Tag: writers tips

How Photography Can Help Improve Your Writing

Look through your lens before picking up your pen. In Matthew Ferrara’s words, here’s how he uses photography to help flesh out characters and scene setting, and to jumpstart his creativity when he’s feeling stuck. His class on how to Connect the Arts will be at 16:30 on June 5!

As a writer, one of the most important things we do is “set a scene.” The places where our stories unfold are as important as our characters and their actions. Developing interesting and heart-felt scenes is hard work: It’s more than describing the features of a room or buildings on a street. Helping readers get a sense of detail, dimension, sounds and light challenges us to see the picture very clearly in our heads first. Then the words can flow across the page. One way I help myself do this dovetails with my other passion – photography – to visualize real scenes I’ll turn into places for my stories and articles.

As a photographer, each photo is like a dozen opening paragraphs compressed into a few inches of space. Just like an opening chapter, I have to compose each shot as I take it; frame the moment; highlight the action and draw the reader into the action. My camera is like a drafting tool. If I’m going to open a story in the countryside, I drive out to a place near my house and take my camera for a walk. I’ll capture different times of the day, try different angles and play with the light. Sometimes I’ll spot something I almost overlooked, like an odd rock formation or a camouflaged bird in a tree. Those surprises encourage me later to vary my starting points for setting a scene.

Other times, I spend the day photographing people on the street. Catching a waitress in a café or a clever street performer helps me save glimpses of character traits for future stories. A unique smile or a strange piece of clothing journeys from my camera to characters on the page. I’ve learned to “always be on the lookout” for a scene, some action or clever ray of light that can catch my reader’s attention. When I draft articles and need new ideas, I sit with my computer and flip through photos until something jumps out at me. If I get stuck describing a place or a person or even a plate of food, I look back through my shots to give my brain a gentle jolt of creativity.

Connecting different forms of creativity – photography, dancing, painting, cooking – to our writing is a powerful way to think of new ways to compose scenes. Every art form has unique perspectives and powerful ways of using places, people, sights and sounds, just like a writer does. To make my stories come alive, I often start by looking through my lens, before picking up my pen.

Florence at sunset

But I Don’t Know Where to Start!

Writers often ask me where they should start their story. They have the idea in their heads. Scenes, thoughts or characters whirl in their imaginations. That’s where you should start writing. With whatever it is that is tugging at your mind.

This point is clearer, in an old Blog post recently found by a reader: Start with a fragment. John then sent a series of questions. I have outlined them here for this week’s Blog. I hope this helps!

But I Don’t Know Where to Start!

I wonder about your research methods, and how much, if at all, they vary for non-fiction or fiction. Do you scout sites/locations, just as film crews do?

With my Creative Non-Fiction books I always scout the real location. Though what ends up on the page may vary greatly from the original site, I find it necessary to go to the location.

Was sketching the only way you could recreate an appropriate scene? I expect that you have also used many images, both your own photos, and those available on the web, to provide colour, texture and detail to stimulate your imagination, but are there any of the old mezzadria farmhouses still preserved in a state that reflects the early 20th century?

When I sketched the old Tuscan farmhouse setting for Death in the Mountains I needed to understand the feel of the living room and kitchen. If I know what it looks like in my imagination, readers will too. I won’t get confused, so my readers won’t get confused. Stories often play out in kitchens and living rooms. So we must know exactly their dimensions and building materials. Knowing those elements gives us sight, sound, smell and touch. If I know what the floor is made from, I can imagine the sound of footsteps, or creaking wooden floor boards. The sounds of children playing on floor boards etc.

But I Don’t Know Where to Start!

Do you ‘walk through’ your rooms/scenes, in or out of character, to get the feel of the setting and to capture ‘their’ reactions? I guess I’m trying to see how you visualise what you are creating.

