Writing with a sense of place

La Finca
Our outdoor classroom in Aracena

I’ve been thinking recently about how a sense of place influences my writing.

In September I spent four glorious days on a Dark Angels creative writing in business course in Aracena, Spain. My fellow writers all drew on the landscape, the history and the culture of the area to produce some highly imaginative and creative writing. It was truly magical to hear the different voices and interpretations of the exercises we did together during the day and to revel in a final evening of stories and performances.

The first day, we used a passage from Don Quixote as inspiration, and along with the warm sunshine, good company and relaxed atmosphere, it’s encouraged my recent writing to take on a rather lyrical, allegorical tone.

Compare and contrast with a few years ago, when I visited Japan. There my writing took on the style of the haiku. Pared back. Economical. Each word working hard. Packed with meaning. I have a notebook filled with poems and scraps of free verse from my time there. And when I think of Japan, that’s the kind of language that fills my mental landscape.

I’ve also recently written a piece about where I live. For this I drew on both the geographical setting of the river that runs nearby, and the voices of its history. For this is an area of rich voices, identifiable by their distinctive accent. I wasn’t born here, so it’s not my accent; but listening to The Unthanks sing of the shipyards, I can fair see the bulkheads blocking out the daylight or hear the pounding of boots on the slipway.

Professionally I write for one client. One tone of voice. But it has to have something of all these voices. It has to be economical, because I write for busy people who want me to get to the point. But it cannot be too obscure. They cannot be expected to work hard to find the meaning.

So, I look for the phrases that will surprise and delight. The words that show there’s a real human being behind those marks on the paper or screen. Sometimes that means a change of rhythm or pace. Sometimes it’s a colloquial phrase – something you’d actually say.

Though I have to be careful not to be too colloquial. I was recently asked to rewrite a line where I used ‘tea’ in the northern sense of ‘dinner’ or a meal you have in the evening. After all, not all our customers are northerners.

I’ve been asked if writing for one client can get boring. It can be a challenge certainly, to keep it fresh and interesting when covering the same themes. But there’s always a new way of looking at things, new insights from our customers or new influences from the wider world to take on board.

And when I spend some time thinking about my writing, I can see that I do adopt different voices – at work, on my blog, and in my personal writing. They’re all slightly different, but all part of me. And they’re all influenced by people I’ve met, places I’ve visited. To me, it’s a rich source of inspiration.

Does a sense of place influence your writing too?

If you want to know more about what happens on a Dark Angels writing course, tutor John Simmons describes it beautifully in his latest blog post. 

When long copy works

Twitter directed me to a great advert for Dutch railways this week:

It’s a fantastic example of long copy being used effectively.

Often in the world of marketing, we’re told, keep it short, make it simple. And that’s usually excellent advice. But as all good writers know, sometimes you have to break the rules. And that’s what this advert does. But it doesn’t do it to be self consciously shocking, or clever (like companies who try to introduce a made up word). It does it in a sympathetic way, one that makes its audience smile.

The message is basically, saying ‘If you’d taken the train, you wouldn’t be stuck in traffic.’ And I’m sure some organisations would have gone with a message that was a variant on that theme.

But consider the audience for this advert. They are people sitting in their cars, frustrated at being stuck in heavy traffic, most likely trying to get to work, to school, to meetings on time. They are assailed by a mass of messages – stop, go, turn left, don’t speed, traffic lights, road crossings, directions. Do they really need another one barking orders at them? Or making them feel stupid for choosing to take the car?

Road signs and warnings have to be absorbed quickly and easily, so they’re often made up of symbols and short words. In this environment full of instructions and commands, the longer, more literary copy stands out as something different.

It’s dramatic, that’s true. Quickly painting a scene, setting up character and suspense – how did she get there, what happens next…? Everyone loves a story.

And then the pay off, the point of the advert, which is to make you think about how things would be if you were somewhere else. If you were on a train, you might be able to read the whole of the story, or another story, or at least escape the frustrations of being stuck behind a big yellow bus. A built in benefit to encourage you to change your habits.

Very clever, very smart. And all done with the right words in the right place.