Category Archives: Landscapes

Inspiration Monday: On Walking

Footprints Ardnave 1Many great writers have also been great walkers.  Imagine Jane Austen striding across the Hampshire countryside around Chawton, her home village, the hem of her white muslin gown getting stained with mud, or Virginia Woolf stomping over the Sussex Downs, hands buried deep in her pockets, muttering sentences and paragraphs for her current work under her hat brim.  The Romantic poets were famous for striding around the Lake District, soaking up the epic scenery and composing all the while.

There is something meditative about walking, a rhythm that comes with stomping feet, the steady repetition of step after step over the ground.  The act of walking induces a kind of trance, a change in consciousness that opens up our minds.  When I am able to walk, I can exorcize even the foulest of moods, and I always come home with an idea, an image, a sentence at the very least.

Walking gets us close to our environment in a way that travelling by other means can’t.  You cannot see details from a car the way you can on foot.  A cat lazing on a sunny windowsill.  The colour of a starling’s wing.  A family gathered around the kitchen table, enjoying a late sunday lunch together as you pass.  On foot, you can surreptitiously peer in through windows, or linger to observe a view, a cloud or a flower.  We can even listen in to conversations we might miss otherwise:

‘Andrew, did you put the blood and bone tub back in the shed last week, because I can’t find it?’

Walking allows us to observe the world whilst being part of it.  It brings us into Flow, a place where our thoughts smoothe into a creative stream.  We can walk ourselves out of being stuck on a project, and we can walk ourselves into a new one.  Plus, it burns calories and keeps you fit and, well, and who doesn’t love that?

Creative Exercise:

Put a notebook or sketchbook and a pencil in the pocket of your jacket.  You could even take a camera.  Put on a sturdy pair of shoes and go for a walk around your neighbourhood.  Take twenty minutes, more if you have it.  Try to walk with a steady motion, a regular rhythm.  Drum out a beat with your soles. Open your mind to whatever thoughts come up.

Look around you.  What little details, or big stories to you witness?  You can scribble things down on your way, or you can stop, if you have the time, to take notes, draw a sketch or two, snap a few photographs.  You don’t have to photograph people, remember –  a wonky chimney stack or a graffitied sign might spark your interest, perhaps even an interesting pattern made by litter in the gutter.  Take the time to witness and observe.  Combine this with the meditative beat of footsteps.  A treasure trove is outside your door.  Even if you only walk and see, do that much.  When you get home, note down what you have seen for use later, and enjoy feeling refreshed.

Walk twice a week for preference, daily if you can.  Get to know your locale.  Push yourself by walking in new places.  Extend and vary your routes.  Walk whether you feel like it or not.  Especially when not.  Putting one foot in front of another gets your mind to a new place that is always worth exploring.

Inspiration Monday: Weather

I live in the UK.  We have lots of weather here.  Bucketloads of it!  It comes from having a maritime climate, caught between the cold North Sea and the Atlantic Gulf stream.  It characterizes our nation and our culture.  We are famous for it.

Since I came to live here in Norfolk, I’ve been fascinated by clouds.  Norfolk is famous for ‘Big Skies’.  It impossible to explain that until you have been here and seen the wide open spaces.  Norfolk is not as flat as everyone seems to think – Noel Coward has a lot to answer for, in my opinion – but what it does have is open vistas and large expanses of farm land reclaimed from sea.  The result is fantastic cloudscapes every day.  It colours the way people here live, and the way they view their lives. (If you are interested in how the landscape affects the people here, I can’t recommend highly enough the novel Salt by Jeremy Page.)

Weather gives atmosphere to writing and painting, as well as to life itself.  Just look at this image by painter John Aitkinson Grimshaw, who specialised in moonlit landscapes.

Boar-Lane-Leeds-1881This one shows a wet day, and the slick cobbles and leaden sky are so evocative.  What secret stories might be happening on those wet pavements, or behind those glowing shop windows?

Compare these two images of the same building, the National Trust’s property at Ickworth in Suffolk.

Ickworth sunny Ickworth weather

Granted, the angle is slightly different, but look at the sky – one with glowering cloud, the other with sunshine.  The atmosphere is significantly different in each, a sense of forboding in the right-hand image that simply isn’t there on the left.

You can use weather to prompt your creative work, as Grimshaw did, or you can use it to enhance it.  You can see this is the paintings of John Constable, and the writings of Emily Bronte.

Writing Exercise:

Andrew Cowan, in his brilliant book on Creative Writing, suggests keeping a notebook solely on the weather, noting adjectives and descriptions every day for a year in order to inform your stories.  It is hard to write credibly about a snowy day in a heatwave, for example, or vice versa, so a record of what weather feels, looks and smells like can be incredibly useful!

You might not want to go quite as far as recording the weather every day for a year, but try a writing exercise where you look out of the window – or even better, go outside and experience the weather first hand.  What is the temperature like?  Are there clouds, and if so, what kind?  Is the air moist, crisp, cold, humid?  What does it smell like?  Are there ice crystals on the vegitation, or are the flowers in full and sumptuous bloom?

Record what you see, and then go a step further.  How does this weather make you feel?  What kind of events and interractions might happen on a day like this?  Is it a foggy day for furtive meetings, a dark, moonless night for dastardly deeds, or a hot and sultry afternoon suggestive of languid adultery?

