Literary Tourism: What the Dickens?

I love Charlie Dickens. I’ve loved him since I was a small child when Ebeneezer Scrooge’s transformation warmed my heart and Mrs Havisham languishing in her dusty wedding-dress terrified me and my encounter with Fagin made me consider petty theft as a way of supplementing my meagre pocket-money. I love all of his novels, except for the one I haven’t read yet: Bleak House. I’ve attempted Bleak House three times because it’s supposed to be his best novel– and I’ve never managed to wade past page forty. Between the small print, and the flood of characters introduced at the outset, reading it required intense concentration. It became an endurance exercise in squinting and frowning, and clearly, my facial muscles weren’t up to the task.

Anyway, I’ve forgiven Charles Dickens for Bleak House, and for the fact that it added at least one extra furrow to my brow, and two crow’s toes to the skin around my eyes. A good thing too, because I recently had the opportunity to visit the Charles Dickens Museum. I was in London visiting my sister, and I decided that it would be a lovely way to pass a couple of hours. Off I went on the tube to Russel Square Station and made my way to 48 Doughty Street.

48 Doughty Street is a three-storey, terraced, red-bricked Georgian building, and it was Dickens’ former home between 25 March 1837 to December 1839. It’s the only former home of his that is currently open to the public.  The entry fee for the museum is a very reasonable £9.50 for adults. Once you step through the museum’s vermillion green door, you’ll be transported back to the 19th Century and into an upper-middle-class Londoner’s home. You will learn about England at that time, about Dickens the man and, of course, Dickens the writer.

A Social History Museum:

Although the house is Georgian, it is decorated in the style of the Victorian era, but the Victorian era wasn’t merely notable for its distinctive aesthetic. Huge social changes were afoot in England following the industrial revolution and London’s population had increased rapidly. Due to public pressure and Church initiatives, literacy levels had increased massively across the country. A great many of our beloved classic novels were written in the Victorian era in response to the sudden explosion in the market for books. Finally, authors were enjoying fame and fortune from their writing, and Charles Dickens and his peers took full advantage of this. In the time before television, and the passive consumption of entertainment, books were the ultimate form of escape from the everyday.

I’m fascinated by social history. I suppose one of the reasons why is that, as a woman, my life and sphere of influence would have been restricted to the domestic, and so the everyday lives of ordinary people interest me far more than the stories of big wars and political manoeuvring that feature in most history books. I want to know what people ate, and where they slept, what they wore, how they worked and how they amused themselves, and this museum offers all of this and more. Most authors’ homes are social history museums too to some extent, but this one even more so. Charles Dickens was a renowned social critic, satirist, commentator and reformer. 

48 Doughty Street is an example of what an upper-middle-class home would have been like in Victorian times. You can wander around the servants quarters, the kitchen, the washroom, the dining room, bedrooms, dressing room, drawing-room and cellar, as well as the nursery where Dickens’ children played and slept. You can take in the decor, the ornaments, the paintings, the trinkets, the furnishings, and know that a great many houses across London would have looked very similar, though they would be unlikely to have housed such famous inhabitants.

The house is beautiful, but not everyone that lived there was fortunate enough to live like Dickens. The museum recounts the stories of the lives of the working-class inhabitants of the house in the kitchen and servants’ quarters. I’m sure that they were treated better than most servants, as Dickens’ intense sympathy for the poor and his passionate desire to see their lives improved is clear from his writing. Dickens believed that his novels had the potential to influence readers morally and politically, and he was right to use fiction as a medium for influencing people’s views. Reading  has been proven to increase empathy.

If you are interested in learning a little more about the poverty suffered by many in Victorian London, and the inspiration behind one of Dickens’ most famous novels, the Foundling Museum is a very short walk from the Dickens museum and well worth a visit. The Foundling Hospital was Britain’s first hospital for abandoned children. Dickens and his wife, Catherine spent a lot of time there, as it housed the chapel that was their place of worship. The Dickenses raised awareness of the hospital and the plight of the children abandoned to the care of its patrons. It’s a stark reminder that London’s wave of economic success and social change didn’t sweep everyone along with it.

A Museum of the Writer:

The servants’ quarters: the walls are covered in quotations from his writings

The Charles Dickens Museum didn’t earn its title easily. The building holds the world’s largest collection of Dickens’ rare book editions, letters and original manuscripts. Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Pickwick papers within the walls of this very house, and you can enter his study and gaze upon the very desk that he scribbled and toiled over as he crafted his unforgettable characters. One of my favourite rooms in the house is the servants’ quarters, whose walls are decorated in the most thought-provoking and famous quotes from his novels.