Yes, when I’m writing, I am inside my head so much that I don’t even see my office, I see my site or location. My characters walk. How many steps does it take? When Artemio was attacked in his barn, he crawled to the house. How far away was the barn to the house? He fell against the front door. How? What exactly did his body do? How did Bruna drag him in, a woman on her own? How did Felice and Bruna drag him up the stairs? How close was the door to the stairs? You have to totally immerse yourself physically and mentally in the scene’s action, understand everything about it. Only then you can describe it. You have to feel it happening.

But I Don’t Know Where to Start!

Does it in any way approach being an observer, describing settings, even ‘recording’ conversations?

Yes, I record conversations and interviews all the time. Try to get the nuance of voices, dialect, sayings, odd phraseology. Tone too – gravelly, high pitched. Voices reveal so much and later, when I’m transcribing I can find so much more description.

Thanks so much John! Don’t hesitate to write back, everyone, with any thoughts or questions.

I hope others are as interested in your answers as I am. Thanks again for sharing aspects of your writing process with us.


Answering a reader’s questions.

I like it when readers ask questions. It feels as though the core of what I’ve written has touched a heart, in a special way. When John Hingston read Death in the Mountains, he very kindly wrote to me in Italy with a series of questions. I felt you’d enjoy his thoughts too. It helps writers persevere with their work when they read what and how other writers handle their creative work.

Do you need to love words to be a writer? Are you primarily an entertainer or a communicator?
Yes, I think a writer has to love words. You need to turn words over, to make sure they perfectly express what you are trying to say. A writer has to communicate uniquely, in their own voice and invent different ways of expressing emotions. I’ve always been a communicator as I started my career as a journalist. Communicating is a huge part of journalism. Now I think I am primarily an entertainer. In fact, when my publisher asked me whether I was ready to leave non-fiction and move into fiction he asked me just one question. ‘Are you ready to move into the world of entertainment?’

Does your purpose change with the project/book you’re engaged in creating? 
Yes, stories morph and move as you write. You start with an idea, then it generally changes or takes shape. Ideas strike as you write. That’s why it’s important to keep writing, even if you’re not sure how the story will finish. It’s only when you are writing that ideas can flow.

Do you constantly have your audience in mind or do you give yourself some rope to range about, and then pick things over during editing?
I usually have an audience in mind. Almost all my readers love Italy in some way. So my name has, over the years, become synonymous with Italy, Tuscany and Florence. I always pick things over when editing, over and over and over. But generally most of my readers enjoy ‘armchair travel in Italy.’

Do you distinguish between writing for yourself and writing for others? 
Yes and no. I always write what is important to me at that moment of my life. I couldn’t write The Promise now. I couldn’t write Death in the Mountains now, or Naples, A Way of Love. I am ready to write a contemporary, fiction, thriller set in Florence that has a deeper message about inter-cultural marriage. I am writing it for myself but I would hate to think it would bore people.

Do you start with a big idea or a phrase that sounds good?
I start with a huge idea. And it has to sound good (at least to me). I always try to write the opening with a big bang. Start with action. It helps me drive the narrative and the story as I go. If I don’t’ like the story it won’t get written so it’s imperative that the writer is in love with their story, or it won’t sustain them for 80,000 words.

Can/do you compose at the keyboard or is the computer more a tool for assembling and editing the sections as they acquire form?
Usually, I write daily in long form on the computer. Though I tend to hand write when I need to think more deeply and find personal or distinctive phrases. I also tend to edit on hard copy in a café. I print off what I’ve written and read it like I would any book in a café. If it holds me, I know I am onto something. I do my best writing up at our old family farm, completely undisturbed, totally absorbed in my characters and the story.

Finally, have you looked back at your fb account where you asked tourists/travellers for feedback on their love of Italy? Has it turned up anything interesting or provocative?
Yes, for Rome (I live in Florence so Rome is not my stomping ground) I’ve been given some wonderful tips.

How soon before your next book is published?
I hope to finish this first draft by November or so. June, July, August will be frantic with The Art of Writing and my children on summer holidays. So my word count will diminish. I want to go to Hong Kong to see my mother in July and I will take my 17 year old son Leo. I would like him to spend some time with his grandmother. I’ll take my new book with me and work on it there. This story will take many drafts. So if I am happy with it by early next year, it would be out late next year. Normally I submit my manuscript in May and it is released just before Christmas.