You could use weather to enhance the atmosphere of a scene, or you could contrast it to add clarity to the action.  Imagine a meeting of high ranking spies in a sweltering noon, brows beaded with sweat and shirts stained dark under the arms, whilst all the time, the great business of state is being negotiated.  Spend some time in your notebook playing with weather.  Try out a scene in one kind of weather, then set it in the opposite.  What kinds of problems and interesting ideas does this raise?

Happy Creating!

Inspiration Monday: Images

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My Image Box

Writing exercises are a great way to get yourself going with new writing ideas.  Sometimes it is hard to think up something to write about, and this is where images can be really useful.  If you don’t have time to go out into the world and absorb the landscape, or you don’t feel like listening to music or doing something else that feeds your imagination, images of all kinds can be evocative prompts to get you going.

I keep an ‘Image Box’.  I buy odd postcards when I am visiting shops, art galleries, National Trust properties.  (I even drop leaflets into my image box, knowing the colours used in them can get my juices flowing, and I scour magazines and newspapers for pictures that catch my eye.)

Postcards don’t have to be of anything particular, the places and objects depicted don’t have to be of things you have seen or visited.  They just have to get you started.

When I am stuck, and need to write something fresh, something that comes clean out of the blue, I pull a random image out of my box.  Then I set the timer, and write for fifteen minutes on what the image suggests to me.

Here are a few pictures out of my box:

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Postcards from my Image Box

(clockwise from top left) Sylvia Plath 1959, photographed by Rollie McKenna;   The Forest of Bowland from ‘Our forbidden land’ by Fay Godwin 1989;   ‘Silver Moonlight‘ by John Aitkinson Grimshaw (Harrogate Museums and Arts);    ‘A Norfolk Village’ by Edward Seago (Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery);    Sound II sculpture by Anthony Gormley, Permanent Installation in the Crypt at Winchester Cathedral, photograph by Roger Twigg.

These are all striking images, but what stories do they tell?  What do they suggest to you?

Writing Exercises:

1) Start collecting images for an Image Box of your own.  You might like to do it the old fashioned way, as I do, with postcards and pictures cut from newspapers, magazines and Sunday supplements.  Or you might like to use a digital version like Pinterest.  Whichever suits you.

(These days I also keep a private folder of images that I download from Tumblr on my laptop, which also feeds my imagination – I don’t use them for anything other than my own private use, so I hope I’m not infringing any copyright by doing so.)

Keep an eye out for anything really striking – a black and white, chiaroscuro portrait perhaps, or an arresting street image.  Whatever catches your eye.

2) When you have time for a writing exercise, get out your timer and your writing notebook.   Fish out a random image that appeals to you, set the timer for fifteen minutes, and write!

It doesn’t have to be a complete story, remember.  It can just be a sliver of description, a bit of character study, a list of traits or adjectives, or a bit of backstory.  What is going on in the image?  What is the place like? Are there people?  What are they doing, and why?  Is it a portrait like the one of Sylvia Plath above – forget who she is for a moment, and look at the image.  Why might this girl be wistful, a bit sad or worried?  Who could the person in your portrait be?  Why do they look the way they do? Or who is the person doing the looking, taking the picture?  What is their story?

Use your Image Box whenever you are stuck for something to write about.  I have got whole stories out of a single image, like this one, which I wrote from a fanart masterpiece by Marielikestodraw, the doyenne of gorgeous fanart.  You never know what might be sparked off.

Happy notebooking!

Inspiration Monday: Landscapes

Lighthouse at Dusk

From the Yorkshire Moors in ‘Wuthering Heights‘ to the foggy twilight of Sherlock Holmes’ Edwardian London, landscapes conjure up all kinds of stories for us.  In fiction, they can be so much more than just backdrop.  Tolkein used them to illustrate the journey to the centre of Hell, contrasting the lush green of the Shire with the volcanic wastes of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.  The closer the hobbits get to the heart of evil, the more the landscape breaks down.  Landscapes can even act as a separate character altogether.

At school, my English teacher taught us to describe landscapes in terms of what they looked like, but it is just as important to your readers to describe what they feel like too.

Paps of Jura

Mountains to me feel full of angry, untamed energy.

Adur Valley 1The South Downs, however, are softer, gentler hills, rolling and swelling banks of green pasture.  They conjure an altogether different energy.

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A rustic country lane in summer has a very different feeling to a city street in winter, and the stories that take place there are bound to be different.

Contrast can make your stories all the more interesting – think of that rustic country lane as  an invading tank rumbles by.  Think of the moment the Black Riders from Mordor cross the borders of the Shire, bringing war and evil with them.

The landscape in which you set your stories can enhance your theme, either with a sympathetic atmosphere, or by offering a shocking opposition to the action.

Writing Exercise:

Today is a Bank Holiday in the UK, which means many people are off enjoying the fine weather and the beautiful countryside.  If you have been out and about today, get out your writers notebook and describe the place you have visited.  Seaside or countryside, what shape was it, what colours?  What did it taste like, smell like?  What weather was happening? What plants grew there, what trees, what animals inhabited it?  Were there crowds of people, or just a lonely figure in the distance, perhaps walking a dog?  Did you see a falcon wheeling in the sky, or a rat scrabbling about in the dustbins behind a convenience store?  And what did this place make you feel?  Was it pleasant, foreboding, exciting, relaxing or scary?

Salt this description, however rudimentary it may be, away, and think on it.  What kinds of stories could happen in this environment?  Who might live here?  What problems might they face?

Next time you travel, even if it is only to the end of your road, consider the landscape you are in, and if you can get the chance, write about it.  Let the stories the land around you brings bubble up.  See where they take you.