Ever since I moved a few years ago to downtown Albuquerque I've done my best to fit in as much walking as I possibly can. At first I tried walking once a week, choosing different routes and scenery for each separate outing. Then came the pandemic restrictions and I began walking much more frequently, solitary journeys spent exploring the exteriors of closed businesses, locked libraries, and empty churches. It was a somewhat melancholy pursuit, but it was also a healthy way to get fresh air and sunshine and, of course, exercise. It was also a good opportunity to think about my manuscripts and other creative projects without distraction or conversation. Yes, it was lonely, but it was also time well-spent, especially as I would often take photos to later use as reference shots for some at-home urban sketching sessions.
In the last year things have changed considerably. Most places such as cafes and shops are fully open, more people are out walking or bicycling, and the general atmosphere is a lot more upbeat, exactly what you'd expect from a busy urban environment. I love the activity--even if it is more crowded and not as easy to take photos of individual businesses without appearing overly intrusive.
However, the change from "empty deserted street" to "watch where you're going" got me thinking about how fun it would be to switch from "urban sketching" to "urban writing." How could I use what I saw on my daily walks as writing prompts rather than solely as potential scenes for drawing?
A big part of urban sketching is what artists refer to as "reportage." More than simply drawing or painting what you see in front of you, reportage asks that we give an impression of what we feel and think about a scene. In other words, what's the story? And what do we personally bring to the sights we are witnessing? What part of us makes the scene our own?
To explore these topics more fully, I wrote up a list of ideas to get my pen moving:
Urban Story Prompts
- Choose a location and then write a scene that takes place there in the past.
- Take the same location, but now cast it into the future. What has changed? What is better, or worse? What are the people like?
- Could the same or a different location be the setting for a fictional crime? What could I add to make it more sinister?
- Or how about using that setting for a romantic tryst?
- Is there a particular area I see every day that could be the catalyst for neighborhood dissatisfaction? A place that a group of characters might want to tear down or drastically improve in some way? Why do they want to do this; what's their motivation? What's preventing them accomplishing their goals? Politics? Money?
- Choose and use a location as the basis of an important fictional memory for one or more of your characters. It could be an entirely new piece, or woven into something you're already working on.
- Create tension by showing a character's fear of a setting, or their excitement at the prospect of going, or returning, there for some reason.
- Invent two characters that have just left the place you are looking at. Why were they there? What transpired? What was their mood when they left?
- Use the setting, even if it is a beautiful, elegant environment as the backdrop to a dystopian, Orwellian nightmare.
- Or how about as the setting for a whimsical, heart-felt children's picture book?
- Imagine the setting at midnight. Add some supernatural or paranormal elements.
- What are the possibilities of using your setting for a nonfiction piece? You might enjoy researching the site or area and then writing about a little-known aspect or history of the place.
- Could the setting be an essential part or reason to write a memoir of some sort? Is it a place you know well and therefore holds a wide series of associations for you?
Whether or not you are more than familiar with a certain place or are seeing it for the very first time, try to tune into your emotions as you write. As with all the best and most productive freewriting sessions, write about what makes you sad or happy or nostalgic about a certain view or group of buildings. Don't stop to erase, cross out, or censor what comes up for you. Always go with your initial thoughts and instincts.
Lastly, be sure to include as many details of your setting as you can: doors, windows, gardens, the cat under the tree, the way light falls on the pavement. You might not want to use absolutely everything you write when it comes time to edit, but it's handy to have a full account to pick and choose from.
Tip of the day: Keep in mind that you don't always have to go for the photogenic or "postcard perfect" scene. Dilapidated, neglected, and forgotten "out of the way" places can often be the most fun to write about. Enjoy your walk and don't forget your notebook!