Thanks John, for sending me these questions. I’ve enjoyed thinking about the answers.

If you would like to write with questions, don’t hesitate.

Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

Organise your drafts by filling up that coat rack.

Ever wonder how writers keep track of their chapters, as their books start to gather momentum? How do writers organise their drafts? How do they manage their hard copies? Should you keep everything you print off?

For me, it’s the magic of a simple coat rack. This is how I build my books. I hang the chapters in chronological order, starting at the right hand side of the coat rack.

Organise your drafts by filling up that coat rack.

Watching that coat rack fill up with chapters and fragments is fabulous! It is enormously satisfying to see those sheets of paper pile up as I edit hard copies. This is the fourth book I have written using this method. I bought this coat rack at the Santo Spirito market years ago. It was originally attached to the corridor walls of a nearby primary school.

By the time I’ve finished this novel there will be about 200,000 words hanging along this coat rack. The average contract for a novel is for 80,000 words. But after I’ve ‘killed my darlings’ (deleted what I thought was precious) and tossed unusable drafts, there will be at least 200,000 words of text hanging along that rack.

Organise your drafts by filling up that coat rack.

My office is on the top floor of my house in Florence. Under the rafters. So this couch keeps me sane when reading through either my own drafts or text from the writers I mentor through the Art of Writing.

Organise your drafts by filling up that coat rack.

As the winter months enclose us here in Italy, I look forward to keeping in touch with you. Sorry I’ve been out of touch but am going into my ‘cave’ (office) to hibernate and write now, so you can expect to hear quite a lot from me.

Organise your drafts by filling up that coat rack.

What’s your system? How do you keep your chapters in order? Do you print them off and have a filing system that could give us an organisational idea?

Thank you too to Birgitte Brondsted at the Dusty Green Olive who wrote this lovely story on me and my office a while ago. Check it out here.

Organise your drafts by filling up that coat rack.

Meeting people who inspire you to learn and grow.

Meeting people who inspire you to learn and grow.One of the glorious things about living in Florence is meeting the most interesting people. I meet travelers, inventors, creators, inspirers, reporters and sometimes I meet someone who
is all of those things. Like Girl in Florence, Georgette Jupe. I am lucky enough to officially announce that Girl in Florence, Georgette Jupe, will join us for the September 10-16 Art of
Writing retreat.

Meeting people who inspire you to learn and grow.It’s a treat to announce this because it means that not only will our September writers have the opportunity to meet one of the loveliest girls but also to chat, drink, dine, bushwalk and generally hang out with Georgette too. She has much to tell us, Georgette. Every time I meet up with her I learn so much. Love that! Don’t you? When you chat with someone and find that you are learning and growing? Am feeling particularly blessed about this amazing group of women (and men!) that will join me this year in Casentino.

Meeting people who inspire you to learn and grow.Who would have thought? All those years ago, when I was 17 years old and a barmaid at the Red Garter in Florence. Who could possibly have known that gorgeous Florentine medical student would become my husband and the father of my two gorgeous babies? That 38 years and four books later, I’d still be here!

Life is a surprise. You never know what your journey is going to be.

I am eternally grateful to Florence and all that she has given me. And thanks to you too for being on this journey with me.

Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

Check out what our writers are reading this summer.

We have the most wonderful group of professional writers on the Art of Writing team. From New York best sellers to UK literary award winners, our teachers make a living from their writing. That’s our dream job, no? To become a career writer. It’s such an honour to have the wonderful writers listed below on our teachers’ lineup.

So what are The Art of Writing creative writing teachers reading and writing this summer?