When you visit this museum you will have a lot of ‘ah, that’s where he got that from’ moments. People tell writers all the time: ‘write what you know’. Dickens was absolutely a man that wrote what he knew and achieved great success in doing so. Inside the museum, you’ll find information on the various people, places and creatures that were sources of inspiration to Dickens, such as Grip, his pet raven, his tragic sister-in-law Mary and the nearby Foundling Hospital. What becomes abundantly clear about Dickens the writer, is that he was fascinated by people. Unlike many writers, he didn’t keep himself aloof or apart from the people that he studied, he mingled amongst them, lived with them, loved them, despised them. He observed, in close proximity, their foibles, weaknesses, motivations and their sufferings. He was moved by their pain, empathetic to their plight, and critical of their misdeeds.

A Museum of the Man:

As well as holding the largest collection of Dickens’ writerly memorabilia, the museum holds the largest collection of Dickens’ personal belongings, family mementoes, portraits. Dickens moved to Doughty Street shortly after his wedding to Catherine Hogarth, when he was aged only twenty-five years of age and it is in this house that the first two of his ten children were born. You will learn about the many highs and lows in his life, his passion for fashion, and his love of entertaining.

In terms of learning about Dickens the man from the house itself, I know my favourite room should have been his study, but it wasn’t. This could be because I had nightmarish visions of poor Dickens toiling away in an ocean of balled-up paper frantically trying to fill cavernous plot-holes. No. The room that I spent the most time in was the dining-room, which was the first room I wandered into on my tour. It’s a gorgeous room with pale blue walls, decorated with portraits of Charles and his wife Catherine as young people, just as they were whilst living in this house. It was in this room that I could imagine Dickens at his most animated because Dickens was as far from the reclusive, introverted stereotype of a novelist as you can get. He threw many parties, and liked to dress flamboyantly– he was quite the dandy. He was also an actor who acted out scenes from his own plays, a skilled orator and speechwriter, and would regularly treat guests to readings from his works-in-progress. He was a man that liked to be read, but he also liked very much to be seen and heard. 

On the dining table there are six places set, and at each place lies a plate. Each plate features the face of a person with whom Dickens would have associated with, and beside each plate, there’s a description of who that person was and what their relationship to Dickens was. I got a real sense of who Charles Dickens was, by the company he kept. Many of his friends were famous in their own rights, such as the author William Makepeace Thackeray and the artist, Daniel Maclise, but all were accomplished in their respective fields. Dickens socialised with artists, illustrators, fellow novelists, medical practitioners and lawyers. Dickens’ wife also features on her own plate, a published author in her own right. It was in this room here that I could vividly picture Dickens, holding court with his guests; the room filled with people, everyone dressed beautifully, smoking pipes and cigars and going through bottle after bottle of wine from the cellar beneath the house. They would be discussing politics, social reform, writing and art and laughing as Charles Dickens made witty jokes and shared his incisive observations on the world.

Thanks to my visit to the museum I understood that Dickens was not just a very talented writer who depicted fascinating characters in his novels; he was a fascinating character in his own right. Until I visited the museum I didn’t know that Dickens had left school at twelve to work and lived in a debtors’ prison with his family as a child.  I didn’t know that he had a very chatty pet raven named Grip.  I didn’t know that he and his wife parted ways after Dickens had an affair. These are just some of the gems of information I gleaned from my visit to the museum. They gave Dickens a three-dimensionality that he didn’t have for me before. It means that next time I attempt to read Bleak House, I’ll be reading it in the knowledge that Dickens knew poverty, he knew wealth, he knew society, and most importantly, he understood people.

My purchases from the gift shop.

The museum has a cafe which sells great coffee, and a quaint little gift shop. Of course, I love gift shops so I went in and had a nosey and I couldn’t help myself. I bought a canvas bag… to go with my copy of Bleak House! Yes! I bought it again after losing the last one. I’m hoping that my investment will lead me to give it one final chance. So far, it’s still sitting on my bedside locker, propping up my TBR pile. I am currently attaching weights to my face and exercising my frowning and squinting muscles in readiness for the great (but no doubt, worthwhile) undertaking ahead of me.

A Visit to Senate House, London

My shot of the exterior of the building on an overcast day.

