Archive for the ‘location’ Category

Fleetwood + Preston Bus Station

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Unicycle Emptiness (‘an irregular guide to the North West and more) is one of my new favourite blogs. Just look at these pictures of Fleetwood, Pilling and Knot End. Fleetwood is where A Kind of Intimacy is set. It couldn’t possibly be anywhere else. I’ve still never been to an eerier place. A place that still provokes such curiosity in me that I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime soon I write about it again.

While I’m here, fellow Fleetwood lovers should make sure they check out Julia McKoen and Jayne Steele’s film, Frozen, a suitably eerie film set in the town. In Frozen, Fleetwood itself is as much of a character as the actors. The thing I loved best about this film was the ambiguity of it. Never sure if it was a ghost story, an allegory, a psychodrama, a thriller, all of them at once, or something else entirely. Like the town itself, Frozen prompts imaginings and is silent enough to hold the space you need to scare yourself with wondering.

My current work in progress (I actually have a title for it now, but don’t feel like telling just yet) is set in a very different place. Mainly Chorley, with little parts in Utah. Chorley is still close to home, for me, but the first one of my novels not to contain, in some way, the seaside, beach, shoreline. Sometimes I wonder if it is harder to capture and evoke the feel of a place that’s very familiar to you – that the uniqueness of a place that you know well can become invisible. So maybe Fleetwood and Preston and now Chorley are not strange, uncanny sort of places. But they have become that way, for me, because I have written about them and in writing about them I need to make them familiar and not familiar to myself at the same time.

I missed, while I was away, this strange Guardian CIF article about Preston Bus Station and (oddly) J. K. Rowling. Preston Bus Station (or a building based on it) features in Cold Light and for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure yet, is one of the main stars in the Cold Light book trailer. I’m not nearly famous enough to do the job, but if anyone did feel like getting a writer in residence for the good ol bus station, I’d be first in line to apply for it. And I’d be dead cheap on travel, as I can near enough see the thing from my house.

So many people think it’s an ugly, unnecessary, pee-smelling sort of place. I think it is a beautiful building and I could quite happily spend days in there, collecting and writing stories.

The photograph is (with permission) from Unicycle Emptiness, taken by Matthew Jones who’s flickr stream is here.

Station Stories + A Plea

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

I’ve not participated in a project since, I think, Bugged. Which was back at the start of the summer. Ages and ages ago, although – so I hear – the book is still selling very briskly thanks to Jo’s efforts in planning and performing in events up and down the country.

Still, for me it is time to take on something new to run alongside the endless typing of The First Draft and the terrifying approach to Cold Light’s arrival in the world.

The something new is Station Stories – a writing project run by David Gaffney and The Hamilton Project. The other writers involved, me, Tom Fletcher, Peter Wild, Nicholas Royle and Tom Jenks will all be writing stories set in and around Manchester Picadilly train station. Once we’ve written, edited and practiced our stories we will be performing them in the station across three days in late May. And the performace will be something very special.

We’ve already met up to be given a tour of all the station’s nooks and crannies in the hope that it would get our juices flowing. Brain storming has been happening via email. This isn’t a writing collaboration – we’re all responsible for our own words, but the performance needs to work as a whole and that means working together during the planning stages to ensure there isn’t too much overlap of story or tone, that we manage to cover, somehow, the life of the train station. 

Sadly, I am stumped. I normally like a commission and don’t have any problem with coming up with new ideas. But this week and the one before – nothing. I will pull it out of the bag in the end, promise. Most of my commissions are written in a bolt of white hot panic, against a deadline.

But in the mean time. tell me your train station stories and I may steal them and recycle them. Don’t worry if your train station isn’t Picadilly. Alk donations are welcome. Sorry for the imposition but it’s hard times for all of us.

Think of it as your donation to the Big Society.

Mental Image

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Insert glib quote about life imitating art, or something, here.

It has been a week of not much writing and lots of looking. I haven’t planned it this way, but a batch of similar tasks have all cropped up together over the past week or so.

I have been looking at logos and mock up web pages for a new project (you will hear about this soon, and first, o reader  – I promise) and wrestling with the problem of getting the ideas about images out of my head and into an email so that my partner in this project and our designer can see them too.

I’ve also been making lists of locations in Cold Light and discussing the pros and cons of each of them with the digital marketing person at Sceptre. She’s taking my ideas and her own and working them into a brief for a film production company. They’ll use the brief to make a trailer for the book. The idea, I think, is to have me in some of the settings reading bits of the book to bring the locations to life.