New York best sellers list author, Jane Corry, is reading The Breakdown by B. A. Paris. Having just read Jane’s My Husband’s Wife, I was thrilled to see her new book Blood Sisters with Penguin is also out this summer. But what is Jane writing now? “This European summer will be a busy few months. I am writing next year’s book for Penguin, The Dead Ex.” What a gift to have Jane’s advice and guidance next year. After her three book Penguin deal, Jane will have much to teach us from June 3-9, 2018.

Out wonderful Manuscript Reader and teacher, Emma Fraser told me yesterday that she has just finished reading His Bloody Project by Roderick Macrae. Emma has just picked up The Client by John Grisham (apparently she put it aside for a while) and when that’s finished Emma will read The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding.

Every time I speak to Emma she is on a tight publishing contract deadline, this time it’s a three book deal with Little Brown. “I’m currently writing a multi-generational novel about love, betrayal and atonement set against the background of the Fall of Singapore and Scotland. It’s called Greyfriars and is due out in January 2018!” And away she went to get on with revisions!  

From September 10-16, 2017, multiple award-winning and internationally renowned British author of five novels for adults and three for young adults, Martyn Bedford will join us in Tuscany. Martyn’s book Flip managed to keep my 15 year old son’s interest from beginning to end. No small feat.

Chatting to Martyn this week he said he was just back to the UK after three days in Italy. “I was taking part in the Mare di Libri (Sea of Books) Festival of writing for children and young adults. When I go abroad I always try to read a book from that country, so I took Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. It’s the first of her highly acclaimed Neapolitan quartet. Okay, the novel is set in Naples rather than Rimini, where I’ve been staying, but it’s a literary flavour of Italy nonetheless. As many readers and critics before me have been, I am absolutely engrossed by the tale of Lenu’s and Lila’s turbulent friendship during childhood and adolescence. No doubt, I will take the second book with me when I visit Tuscany for my week’s tutoring with the Art of Writing from September 10-16!”

Having read the Elena Ferrante books I am looking forward to talking to Martyn about them.

So what is Martyn writing right now? “I’m forty thousand words into the first draft of my new novel for teenagers and young adults, The House that Jacaranda Built. I don’t like to talk about novels-in-progress before at least a draft is completed, in case the idea goes stale on me for being “explained” before it’s written. So I’ll just say that it’s the tale of a family that offers refuge to a homeless teenager who they find asleep in the doorway of their café, and the consequences arising from their decision.”

Am always fascinated to hear what writers are working on and also what they’re reading. This Blog makes for a good Summer Reading List! Thanks so much to The Art of Writing writers for their thoughts and best wishes to everyone for a productive summer of writing.

Hugs from Florence!


Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

Let food carry your story forward.

Let food carry your story forward.When food is beautiful, drab, compelling or repulsive we can and should include it in our stories.

Food can carry a story forward. Not only the actual food, but the process of eating it, dining around it and/or sharing a meal. Food used in a social sense can reveal much about people’s relationships with each other. When you include a meal in your story, the possibilities are endless.

Enjoying or rejecting food and the company sharing it can be the focus point a scene needs. Writers needs scenes in which to reveal… and scoffing, or quaffing, can give us just the ambience and atmosphere we need.

Let food carry your story forward.Think about how often you’ve seen meal times in movies used to show how a family or friends relate. Or how often you’ve read a book where the pivotal scene was over the dinner table.

Here, Ruth Reichl in her book Tender at the Bone, talks about going for her first coffee in Italy. It’s not a food scene, but one written so evocatively that it made me think about how often coffee is now used as a scene setter for the story telling.

The scent of beans was so powerful we could smell it from two blocks away, the aroma growing stronger as we got closer to the cafe. It was a rich and appealing scent, and it pulled us onward and through the door. Inside, burlap sacks of coffee beans were stacked everywhere and the smell of coffee was so intense it made me giddy. Thin men lounged against a long bar, drinking tiny cups of espresso. The coffee was smooth and satisfying, a single gulp of pure caffeine that lingered on the palate and reverberated behind the eyes. I felt lightheaded.

What a great way to set up a pivotal scene – through coffee!

Let food carry your story forward.

Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

So what’s your protagonist’s transformation?

So what's your protagonist's transformation?Tricky business, sometimes, understanding how your character must change or grow. How almost all stories happen at a crossroads in your character’s life, how a story pivots around a fork in their road. Sometimes the story happens at their crisis point, their threshold moment.

It’s a story essential. Your character must evolve. He/she must go from ‘something’ to ‘something.’

So what's your protagonist's transformation?Weakling to warrior?

Bad to good?

Good to bad?

Happy to sad?

Faith to faithless?

Arrogance to humility?

Dependent to independent?

So what's your protagonist's transformation?These are just ideas, some simple changes to illustrate what I mean, but it’s good to keep it simple. If you think about every movie you’ve ever seen, the main character undergoes some kind of transformation. How is the main character in your book changing? From what to what? It’s super important that you know that clearly now. Don’t leave it till later, work it out now then show the changes through action. Don’t tell the changes, show them.

So what's your protagonist's transformation?In my new book Lana is weak, indecisive. She lets her Italian husband Santo make all the decisions because she doesn’t feel that she is knowledgeable enough about the ways of Italy to make the decisions. But this hesitant behavior of Lana’s changes because of the pivotal moment, the crisis event in her life. Lana goes from insecure to secure, basically from weakness to strength. However she loses something along the way – her ability to trust people. Lana, while gaining self-worth, loses her innocence and naivety. She will never believe in people in quite the same way again. It sounds corny, cheesy really, and rather ‘already done’. But remember, this is your story, your character, your imagination, your voice. So it will be different.

How does your character transform? Can you put it in three words?

So what's your protagonist's transformation?

Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

Find the right words, and learn how to keep them from getting away.

The right words, unique thoughts, perfect phrases, stunning sentence construction – why is it that they often come unbidden when you’re away from your computer?

It’s interesting how prose flows when you drive your car, take your shower, cook your dinner or hear a certain song.

Find the right wordsThere is something about doing something else that clears your mind and lets the right words come. Sometimes we sit at our computers for hours and labour over the right expression but it does not emerge. It seems as though our conscious mind is blocking the flow of our creativity and that once we step away from forcing it, that stunning sentence comes to us. As in, the right words or exciting ideas bubble up seemingly from nowhere when we are not concentrating so hard.

That’s why you must keep notebooks everywhere. Beside your bed, on the kitchen counter, in the car, bathroom, wherever it is that your ideas tend to come to you. It’s a personal thing – the arrival of that uninvited, yet most welcome thought. What’s not individual or personal is that it happens to every writer, the perfect thought can come unbidden at any time. A notebook in your pocket or handbag is not enough. Maybe you were transcribing and forgot to take your notebook with you. That perfect phrase will never come back again. Believe me; it’s best to write down your thought when it comes. Don’t think it will ever come back the way it did because it won’t. When it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

Be sure to read my blog series From Notes to First Draft on then turning these notes into scenes for your novel! 

Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

Story ideas; Where to get them, and how to use them.

Story ideasStory ideas imprint themselves on my brain and I cannot get rid of them until I write them down. They replay themselves, like movies, and I am always subconsciously trying to write the idea or scene down, to describe it.

It’s a very good idea to try and work out how you form your story ideas. If you can figure out how your brain ‘finds a story’ it helps you understand yourself as writer. It can also be the key to helping you get out of a writing slump or writer’s block. 

Story ideasHow are the ‘idea seeds’ for your stories planted? Do they grow from a person you saw or met? Did that person then morph into a character that became a story? Are your ideas born from one anecdotal story that grows into ten more anecdotal stories, until you ultimately have all those yarns knitted together to form a narrative?

Even if all you craft are vignettes, these scenes can be a great way to start a chapter. They help you lead,Story ideas or segue into the body of your chapter. They give you a chance to say something about your character before you go on to write what it is that the chapter has to say. In other words, the chapter needs an interesting place to start so that you can take your story where it has to go. 

Start now to try and figure out where your ideas come from.

Story ideas

Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

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