Florence for Writers … Ten Personal Recommendations

I have been mulling over what to write about my recent trip to Florence, so much, too much… and then I realised I couldn’t do better than write the kind of post I wanted to read before I went. It was my first time, and I had the list of all the things I should do, but I was looking for personal suggestions too. So here are my very personal TOP TEN THINGS FOR WRITERS TO DO IN FLORENCE…

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1. EAT SOMETHING NEW. And where better to try than Florence. Not just ice creams either, visit one of the food markets, such as the San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale, and browse the stalls. Or join an excellent food tour, I spent a lovely morning with Sam from Florence for Foodies and enjoyed new tastes, got told good stories, and met some really nice people. How else would I have learnt that Grappa comes in spray form ! Our best restaurant find though was the Trattoria Sabatino – inexpensive pasta, wine and lots of friendly locals.

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2. PEOPLE WATCH. If you can drag your eyes away from the treasures at the Uffizi, it’s worth watching the tour groups too. We were gripped by the real battle going on between two different ones when we were there as they struggled to get prime position in front of the masterpieces. Almost as much of a victory for those who got to the front as this lunchtime tripe stall.

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3. WALLOW IN THE SENSES. Smells first… There are some amazing farmacias in every street it seems, but we loved the choice of natural perfumes at the Farmacia Munstermann, I came away with Tabac, nice and earthy and just a bit addictive.

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4. STATIONERY PARADISE. Again many many paper shops, but my favourite has to be Il Torchio … the perfect place to stock up on journals and happiness, both of which are hand made on the premises.

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5. RING ALCHEMY. It’s not a word to be used lightly in Florence, but I’m convinced that the jeweller, Allesandro Dari is a genius. A visit to his workshop and showroom is a must for firing up the imagination.

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6. VISIT A GARDEN. Well, of course! Boboli Gardens is a must and do make sure you are around for the scheduled opening of the grotto (normally on the hour).

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But one of the highlights of our whole holiday was a visit to Villa Gamberaia, just a bus ride (No 10 from San Marcus square) away. A magic dreamy garden from which to view Florence from a different angle.

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7. ROOM WITH A VIEW. There are plenty of chances to see Florence from up high. TAKE THEM ALL! Climb the Giotto’s Campanile and the Duomo. Walk up to the Piazzale Michelangelo. Stop on the bridges at dusk. Visit the Bardini Gardens. Have your picture taken with Florence behind. Try not to look nervous in case you fall backwards…

 

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8. WRITE PICTURES. Everywhere we went, we came across art and architecture students drawing details in their notebooks, so I started to do the same. Too much, too much… until I took Anne Lamott’s advice and remembered her advice to use a two inch window frame to look at just a bit of the overall picture. Amazing how much more I noticed when I was writing the details. Just look at the expressions here – a whole novel surely?

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9. STORIES, STORIES... And once you notice the details, you can’t stop seeing more and more stories you NEED to write. This is from the Boboli Gardens.

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10. READ! A visit to the Biblioteca Laurenziana is a must, and not just for Michelangelo’s stairs. Just imagine working here, the books laid out for you…

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But here’s our guilty secret. We also loved the Reading Room at the Gucci Museum, with shelves of art and design books to drool over while we had a necessary cup of pick-up tea.

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Writing Prompts and Blossoms

It’s spring … or near enough!

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Every weekday on Twitter, I put up writing prompts. I follow these myself, and am delighted and amazed that other people find them useful too! And now because it’s the time to plant seeds (it won’t snow again, will it?!!) here are some of the recent ones for you… If any come up with particularly interesting ‘plants’, I’d love to hear from you. I’m keeping a ‘happy list’ of the stories and publication results I’ve helped to sow, and it would be good to have you on it!

 

* Red Riding Hood’s Sister

* His life described through the books he’s read

* The unlit cigarette

* Be careful what you wish for…

* Rewriting the contents labels on your toiletries

* If only I had the hair to match

* On the final day of his life

* The card game turns nasty

* Good cop, bad cop

* An unexpected consequence of her bad behaviour

* Needle, mother, plant, cross, dish

* The long distance lorry driver’s dilemma

* Three things he has never eaten

* A life in leftovers

* An endless series of spiral suitcases

* Expensive words

And finally, a photographic prompt:

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I hope you find something useful there. And if you want to step out of the metaphor and into the garden, there’s a great writing challenge over at the You Grow Girl website.

 

 

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Caught – a 50 word photostory

 

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She should have left the phone ringing. But it was her mother, and now she’s at the hospital, while her ex-husband picks up her daughter, and before she knows it, the two of them are in a different country. And her mother’s dead. And the phone never rings any more.

