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Using Live Writing on Site Visits

Advanced techniques for writers

Yesterday I went to Norwich to do some research for my novel, and that included several stops for Live Writing. Thanks to a direct train from Brighton to Cambridge, it’s just about possible to do in a day, although the train back was cancelled so I am pretty tired today and managed to fall asleep in front of the women’s Wimbledon final this afternoon!

Two kinds of Live Writing

I’ve written previously about how I use Live Writing as a writing prompt – I go to a quirky or interesting place to write on location and use freewriting (and close observation) to come up with stories, adding ‘What if?’ until a character emerges. It’s how I put my short story collection together. I love this technique although I haven’t used it very much over the last couple of years for obvious reasons.

Yesterday I was using Live Writing the other way around. I had already written extensively about the places I visited, over three different stories, and I wanted to fill in the details. I visited Norwich’s Anglican Cathedral, St. Julian’s church, and Chapelfield gardens. I have been to all of these places before (I used to live in Norwich) but I always find I get more out of a writing visit on the second or third occasions, probably because I notice more of the details and you can see how places change on different days and in different seasons.

Using Live Writing for exisiting stories

It is trickier to use Live Writing for a WIP (rather than as a writing prompt in and of itself) for three reasons:

  1. It might be difficult to write on location in the place you’ve chosen. That might be because it’s practically difficult – nowhere to stop and write, for instance. Or it might be because the space doesn’t feel congruent with the writing process.
  2. The piece you’re writing needs to dictate the pace and tone. You don’t necessarily want to add lots of description, but you do want pertinent details and a feel for the place. So it can be hard to know what to write when you’re there.
  3. You might need to check for factual accuracy, which can be straightforward, but smaller details – whether characters would be able to peer over a gate, or the variety of trees that grow there, for instance – can have you questioning just how far you should go with authenticity!

I found it was useful to sit and write a description anyway, just as a starting point, because once I got going I knew I would be able to mine that freewriting for the details I needed. Small matters of consistency – like the height of the gate – occurred to me as I wrote.

What about specific questions?

I found this surprising at first, but it is difficult to find answers to questions that are particular to your writing from an actual site visit. You can usually get official information, unless the place concerned is a thoroughly natural environment, but you can find that online. On my last visit and this one, I wanted answers to questions like:

  • When were people allowed to climb up to the roof of Norwich Castle?
  • Who does the one grave belong to in the garden at St. Julian’s church?
  • If the two Cathedrals in Norwich were demolished by a natural disaster, which parts would be likely to remain?
  • What kinds of trees are there in East Dereham churchyards?

For these kinds of questions, I’ve found it’s usually best to find an expert to ask. For questions to do with layout or geographical location, a site visit works well of course. One of mine was about the location of the gift shop in Norwich Cathedral. Looking online didn’t work – I either had to fictionalise it or find out by visiting in person.

Atmosphere and the sensory detail

A site visit, for me, is mainly about soaking up the atmosphere, and imagining what it would be like for my characters to operate there. What are the difficulties they would face because of the space? What opportunities does it provide? And those are the sorts of answers I don’t have to write down – aside from a few notes – because I can recall the visit to those places when I return to my draft.

As always, take small steps

In case you want to try this kind of Live Writing, here are some tips:

  • Pick a piece of writing in which a place or geographical location or natural feature or building is very important – almost an extra character OR write a piece inspired by a place.
  • Edit your writing with a critical (but friendly) hat on, asking yourself what you need to know and also what you need to feel or sense about the place. For instance, what does it sound like to stand in the garden at St. Julian’s church in Norwich? Or how high is the gate? Or what would it feel like to walk around Norwich cathedral after it had been part demolished by natural disaster?
  • Go to the place and attempt to experience it through all of the senses you have available to you. If there is somewhere convenient to write, you can write on location. Otherwise I recommend retreating to a near-by café after the sensory observation.

If you’re stuck, go through each of the senses and describe the place from that standpoint. You won’t use all of this material, but the experience of being there should come back to you more easily when you redraft your work.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx

P.S. If you’d like more tips like these, take a look at the Small Steps Writing Guides.

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