This term at Hendon Writers, we’re shaking up what and how we write. These workshops are ideal for writers stuck in a rut, writing stories about the same old themes, with the same old characters doing the same old stuff.

Today’s exercises draw inspiration from Romanitas, a photography exhibition by John Kippin. The collection is both a visual document of a specific period of Italian history (i.e. the fascist ‘20s and ‘30s), and a fascinating series of juxtapositions between people and place, making them fertile material for us writerly types.

The buildings photographed in Romanitas are all from the ‘Esposizione Universale Roma’, most of them conceived during Musollini’s regime. Kippin is fascinated by the “idealogical function” of what can be seen as monuments to fascism.

Exercise #1: “We shape our buildings…”

First, we will work with the idea of places and spaces as expressions of character. If you are able to visit the NGCA in Sunderland before 24th June 2018, you could try these exercises with Kippin’s images of this remarkable architecture. Failing that, any man-made area or space would be suitable.

1) First, think of a space you identify with someone you know. This might be your best mate’s sitting room, or a colleague’s work space, but it should be somewhere you know well. Then, make as many descriptive notes as you can, including things like scale, colour, condition and what can be found within the space. As with last week’s exercises, a mind-map will help you to pick out individual details. Stick to describing specific physical details here, and avoid subjective short-hand. For instance, try to avoid words like ‘cluttered’ or ‘chilled’. Describe the clutter or whatever it is about the space that makes you feel calm (or their total absence). If possible, include details across all five senses, not just how the place looks. What can you hear in the space? What textures can you feel?

2) Next, explore what each of the details you noted show us about the person whose space this is. If someone’s sitting room is mingin’, what is it mingin’ with, and what can we learn about that person from their particular trail of filth? What does the person choose to put in the focal points of the room (consciously or otherwise)? What are they expressing about themselves (and what might they be hiding)?

Romanitas is an example of this idea on a grand scale, but it’s an intense starting point. Once you feel confident drawing connections between people you know and the spaces they create for themselves, you’ll find it easier to use this technique without inside knowledge.

Exercise #2: “…thereafter they shape us.”

Many of the photographs in Romanitas juxtapose epic buildings and monuments with people going about their day-to-day lives. For this next exercise, we will look at the effect a space can have on the people within it.

1) As with Exercise #1, start with the familiar. Think of a place you associate with feeling a particular way. Avoid your home (and the home you grew up in), as many of the feelings we associate with these spaces are the result of experience rather than the spaces themselves. Instead, focus on a place you visit, and how you feel when you are there, positive or negative.

2) As before, note down as many details about the physicality of this space as you can think of. If you can be in the space, so much the better. Imagine yourself entering this space, your route through it, what you notice straight away, and what you discover when you’ve been there a while.

3) Once you have these details down, write a short piece in which a character enters this space. Think about what business they might have there, and how the place you have described might make that character feel. How might it affect what they get up to there?

As an example, much of the architecture in Romanitas seems deliberately intimidating and awe-inspiring. Many of the images show individuals against these epic backdrops, the figures tiny and trivial by comparison.

What’s next?

You can try these exercises with any images of places, such as those in Romanitas. A simple image search can provide umpteen examples that can serve as jumping off points for descriptive writing, and stories set in or responding to specific environments.

From there, you might try constructing the spaces that are important to your characters. What do their kitchens look like? Or their cars? Or their offices?

You might also try creating locations that evoke specific emotional reactions in your readers. Description that clearly brings a place to mind is great, but description that makes us feel how your characters feel hooks us on a deeper level. And once you’ve established the emotional tone of a place, you can subvert it with weird juxtapositions.

Finally, practising these exercises in new spaces can help you hone your responses to locations. If a place creeps you out, observe the heck out of it. Likewise, if a place calms you, intimidates you, or frustrates you, what is it about a place that makes you feel these ways? What did the architects of these places intend us to feel, and how have the inhabitants added to or adapted these ideas? Learning how to analyse this stuff will help you enrich your writing, giving it both polish and depth .

Until next time… toodle-oo!