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Five Things I Learnt At The Story Conference

I was lucky enough to spend Friday thinking and listening to thoughts on The Story. Not, as I’d expected, listening to stories but hearing thirteen 20-minute presentations on how other people have used, see, tell their stories. There was almost nothing about writing or reading or even traditional ways to tell stories, and I didn’t meet many other writers there. Well, I think they probably all would have identified writing as the heart of their work, but other layers had been piled on top. Not simple ‘word after word’ types of writer anyway.

By the end of the day, I’d felt a little like I’d been twisting a story kaleidoscope myself…

And now, a day later, I’m processing my thoughts, helped by a cup of Witches’ Brew..

And these are five of the storythings I came away with:

1. Keep the integrity of the story. “The press go for the jugular, my stories are the material around the outside.” I loved this quote from Alecky Blyth, writer of the play recently put on at the National Theatre, London Road, about how she brings real life situations to the stage. She demonstrated for us live the technique ‘Verbatim drama’ – actors speaking real words recorded from interviews with real people. It added another level to hear the story coming from her as the recording played through her headphones. I’d seen and enjoyed London Road, an account of what it as like to live in the street in Ipswich during the time a serial killer was on the loose, but hadn’t realized how carefully both the playwright and the composer had kept to the interview material, even to the extent of maintaining the breathing patterns of the interviewees. Fascinating.

2. Listen to the spirit of the story. Rebecca O’Brien producer of the Ken Loach directed documentary, The Spirit of 45, talked about how they had used digital media – including longer interviews and clips – to extend the film, and to give the story ‘mileage and strength’. The film aims to show what amazing advances were made to our society in that particular year, many of which we are now in danger of losing. ‘Kids learn about war, but not about peace,’ she said. And she spoke about how she hopes that the film will encourage us all to listen to our elders.

3. Keep Moving With The Story. Even one as controlled and centralized as the Olympics. Alex Balfour showed us the digital strategy originally written for London 2012. By the time the Games happened six years later, technology had moved so fast that many of the digital ideas were outdated, and other opportunities had opened up. He also – and I hope I’ve got this statistic right – said that only 5% of the gold medal winning athletes taking part would be able to make their living from their sport, and so the marketing campaign was designed to bring out these stories of individual inspiration over material gain. A video by the Paralympic athlete, Evan O’Hanlon, was one of my highlights of the conference. Here it is:

4. Find A Personal Engagement with the Story You’re Telling. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have children the right age but I’d not come across Gumball before. What a joy. Love it! Its creator, Ben Boucquelet, talked about one of my personal rules – the need to find some way to engage personally with the story you are writing or creating, however distant it may seem from your life. You have to love your story, especially if you’re going to dedicate the next few years of your life to it.

5. ‘Plus’ the Story. I’m not too sure using that as a verb, but Fiona Romeo of the National Maritime Museum gave a stunning presentation about how her experience at Disney Studios has taught her to ‘plus’ each element of the story, ie to make it better. Her particular example was how benches at an exhibition for children on surveillance was ‘plussed’ into first the shape of a keyboard button, and then music and light were added as you sat down, and lastly Morse code added – secret messages to fit in with the exhibition theme.

And those Witches’ Brews above… well, the conference programme was on the back. A definite ‘plus’!

ps I suppose it’s a HUGE result of the conference that today I’ve been filled with the urge to write stories. Forgetting about sharing them, or even ‘plussing’ them, but just me and the page, putting one word next to another… well, it was either the conference or the ingredients in the tea which includes Roasted Toenails and Plucked Fairy Wings …

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The Next Big Thing

If you have been visiting blogs recently you may have seen the meme, the Next Big Thing, floating about, and I’m happy to have been nominated by the poet, Anthony Wilson, to write mine. Anthony has written very movingly about his own ‘next big thing’, his memoir, Love for Now, of being diagnosed on Valentine’s Day, 2006, with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. He’s a wonderful writer, and you can read about it here. His poetry collection, Riddance is lovely too.

To be honest though, I have been tagged several times before but wasn’t sure what I had to write about. But then, when Anthony got in contact, I thought hey, why not write about what I’m writing about!!! So here you go… it’s an account of where I am with my Writer in the Garden project.

Where did the idea of the Garden Journey come from?

I started writing a portrait about Kent through its gardens when I was Canterbury Laureate. This was to tie in with the county being known as the Garden of England, but along the way, I learnt two things – firstly, the ‘slogan’ actually began as the Guardian of England (not garden) and secondly, not much in many of the gardens – the plants, the designs, even the gardeners – is actually English. This was fascinating for me – I love how these shifts happen, and what that can mean at a deeper level.