When I was writing Cold Light I imagined the river freezing over in icy chunks that were inches thick. It suited me to believe it could happen though in my heart of hearts I doubted it. The cold weather we’ve had over the past couple of weeks has pleased me because the river really did freeze over. Kim took he picture of the Ribble opposite and also recently disproved my theory that fish can live in frozen ponds as long as there’s an air hole in the ice.

So all this thinking about setting, and location reminded me of a conversation I had with a member of the audience during an MLF / Rainy City Stories event about Writing and Place late last year. The three of us (me, Claire Dudman, Nicholas Royle) were talking about using real places in fiction. I said I’d used Preston for Cold Light, but taken some liberties, changed a few things around – for my own convenience and because I didn’t want to depict the place exactly, but write more or less how I felt about it (hence the river freezing over  – which at the time I didn’t think was possible.)

I made a hash of explaining it, but I think I meant that the atmosphere and emotions of a place were more true and real and interesting for me than street names, real bus routes, distance between parks and shopping centres, Debenhams’ policy on shoplifters. There are Facts and ‘facts’ about a place. And the audience member said, ‘well why call it Preston at all then?’ which was a good question, and stumped me, until I realised on the way home (spirit of the staircase) that I hadn’t actually mentioned Preston by name at all in the book – just other things that made it obvious, like the name of the motorway and the river and the shape and size of our very special multi storey car-park.

Us Prestonians have got some fantastically grotty places – I’ve been revisting my memories of them to find pictures to show to the people in charge of making a film that will sum up Cold Light in four minutes or less. The only problem is that, especially in the not-grotty park, the locations of 1997 are not the same now. So not only could I never find pictures of the fictional Preston I’ve bludgeoned into existence with my keyboard, but the pictures that will appear on the film trailer will be more than a decade out of date.

I know that’s okay. I know that the trailer, the same as the book, is interested in evoking rather than describing a place. In this case, a pretend one.

But all the same, here I am making lists of  locations to film in, finding photographs on flickr and fretting because the old bandstand isn’t there any more and things in the trailer aren’t exactly going to look the way they do in the book. The only place it is real is in my head. The film trailer and the map I am making and the other bits and pieces that make use of real places and pictures to describe what it might look like are just approximations of it.

With A Kind of Intimacy, when people have mental pictures of Annie or her house that don’t quite match up to mine, I can shrug – the book is as much yours as it is mine now. She can be six foot tall for you and around my significantly-below-average height to me – it doesn’t matter too much, and the fact that the reader is the co-creator of the novel – bringing the pictures to life and using the words as their jumping off place – well, that’s what books are for, isn’t it?

Perhaps all this anxiety I’ve found in rooting about for images and trying to find the exact right picture to show the film production company what the park where Emma and Lola do their drinking should really, really look like, is just a way of not letting go, not giving the reader room to make her own pictures. And I think it’s because now it’s 2011 and the book will be published This Year and I’m getting nervous about having to let go of it whether I want to or not, and a little bit because over the past month I’ve seen parts of Cold Light become real before my eyes.

Which is unsettling.

There’s No Place Like Home

Monday, October 25th, 2010

Half term at Ashworth Towers (and elsewhere, so I’ve heard) which means not so much new writing being done this week – but preparation for the second half of my creative writing course at UCLAN, a bit of manuscript appraisal and the finishing touches for my Blogging for Beginners workshop (I believe there are a couple of places left, still, if you’re interested).

Yesterday, the Rainy City Stories Panel event for the Manchester Literature Festival – Nicholas Royle, Clare Dudman and me chatting to each other about the way we use ‘place’ in our stories. Despite the fact that it’s going to be a little while before Cold Light is available, I read from it and that was exciting.

Clare talked about her travels – the way she prefers to visit places alone to soak up the atmosphere and find out things about a place you’d never pick up from books or the internet. For one of her books, she traveled though Patagonia on her own. I talked (less impressively) about my trips into Fleetwood on the bus with my then-toddler Small Fry for A Kind of Intimacy. Cold Light is set in Preston, where I’ve almost always lived, so the only travel I did was into my memories. I joked that I set all my fiction in places fairly near to me because I’m a lazy researcher, but now I’m starting work on book three (still no title) which is primarily set in Chorley but with one of the characters having spend significant time in the US, I am thinking a trip ABROAD to Utah might be in order.

And of course my interest in the North West is not because I am a lazy researcher. But I’m not a faithful, truth telling one either. One question from the audience made me think – I’d mentioned that for Cold Light, I’d had to do a little bit of re-jigging of what Preston looks like to serve the plot, and that I’m expecting some local readers to gleefully point out these ‘mistakes’ to me at some point in time. I shrug in response to this – it really, really doesn’t bother me because novels aren’t maps and I think we turn to fiction for other kinds of truth than the factual. Although I know that errors in fact are irritating to some readers when they find them, for me, unless we’re talking wilful ignorance, stereotype etc, it really doesn’t upset me as a reader either.

