Overcoming writer’s block – say what you see!

April 21, 2020
April 21, 2020 Philip Holmes

Struggling to get started? Some more guidance from author Clare Harvey….

Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring (Art.IWM ART LD 2850) image: portrait of a female factory worker operating a lathe Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/15504

“You have to be of a certain vintage to remember ITV’s quiz show Catchphrase, and host Roy Walker hollering ‘say what you see!’ to befuddled contestants. However, the Catchphrase host’s own catchphrase is also my mantra when I’m suffering from blank page syndrome.

An image can provide inspiration for a scene, chapter, or even a whole book, and I regularly channel my inner Roy Walker in my own writing practice. For example in my third novel, The Night Raid, Laura Knight’s wonderful wartime propaganda painting ‘Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring’ (shown here courtesy of Imperial War Museums) provided a stepping off point for the narrative. I started by simply noting the concrete detail: the young women in overalls and turbans in shades of blue and green; the equipment that looks like a cross between a meat slicer and a sewing machine; the bright, false light of a blacked-out factory. It was then easy for my mind to run on to other details, such as what the girl in the portrait was thinking about? What was she planning to do after the portrait was finished? What was her relationship to the portrait painter and to the other factory girls?

If you’re stuck staring at the blank page and wondering how to begin, turning to an image – painting, photo or old postcard – can provide a valuable stepping-off point, if you’re ready to start with ‘say what you see!’


Try this:

Do you have an old family photo that fascinates you? Take the time to look carefully at it.

Start with what you know: Who is in the picture? What else can you see (buildings, furniture, fields, doorways)? If outside, what’s the weather like? If inside, what’s the décor? Are people standing or sitting? Smiling or frowning? What’s the body language like?

Move on to what you think you know: How is everyone feeling? What are their relationships to each other? What else is going on in their lives at this time? Who is the photographer? What relationship is the photographer to the people in the shot? Why was the picture taken?

Finally, write for ten minutes about what you think happened immediately after the photograph was taken (what people said, where they went, whose smile faded immediately, who rushed off as soon as the shutter clicked, etc). Have a go and see what you discover – you might find you have the beginnings of a scene or a story. Good luck! Cx

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