win.”