Something that we touched on during the discussion (we were only there an hour, but once we got going felt like we could have gone on much longer thanks to Nick’s excellent chairing) is the difference between evoking and depicting a place. I’m interested in conveying atmosphere and mood. In writing about what it is like to come from somewhere not very trendy, not very well known, and fairly hard to get out of. In writing about how disappointing, inward looking places impact on character and what it is like to grow up bored and disappointed. In paralysis, feeling trapped, not quite realising that in other places, it might be possible to do things a little bit differently. In giving anonymous, and frankly, sometimes fairly ugly Northern towns to readers who haven’t met them before. De-Preston. Not in writing a guide-book or a travelogue.

I think the difference between depicting and evoking is the difference between facts and fiction. I push what I know and what I see into a story and it becomes something odd, something that doesn’t exist anywhere except my book, and yet references Preston and hundreds of other towns. I hope that people who want to find out what Preston feels like find something useful in my book. They certainly won’t be able to use it as a road map.

On the train home, watching Deansgate, Salford, Bolton, Horwich and Chorley slide by the window, I was still chunnering about this question – remembering my bookseller friend who tells me that my book sells much better when they don’t market me as a ‘local writer’ and another very experienced poet who let me in on the secret that ‘local writer’ is (often read as) shorthand for ‘crap writer of interest to no-one other than their friends’. Regional writer? Is it possible to write about where you come from in a way that’s going to be interesting and illuminating to people who are not from that place? I think it is – after all, there are unfashionable, cut-off feeling towns all over the world: I am just writing about the ones I can write about without being a tourist.

I know from my stats that many of the people who read this blog are from Elsewhere and might have first read my writing in one of the overseas editions. So if you haven’t commented so far on the blog, now is the time to weigh in. I am interested in what these places look like to readers who might never have visited them before.

In other news, I’ll be checking the proofs of Cold Light next week AND I’ve seen what the cover is going to look like AND the book has recently sold in the US, and will be published with William Morrow. Which is all very good. And I’m investigating plane tickets for Salt Lake City.

Out on a Limb: the launch

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

Finally, the Out on a Limb website is here. Hooray! If you click here you’ll be taken by the magical power of the interwebs to a web of stories about the Wirral – the fruit of a project I worked on at the beginning of this year. The website is beautiful (that map was HAND DRAWN by Elaine) and if you click through to the participants’ blogs you’ll be able to comment on their stories, ask them questions about their writing process or anything else you can think of (they are looking forward to taking questions / compliments through their comment forms, so don’t be shy to weigh in with feedback for them) and see how the stories link together through images, themes, characters and settings.

I think the most rewarding part of this project, for me, was working with a small group of beginner writers and bloggers to create a permanent record of their memories, thoughts and experiences. Some of the stories are autobiographical or started out that way – and all of them capture authentic Wirral voices that, in some cases, we are publishing for the first time. If you like the stories, I’d also recommend you dig about in the blogs that all the participants kept as a record of the evolution of their story. The dead-ends, rejected ideas, eureka-moments, frustrations, abandoned drafts and alternative endings are a fascinating record of what it is like to invent a story and work on a collaborative project like this.

Now the ‘behind the scenes’ bit of the project is over, the site is also accepting new stories / poems and photography set in the Wirral. You don’t need to live there or work there to submit – but your story does need to be set there. We are hoping that over time the site will evolve into an on-line library of tales that will put a little-written about area on the map. Since I started tweeting about the stories last week (what you mean you don’t follow me on twitter?) I’ve already had a few submissions. Top Banana!

You can submit via the site, or you can email me about it. Stories will go up in batches and I’ll be tweeting lines from them over the coming weeks to generate some traffic. Your story should be under 1500 words, although we’re not going to be super strict about that – and it should stand on its own two feet, although if you want to link it to any of the original stories written by our first set of project participants (if you click on the links within my story you’ll see what I mean by this) then we’d hop with glee.

Wirral Stories

Monday, July 5th, 2010

a map plotting the 'routes' described in our overlapping stories

During the Spring and right up until the last week of this month, I’ve been working on a project with Elaine Speight and the Liverpool Biennial (for more about work, click here)

You can read my own account of writing a story for the project at my other blog Through the Tunnel. Linked from there are the blogs, story drafts, photographs and research from the other workshop participants – many of them totally new to blogging and starting from scratch for this project. I think they’d like it if you read their draft stories and commented on their process.