I go to London quite frequently because I have family over there and every time I make a trip I try and do a little bit of literary tourism. One day I managed to rope my sister, Orla, into accompanying me to Bloomsbury. I got out my map of London (not a physical map, an app map) and plotted out my route and off we headed on the tube towards Russel Square. We disembarked and en route to my destination Google Maps tried to send me through the public thoroughfare of a very impressive looking Art-Deco style skyscraper. I remember craning my neck and looking up at this building and thinking ‘I know this place—I’ve seen it before—this place is important’. 

And then I remembered. Senate House. 

A place on my literary tourism to-do list and I’d just stumbled upon it. 

Senate house was originally built to replace the original University of London buildings. Under the instruction of the University of London’s Vice-Chancellor Sir William Beveridge Architect, Charles Holden was appointed. He was tasked with finally creating a building finally worthy of the title ‘University of London’. And Holden certainly achieved that. Senate House was to be the capital’s first skyscraper and is one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture you’ll find anywhere.

Senate House isn’t just an architectural gem, it’s a serious literary tourism gem for three reasons:

  1. It has a beautiful library;
  2. Mary Prince used to live in a house on this site; and
  3. The building and its function during World War 2 inspired a number of 20th century authors

1. Senate House Library

A gorgeous shot of the Senate House Library
Image credits
 © University of London/Robert Mills

Senate House is the administrative centre of the University of London and contains the universities humanities and social sciences library. Senate House Library holds over 2 million books and 1,200 archive collections. The library is beautiful, as you can see, but it is mostly restricted to UL students. I understand that you can access it for reference purposes if you show ID and purchase a £5 day-pass.

Treasures held by the library range from mediaeval manuscripts,  to Shakespeare’s First Folio to books printed by William Caxton, who became the first retailer of books in Britain after introducing the printing press to Britain in 1476. It also holds a presentation copy of Das Kapital, Byron’s unfinished, unpublished draft for the end of Don Juan, a handwritten letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a manuscript by Sir Walter Scott, letters by poet, Phoebe Heskith and early drafts of Terry Pratchett novels.

Oh how I love the sight of a Chesterfield in a library. Photo of Senate House Library
Image credits: .
 © University of London/Robert Mills

The library holds regular exhibitions and events which are free-of-charge, open to the general public and often book-related. You don’t need a day membership pass to visit these exhibitions but you do need to register online

The current exhibition is entitled Rights for Women: London Pioneers in their Own Words which is running until the 15thDecember, 2018. It features the stories of fifty female pioneers in London, and one of the women whose stories feature in the exhibition is Mary Prince: a West Indian slave and an anti-slavery abolitionist and that’s a good segue into the next part of this post…

2. Mary Prince used to Live on this Site:

Image courtesy of Senate House Library

Mary Prince lived on the site of the Senate House in the 1800s, long before  the building was a twinkle in Sir William Beveridge’s eye. Prince was an abolitionist, the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to parliament and an important literary figure because she was the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography: The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself.  When Prince’s book was published, slavery was still legal in England, and Parliament had not yet abolished it in the colonies. 

It has been proven that books increase empathy in a way that no other medium can. Prince telling her story in her own words gave the British people an insight into the horrors of slavery from the slave’s perspective. Something that had not been done before. .Prince’s autobiography proved the power of the written word, the personal story, the first-person narrative and generated an understanding that could not have existed beforehand. The book sold out three printings and was instrumental in changing public opinion and garnering support and momentum behind the anti-slavery movement in the UK. 

It would be a few years after the book was published before abolition took place, but certainly, her book was hugely influential in changing public opinion and its impact should never be forgotten. Senate House now dominates the spot where she once lived, but there is a commemorative plaque there that reads ‘Mary Prince abolitionist and author lived near this site’ and it is definitely worth stopping there and reflecting on where we once were, and indeed, where we are now.

3. Its Connection with Speculative Fiction

In 1937 the University of London reopened in its new location, and in 1939 the war began. The university staff and students moved out, which was a good thing as Senate House withstood a number of attacks during the Blitz in World War II, and did so relatively unscathed. The government took over the building over for the duration of the war. It was used to house the newly formed Ministry of Information; a controversial department tasked with monitoring public opinion and issuing propaganda. It would later be accused of subterfuge, spying on British citizens and censorship. 

A great number of fiction writers were inspired by Senate House and its wartime function. I have no doubt that the formidable and imposing appearance of the building enhanced the sense of insidiousness around the activities of the occupants of Senate House during WW2. Don’t forget that when much of the literature involving this house was written, it was the only, or one of the only skyscrapers in London. Its stature would have made it the most dominant and visible building in the skyline of the city—and this, combined with its masculine, granite walls and angularity gives it a cold, imposing and formidable beauty. Its appearance is reminiscent of totalitarian architecture going up all around Europe at that time. Indeed, Hitler allegedly liked the building so much that he earmarked it for his British headquarters if he won WW2. So for those of you who take an interest in speculative fiction, you’ll definitely appreciate its aesthetic.

