We recently invited Newcastle-based writer Ada Lester to observe one of our Story Hunter workshops at Caves Beach Public School.
Flushed faces stream into the school hall. Recess has finished and the year five students from Caves Beach Public School plonk themselves on the floor, scanning the space used for sports and assemblies, now empty other than a whiteboard and projector.
Teachers pull up chairs while the students look curiously at the new adults in the room. They are Story Hunter Guides from the new Story Hunter program – an initiative of the Newcastle Writers Festival. These adults are writers, which the students will soon realise is what they are too.
Before long, the young writers are up and whirling around the room, pretending to be dinosaurs and chickens in order to become superheroes. This is a characterisation writing workshop, after all. Then quieting down and standing in a circle, they describe how they are feeling in a simile. They are warm like the sun, fresh like a baby, excited like a boiling kettle.
Illustrator and writer, Jerry Ray, projects an image onto the screen: a pointy hat alongside a leather-bound book with thick crumpling pages and a jewel-studded spine. These objects belong to somebody and the young writers are quick to characterise them – they practise their old wise voices and hunched-over walks.
The young writers are shown more illustrated objects, imagining different characters who might own them. There is a fluffy horned hat and an unidentifiable thing (that could be a television remote or a lightsaber, or as one young writer suggests, maybe it is both), which belong to somebody on the run disguised as a viking.
The young writers break into small groups with their own sets of illustrated cards. They mix and match the objects, creating compelling characters. The bottle of dark liquid – stamped with a skull and crossbones – is at first paired with a chef hat. It is poison used by a revengeful cook.
But when writer and teacher, Malini Stephen, prompts the group to reshuffle the cards, the poison is matched with a tattered map and turns into wine. It is happily drunk by a young pirate, celebrating the inheritance of his father’s ship. The young writer describes him, waving her arms around and speaking quickly. Having previously declared herself ‘not a writer’, she is realising the title is about much more than spelling.
Breaking out of their groups, the young writers are given a worksheet. They choose two objects that will belong to their own character, naming them and outlining attributes.
Queen Penelope has a crown and a walking stick, she is loved by her kingdom for being kind and giving. But then a complication – their character loses an object and the young writers describe this. For Queen Penelope, nobody knew that she was actually a robot. When she is found out, her crown is taken away. Now how does the character feel? What have they learned from this loss?
The young writers are deep in their stories and it shows on their faces – furrowed brows directed at their filled-up pages. But key to this writing workshop is everything they have done before putting pencil to paper. “I loved learning how to develop my characters before I began writing,” said eleven year-old Chloe.
This is just one workshop on offer through the Story Hunter program.
Ada Lester is a writer who has been published by ABC News, Guardian Australia, and Voiceworks.More information