The outcome of this project – a website that displays all the stories, plus one from me that acts as a kind of chorus and links everyone else’s narratives together – plus a map with photographs, sound, and lots of links back to the original blogs so readers can look at the ‘behind the scenes’ work of both running the project and writing the stories, will be up at the end of July. I’m less involved in the design and delivery of this bit of the project than I was with the workshop-blogging-story-writing side, so its going to be a pleasant surprise for me to see it all come together.

And for writers inside and outside The Wirral, there’s a chance to get involved. If you have a poem, flash fiction, short story, film or photograph that takes place somewhere in Rock Ferry, Seacombe, Tranmere or Birkenhead, past present or future, autobiographical or completely made-up, then get in touch. You can contact me and I’ll respond as soon as I’m able to.

Writing Cold Light

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

See, I do have  a little bit of good news to tell you about Cold Light, but not just yet. I wanted to write about writing the thing. It’s easier to see how it went now it’s been a few months since I’ve looked at it.

The hardest part was pulling the ideas out of nowhere – it didn’t come to me with a story fully-formed, like number three has. There was a scene – two teenage girls in a car with a man they thought was a bit older than them, but was actually very much older than them. I could see the place where this scene was going to happen – the car-park of Cuerden Valley Park, which is fairly near where I live and very near to where I used to live when I was a couple of years older than the girls who started to appear to me. Chloe and Lola.

Chloe is the blond, secretive, popular one. Sometimes she talks in an American accent. Lola is her best friend – a girl with fuzzy hair and parents who’d buy her a new school coat for Christmas. I could see them in the car-park – on the coldest and deadest day of the year: Boxing Day. No idea what they were doing there, who the gentle, vulnerable man was they’d just bumped into to, or why they were out on their own with this older man.

Carl. The one with a car. The one who bought them mobile phones to keep tabs on them. Lives with his mother, who has diabetes, collects china tea sets, uses a wheelchair. (The details of the story came tumbling out, like this, as if from the air). But I knew it was cold and they were staring through a bare hawthorn hedge at something and they didn’t want to be there, not really. Something terrible was going to happen.

So that’s where I started. I wrote it, and tried to build a story around it. It took about three years, and realising half-way through I’d gone down the wrong track and had to throw half of it away and start again. That scene is still there though – the heart and the start of the book. Boxing Day, 1997, Cuerden Valley Nature Park (car park).

You can read an extract of Cold Light here – it was published in The Manchester Review late last year.

Home Sweet Home

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Seems my work has taken on a bit of a theme in the past few weeks – not something I’ve planned, but something that’s happened on its own and now that I am noticing it, I quite like it.

First, there’s the storytelling / blogging project I’m doing in The Wirral – funded by Liverpool Biennial and project-managed by Elaine Speight, the brains behind the Preston art project Tunnel Visions, among other things. Yesterday was spent in Rock Ferry Library (I chickened out and went on the train, so no terrifying drive through The Tunnel) meeting prospective participants and firming up our ideas about the shape the project will take. More on this in the weeks to come.

Second, I’ve just been booked to deliver a few workshops in various Greater Manchester locations on the theme of writing about place for Rainy City Stories, Kate Feld’s story-telling project and have been preparing / procrastinating by delving through the archives. You can read my own Manchester story here and my thoughts about being a Lancastrian writer here.

Place, and a sense of it, is more than just where to set the fiction I was going to write anyway. It is more than picking a few street-names and landmarks to use for stage dressing and backdrop.

Here’s what I mean: A Kind of Intimacy couldn’t happen anywhere other than Fleetwood: the ‘I thought this was going to be like Blackpool’ sense of disappointment pervades the book and, I’ve noticed, means more to audiences I’ve read to and spoken with in the North West than elsewhere.  

Cold Light takes place in an odd, fictionalised version of Preston. It’s set in 1998, but not a 1998 that I ever experienced. The shops are open twenty-four hours a day, there are television screens everywhere, the outside world is a rumour and again, this sense of disappointment pervades – even though the school teachers get to wear their red socks on the morning after the 1997 election. I’m resigned to the fact that the topography of the novel will mean more to me and the ten or so Preston residents who read my work than anyone else. We’re not like Manchester, Edinburgh or Sheffield – the street names and landmarks don’t speak to anyone except for us. And I’ve used these landmarks in the book – not as stage-dressing, but to make this place familiar as well as strange. Cold Light‘s Preston  is the Preston it might have been, if what happens in the story really did happen – events so important they bend The City out of shape and make it into something foreign and familiar, uncanny and homely.

