I’m thrilled to be one of ten writers invited to participate in an exciting new
Darebin City Council initiative called Writing this Place. The project aims to uncover ‘hidden gems’ in the architectural, natural and social spaces in Darebin, and to celebrate local writers.
In a night of fun and mayhem involving bingo and raffles at the very
original retro Thornbury Bowls Club, the writers were matched randomly (although I suspect some cheating may have gone on with the wheel spinning for location) with ten iconic places in Darebin. I was the lucky one to spin the wildcard, allowing me to choose my own location. The Westgarth Cinema.
We now have one month to research, explore and immerse ourselves in our matched location. And, of course, write about it — contributing to a new narrative for the city, investigating notions of place and form. Quite a challenge!
Quite terrifying, actually.
I find the short-story form daunting, and stand by whoever said it’s easier to write a novel than a short story [Or was it a long letter is easier than a short letter?].
I think I achieved a strong sense of place in both my novels. But it’s not something I sat at my computer and planned. It just kind of happened. I think it evolved after, or at least alongside, character development. Character usually comes first for me. But it’s hard to remember. I call it ‘novel amnesia’ — the thing that happens after you’ve written a book and have no idea how you did it. It’s like childbirth — a defence mechanism kicks in, making you forget the pain so you’ll go back and do it again.
I’ve tried to document my process while Writing this Place so I could share it here.
So, how to ‘write place’?
1. Researching online
For starters, I searched for information online. I found a lot of details about my place, especially the architecture. Post WWI eclectic Free Classical style; articulated engaged piers; cantilevered awning; smooth banded rustication; deep, dentillated cornice. That all sounds clever, but would make most people’s eyes glaze over, except for architects.
You need to let go of most of the technical terms and think about what the place looks like to you. Put it into your own words; give it your unique perspective.
While researching, I stumbled across war stories from the city of Darebin, which gave me the germ of an idea for a historical piece.
2. Visiting location
I know some authors have written wonderful, believable books about places they’ve never visited, but I don’t think I could ever do that. I spent time hanging around — immersing myself in my place, asking the staff questions. I even caught a movie while I was at it (research!). [Lucky I didn’t get a pub as my location.]
I took copious notes at my place. I also took photos. [Sometimes I record sounds when researching locations.]
My notes weren’t just about visuals. Sensory details drawing on all the senses bring stories to life.
When writing, think about:
3. Finding character and story
As well as WW2, I was interested in the Greek-language films that brought Northcote’s large Greek population together in the 60s and 70s. But I also wanted to incorporate present day into my narrative.
Hmm … Maybe three short story-vignettes?
Two of the three vignettes spoke louder to me, and I started weaving them into a single connected story. Finding characters and story was important for me — without them, place is just exposition.
I liked the idea of using frames to write about a place that showed pictures. Framing devices as well as literal door and window frames.
I try to capture subjects visually in my writing the same way a camera would. This seemed even more pertinent for this project.
Start with a close-up frame on an object or person in your story and then ‘pan’ out to a mid and/or wide shot. For example: go from a feature of a face, a brooch on a dress, and then out to the surroundings. Or start with a wide frame and then zoom in. The façade of a building, to the window, to a smaller detail on the signage. [I don’t think about this in the first draft, but when rewriting I check that I haven’t jumped around too much with the ‘framing’.]
5. Metaphor, simile and symbol
These literary devices can make your place more interesting.
Think about the green light in The Great Gatsby and the moors in Wuthering Heights.
I was interested in exploring contrasts like the dark and light spaces in a cinema. Past and present, love and loss, war and peace, life and death.
Memory is like a camera, recording the bright flashbulb moments. But what about the dark or blank spaces in between? This idea kept popping up in my thoughts.
6. Finding historical details
To get the historical details right, I visited my local library (Northcote), and the State Library Victoria for advice and information. Old newspapers and maps help build up a snapshot of a time. I was also in the wars a lot (sorry!) — searching the National Archives and War Memorial websites.
The Darebin Heritage website was another useful resource.
7. Seeking Feedback
Feedback is a very important part of the process. I can’t say I’m a big fan of it. All is happy and perfect in story land — until you ask for it. I have learnt / am still learning that seeking feedback too early on can fill you with doubt and derail your idea. Given enough time (and rewrites) you will come to a deep understanding of your story — and that’s when it’s time to ask for feedback. However, I didn’t have the luxury of time on this project. And, yes, conflicting feedback (from a few trusted readers) on my first draft did throw me off track for a while.
One point I took on board was that I had tried to include too much in my piece. I left in my [short, OK, short!] reference to the Greek films, but took out the stuff about Walter Burley Griffin and the lost building plans.
[Also not included in my piece, but just so you know: INXS filmed the music video for ‘Listen Like Thieves’ at the Westgarth, and in 1940 double-decker buses replaced the cable trams on High Street.]
8. Other stuff
I like to use the light in my writing, and how it can alter the appearance of things. In fact I found the word ‘light’ ten times in my first (1000 word) draft! Light (harsh or soft?) can be a way of signalling to your reader that something needs to be examined.
Music inspires me. I listened to music from WW2 time while writing this piece. I wanted to include a song from the 40s in the past section, and ‘Unchained Melody’ in the present, but I restrained myself from going overboard on the sentimentality.
9. Above all
When writing about place, ask yourself:
What is the feeling here?
What is the universal truth that embodies this place?
For my place — a purpose-built picture theatre from the 1920s — it was nostalgia.