Writing workshop: using place names in your writing

When writing prose, it’s easy to get stuck on the mechanics of the story – who is speaking? Was the baby asleep in the last scene? Could it really be dusk already? …. and the writing itself can sometimes feel secondary, just a means of getting your characters from A to B.

So turning up at a poetry workshop is a brilliant way to break out of the prose writing rut and come away with some vivid images and a few promising ideas to pick up later.

The first thing that poet Liz Berry told us when she opened her workshop, held as part of the British Council’s Literature Seminar, was that using place names for inspiration is most definitely not a new trick. Instead, it’s a time-honoured way of diving into fresh creative waters and giving your brain a bit of a jolt because, as it turns out, place names can be seriously weird.

To warm up after the introductions, we read a few poems, including Going Through the Villages by Matthew Francis and the menacing Nigh-No-Place by Jen Hadfield. Both were brilliant examples of how place names can work, almost on their own, to create a distinctive mood in a piece of writing.

We then did some writing exercises: first choosing a place name provided by Liz – Saltcoats, Tralee and more – and using them to generate some fragments of writing.

Then we all read our work before going on to look at maps, including the London Underground, the Paris Metro and some regional maps.

Mine was a very old map of the Birmingham area, and included gorgeous names such as Cosely Tunnel, Apple Tree, Dozell’s Basin, Beehive, Dolphin and Small Heath. I ended up with a sentimental poem about a child going to sleep, but still, it was something new and something unexpected – and that was enough.

As a writing exercise, drawing on maps and place names is playful, can lead to some intriguing connections and gives you some easy ways to jump into a story or just a productive writing session. All you need to do is take a map, find a place name that resonates with you and go for five or ten minutes. Then another, and another. Mix them up, make a list, whatever works!

Because, as Liz reminded us, Robert Frost always considered poetry ‘serious play’ – while it may be about serious things, at heart it’s a creative and playful activity.

Finally, she told us to read over our work and find just one idea that we liked because, as she said, “writers are always so mean about their work.”

All in all, it was a morning that reminded me just how much I love writing workshops – the focus that comes with knowing you’ll be reading your work aloud, the generosity of everyone in sharing their writing, the contagious intensity of a roomful of people working without distraction, and the feeling of being among your kind. Not to mention the presence of Liz herself, who was so genuinely delighted and encouraging that everyone kind of floated out into the rest of their day feeling blessed.

Liz Berry’s own poetry includes her Forward Prize winning The Republic of Motherhood, published in a pamphlet that resembles a passport. If you know of anyone who has just had a baby and loves poetry, this would be a beautiful gift. She also has a collection called Black Country (Chatto, 2014).

The British Council Literature Seminar is held every year and is a wonderful opportunity to hear some new and established British writers, buy their books, attend their workshops and listen to readings.

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