So I have discovered that for me, writing about a place is one of the ways I can interact with it – it’s more engaged and intimate than just taking a walk or taking a few pictures (although wouldn’t be, I expect, for a real photographer). And writing about a very familiar place makes it into something new and strange – just as whenever I try and write autobiographical pieces, factions, personal essays, whatever, they come out story-shaped and frilled with lies.

That’s the experience I’m hoping to give my Wirral workshop group – lending them my eyes – unfamiliar with their territory, and helping them to shape their thoughts and experiences into a set of linked, blogged fictions about Wirral and not-Wirral. They’re a group with vastly differing experiences of writing, blogging, working collaboratively and using the internet as well as the real world to make fiction. I’m not sure yet how it’s going to work out but I’m looking forward to finding out.

All this got me thinking about briefs, requirements, creative boundaries because for this project to work and for me to be able to tie up the stories into something linked and web-like, I’m going to have to be a little bit directive. And as a creative writing tutor and a human being, I try to avoid doing that too much. Deadlines and instructions and imposed forms are okay if you set them for yourself, but there’s a voice in my head, as I plan the story-brief for the Wirral writers, that is saying, ‘and who are you to tell them how they are allowed to write about their town?’

This made me remember the discussion I had with Sophie Hannah at Ormskirk Library a couple of months ago – she said she set herself the challenge of resolving the plot-conundrum that kicks off the action of the book (women claims the baby in her house is not hers, for example) and doesn’t allow herself to get out of it  – to fail. That for her, creativity means solving the problem and balancing the equation (I am paraphrasing). Then and now this and made me think about my own process as a writer and as a teacher.

I’ve been evaluating the project that I did at the prison – examining the feedback that I got from the men in the creative writng group as well as my own jotted-down throughts on the workshop as they happened.  There were two deadlines for this writing project, which involved flash fiction, memoir and lots of ‘what if’ thinking. I was fairly prescriptive about what ‘Flash Fiction’ meant, and what themes I wanted the men to address in their writing, and how I wanted them to interact with me and each other during the six workshop sessions I held in the prison.

Feedback time came, and I asked them about this – asked if I’d been too prescriptive and directive, if they’d have liked more freedom in the form or the theme, if they felt they’d been able to make enough choices about the way their own work developed. Generally, the feeling was that the form and the structure of the project had helped, that at best they’d enjoyed finding ways to be creative inside the ‘rules’ and that at the very least, they’d learned that writing didn’t always need to be heart-felt and spontaneous in order to be ‘good’ (I think the man who said this meant, ‘I liked what I wrote and felt pleased with it’ when he said ‘good’).

So I’m trying to make this – my thinking about place, and rules around writing, form, structural decisions, the things I’m learning about myself through teaching and planning projects, my wish to help other people and myself to finding a place to be creative in – all these thoughts – into something useful for me to take into the planning phases of my next novel, which is glimmering in the corner of my eye and needs some attention.

I don’t think I am there yet. Maybe blogging about it is part of getting me to that spot.

Research and Research Assistant

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009












A most productive day out. Morecambe, Heysham Port, and tea and ice-cream in Heysham Village afterwards. Click on the pictures to make them big.

And this might come in handy too. And this.

Discussion Time

Friday, August 28th, 2009

I’m back home safe, you’ll be pleased to know. Reading at the Edinburgh International Books Festival was Top Banana. And such a beautiful city. I wish I could have stayed longer. The hotel was pretty swish too. There was even a mini-bar, with mini bars of Green and Blacks (the Small Fry was very appreciative of this, and said I should go away for ‘book-fings’ more often.) The booksigning afterwards was also very civilised: someone gave me a box of Shortbread in exchange for a signed book. You can’t say fairer than that, can you?

A Kind of Intimacy got through the first round of voting for the Not the Booker and is now, along with the other five short-listed novels, up for discussion on the Guardian Books blog. If you’ve a burning desire to comment on anything you found interesting, or not – about Annie and her antics, then this is the place to do it.

I love and adore the picture Sam Jordison chose to go with his review. It is almost exactly how I imagine Annie’s new house to look like. All it is missing is her nice row of ornaments on the windowsill and Lucy’s bloody primroses. They’re probably there, behind the hedge.

For now, I’m back to the writing schedule. Next on the list of tasks is a day trip to Morecambe this weekend. I’ve brushed off my cagoule in preparation. I did invite the Mr, but after my last set of day trips to Fleetwood, he’s less than keen. Book number three is going to be set somewhere hot and swanky, I think.


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Miley Tunnel
by Tony Worrall