Where am I? Researching a location

A few months ago I submitted a piece for feedback – it was a conversation between two protagonists, one secretly bidding the other farewell as she resolves not to see him again. The feedback I received was all to do with how poor the location work was – about how the reader needs to trust that the writer knows what they’re talking about, had I thought about adding some local details, and so on. As reasonable as this sounds, I didn’t truly know what it meant until Friday.

I could see the advice was sensible and despite my disappointment (I’d put all my efforts into writing the characters and plot for that bit) I decided to take a day and go walking around my chosen location. Friday was that day. As it happened, my location was London – Dulwich, to be precise – and so my time was limited, bearing in mind the extortionate price of train tickets in peak time (even when booking in advance). I printed myself off a map, packed my camera and a brand new notebook for the occasion and set off.

I took some seed packets from Writer’s Greenhouse down to look at on the journey. I got two free samples from Megan recently and was looking forward to trying them out with the writing group. But each of them came with individual exercises to do so what better opportunity than a writing day to try them out? As it happens, Megan had sent the ‘Plot v premise’ packet and the ‘Premise circles’ packet, somehow sensing that I have this great premise but am still unsure of the plot (and location – but more on that later.) I will review these properly later, but I did feel that the exercises will probably work much better in a group scenario as I can see how easily they spark discussion. As it was, I made notes on what I enjoyed about my three favourite novels, looked at their premises and tried to work out plot points for each. What did my three favourite novels have in common? As well as having great characterisation, I wrote that I could visualise myself in each of the books, that they had a distinct location. How apt.

My plan in Dulwich was to visit the picture gallery where I wanted to set several scenes, find my family a house and get a handle on the area. It was soon apparent that a house was going to be an issue. No one told me Dulwich was that posh! Mansions and ruddy great detached places lined the street to the gallery. I vowed to go down some of the side streets after the gallery to sort this out. There must be somewhere smaller somewhere.

The gallery was full of retired folk and people who looked completely at home whispering about brush strokes and the like. None of the art was really to my taste but I tried to put myself in the broad, comfortable rubber soled shoes of my protagonist and was soon communing with a couple of paintings I thought she’d like – a Rembrandt and something from Joshua Reynolds’s “ruinous experimental period.” Figures. I made a few notes, took many pictures and started to hear dialogue in my head. Time to find lunch and jot some more down.

The gallery cafe was a sit down, menu, nothing less than £7 for soup and certainly no sandwiches kind of a place so I left and walked through the park. (The shops I’d passed on the way had included some estate agents and an actual artisan bakery – don’t the folk of Dulwich Village go for coffee?) I was in luck. The park cafe served excellent sausage sandwiches and I washed it down with tea while gazing out of the window. The sky was the colour of a wrung out dishcloth yet the light was bright to pick out the flashes of purple crocuses, the blossom on the trees and the mustard sand of the bridleway that ran alongside the pathway. Children and dog walkers were my companions in the park and it was while watching them that something clicked in my head. This WAS my location. I knew they lived here, I knew they came here. I knew I could write about this. And once I knew this was my location, I knew what it was that I still needed to find out about them all. I stood up and set forth across the park to learn more.

I found them a house, tried not to look self conscious while taking pictures of it, and failed to look inconspicuous in the local library, bolting after the librarian looked me up and down and asked if I needed help. With that, I made my way back to the station, stopped off in an independent bookshop (creaky floors, nice range of children’s books) and started the long journey back to Nottingham.

It was a really useful day and I got home excited and inspired – that doesn’t happen very often. I have 2,000 words of a first draft for one scene already and there’s a lot more to come. So my thanks to Dulwich, for not scaring me with your eight bedroom houses, for not having me arrested when I took pictures of your houses, for giving me Rembrandt and Reynolds, for a great sandwich, and for my sense of place.

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