‘I’d like you, for the next couple of minutes, to write about what you can hear in the room. Only the sounds – nothing else.’
The workshop was underway and we were looking forward to the first flexing of our writing muscles – for some it had been a long time, for others not long at all, just a different part of the muscle would need to be flexed.
All eight writers’ eyes moved from looking at Helen Cross, our workshop tutor, to looking down at whatever we were going to write on: six of us had notepads, two of us started tapping furiously on keyboards.
‘Chairs creaking, Charlotte’s keyboard, voices, breathing, another creaky chair, paper- turning, pen on paper, skin on paper, car going past, keyboards going really fast, felt tip pen.’
We repeated the timed exercise for everything we could taste, physically feel, smell and see in the atmospheric dining room of the 18th century French manor house.
Some read their writing back to the group and Helen commented expertly on how we had captured these senses, and how we could improve.
For the exercise on what we could see, Emma read out her piece: ‘It is daylight but still the shadows fall in the corner of the room. The black iron lamp stand could be either ancient or modern but as soon as you see the stained battered lamp-shade you realise that it is ancient. It casts a shadow on the wall and dominates the room’.
How Becky and I chuckled and loved this from Emma when we realised she had focussed on, described and then read out loud the state of the ‘stained battered lamp shade’ in the corner of the beautiful manor house dining-room that we had rented to provide our writers with a luxurious French experience! Thank goodness the somewhat tired state of the lampshade had proven inspirational!
Helen talked about how a painter uses different mediums and textures to interpret and express what it is they want to say, sometimes developing layer after layer before arriving at the finished piece. We need to do the same, but using language. To capture moods, for example, we can use light and shade, or also weather.
I think Emma’s piece is a great example of capturing a mood: she tells us it is daylight and there are shadows cast that dominate the room – so we know it’s sunny outside and we know it’s an intimate space as otherwise a simple lamp-shade wouldn’t be able to dominate. She has set the scene.
Helen’s advice: When sitting down to start writing or editing a chapter, spend a few minutes doing this exercise. Are you seeing the world though the characters eyes, or are you a little detached? Do the exercise through the eyes of your characters so that you are right in the heart of the story.
By Sarah Tyley