I was visiting each garden to understand what I wanted to write about from it – not an account of plants or history, but what resonated for me on a creative level. There had to be a connection, and often this was deeply personal and surprising. I wanted to open myself up as a writer, and by doing so, to explore the private/public nature of gardens. I felt that a website would be good for this, using video, podcasts and photographs as well as the poems. I’m not sure if it will be a book yet because I haven’t worked out how, if at all, these things can be shown on paper. I like the idea of readers of the website going on a virtual tour as well. I’m working on a map for this, but it’s a case of learning every step of the way and that takes time! I’d much rather be in the garden, to be honest!

What genre does your website fall under?

The website was a finalist in the Garden Media Guild ‘New Talent’ awards, so I guess gardens and, of course, poetry. But then there’s local history too, and psychogeography. Is there a genre for ‘muddly’?

Although, maybe given the weather, ‘muddy’ might be a better description for my garden visits last year!

I like to think of it as exploration – because every time I visit a garden I find a new space within myself. It’s a kind of alchemy.

In fact, one of the routes the garden visits have taken me is to start a detective novel, with Capability Brown featuring on the side. I don’t want to talk too much about that yet because it’s still very much in progress, but a detective novel – and historical at that – was unexpected genre-shift for me.

Although perhaps not as much as founding a touring music and poetry promenade group with two writing friends. We performed already during the Canterbury Festival and are now branching out to perform at gardens and outdoor events.


What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a film version?

Oh, there are so many attractive gardeners on television now who are almost like film stars (in my eyes anyway)! But I think that Hugh Jackman would be a great Lancelot Brown (and this isn’t just so I can stick a hunky photo up here.)

Here’s the real one…lovely eyes, eh?

As for who would play me, hmmm… she’s a little older than me but I would watch anything with Harriet Walter in, and look, here’s her with Michael Fassbender. Wouldn’t they be pretty together in a garden?



How long did it take you to write the first draft of each poem?

How long is a piece of string? I have in my files, photographs and notes of gardens I visited back in Spring of last year and I can’t get the right voice or form for them. Others come almost fully budded as I’m walking round. It’s the first time I’ve done something like this – with such a strong theme – so I’m taking care it doesn’t become formulaic. I hope it hasn’t. And won’t. I really try to keep open before each visit, although I will do some research so I normally have a couple of points that have piqued my curiosity. I have only visited one garden and it was so groomed and soulless that I really didn’t want to write anything. Most of the time, you understand the joy of gardening – perhaps it’s one of the few things nowadays that we can’t quite control. That and the weather. (And it seems the banks but that’s another story…)

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My mother was the garden historian and writer, Elizabeth Peplow. I’ve written about her here. So I grew up with gardens, and as much with the stories in the garden. I think the initial inspiration to write about them in this way was a sadness at seeing some people go round National Trust gardens without engaging at all. As if the garden was just something to tick off the list, and they had no ownership at all. Well, I think that’s wrong. One of my favourite stories was from one man who had opened his garden as a commercial enterprise, but still obviously had a deep personal love for it. He noticed a woman coming every day to the garden to knit, and when he approached her one day, she basically told him to go away. He was left wondering whose garden it was – and it made me think how, even in a busy public park, we mark out our own little spaces. It must be a primitive thing, and maybe these poems are my way of marking my space! They certainly help me look deeper at each garden I visit, and that’s a privilege.



What one sentence would sum up your website?

A virtual poetry promenade through the English garden, and all things gardeny!

What else about your website might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s been wonderful to hear from people who have visited gardens because of the website, and who write to me with their own feelings after. The Margate shell grotto seems to be a particular favourite for this, and the wonderful Quex Gardens too. But not all the gardens are visitable – I was so moved at finding a book of the fictional garden backdrops American prisoners used to have their photographs taken against, I wrote a piece about that too.

What next?

At the moment, I’m very happy to be getting involved with the Chelsea Fringe in May this year – watch this space! I am also continuing to visit and write up gardens, although the inspiration seems to be coming from unlikely places at the moment. A visit to the Manet Exhibition in London sparked off a very happy hour of creative daydreaming – he painted many of the outside portraits actually in his studio. I love this idea of a true artist’s garden of the imagination…

So who’s next? Well, dear readers, I’d like to invite you to take part and tell me what is your next big thing! Please leave links and comments if you take part so I can follow your journeys too.

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