Of all of the authors inspired by Senate House, George Orwell is the most famous. The Ministry of Truth which features in his novel was based on The Ministry of Information. Orwell’s wife worked in the Censorship Department at the Ministry of Information for a time, and so Orwell obviously had a unique insight into its machinations. Sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four are sky-rocketing. It’s not surprising. We live in an era of ‘fake news’ and attacks on a struggling free press. An era where science is rejected in favour of conspiracy theories. When people glean information from online op-eds and commentary instead of objective, factual reporting. Where social bots spew hatred and bigotry and the spectre of the far-right is being resurrected throughout the world. Where the cash-strapped media compete for ad revenues and use outrage and fear to generate valuable clicks. Where targeted propaganda is being disseminated via social media and personal information being traded for likes and conveniences. Our sense of paranoia about the world and the future has increased, and with it, the relevance of the warnings contained in this very important novel.

Graham Greene is another who drew inspiration from Senate House. In his novel The Ministry of Fear, he described it as a ‘high heartless building… where the windows were always open for fear of blast and the cold winds whistled in’. His perception of the building itself, clearly influenced by its wartime use.

Evelyn Waugh’s character in the wartime novel Put Out More Flags is repulsed by the building, believing that ‘all the secrets of all the services might have been hidden in that gross mass of masonry.’ 

Interestingly, Senate House is seen as a place of refuge in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. It is the location where a group congregate to escape the post-apocalyptic chaos surrounding them. The main character and others gather there to attempt to form a kind of order among the mess. The building operates in this context as a kind of fortress. Senate House is a place where the characters can visualize their future. The place they choose to go to and seek out normalcy and order as their reality is turned on its head.

The building also features in the film adaptations of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Day of the Triffids, and it has also been the location for a Ministry of War, a CIA lobby and a Russian secret service HQ in various other movies. So there you go, what an interesting place Senate House is. A source of much inspiration to writers and filmmakers alike. Unfortunately, it isn’t a building you can just wander around in. The only areas open to the general public are the thoroughfare, the exhibition area on the 4thfloor, and the library (subject to the purchase a day pass), but gazing up at its impressive facade is sufficient for most. If you want to explore the interior building itself relatively unhindered and get some dystopian/ Art-Deco style inspiration for your writing, the building is open to the public during the annual Open House London weekend which has just passed but will return on the 21st and 22nd September 2019. See the Open House website for details.

I’d like to say thank-you to Senate House Library for their assistance with this article. They kindly provided me with photographs and information around the current exhibition on female pioneers and Mary Prince.

A Visit to the Frank McCourt Museum in Limerick

I love a bit of literary tourism. Whenever I leave Dublin I research wherever I’m visiting beforehand. I look for indie bookshops, museums, statues, libraries, tours etc. So for my husband’s birthday, I decided we should take a trip to Limerick. We hadn’t been in years and I’ve learned that everywhere in Ireland has something unique to offer if you do your research beforehand. So, to my surprise, on doing a little bit of googling, I discovered that there’s a Frank McCourt Museum in Limerick city centre.

Frank McCourt was a former resident of Limerick City and wrote the bestselling memoir, Angela’s Ashes. The book tells the story of his ‘miserable Catholic childhood’ which he spent in Limerick, having spent a small portion of it in Brooklyn during the depression. It’s a story of dire poverty and deprivation, but told with such skill, humour and hope that it doesn’t descend into misery-lit. The memoir has since been made into a movie and, surprisingly, a really successful musical. But I hadn’t heard of the museum until I decided to make my trip to Limerick.

I went to the museum on a Saturday afternoon. It’s in a beautiful 150-year-old Tudor-style building: Leamy House. Frank’s old school house. Alan, two Dutch tourists and I waited for 2 pm to come around and on the button, a smiling, harried lady appeared to let us in, apologising profusely, even though she was right on time. This was Una. The founder and curator of the museum. From the outset, she was friendly and chatty. Clearly passionate about her museum. Her ‘labour of love’. She led us upstairs for our tour and we were joined by two more Dutch tourists. The museum was only €4 each, which is a bargain for a thoroughly fascinating couple of hours, so I decided to buy a book after the tour because I felt €4 was too little.

‘Little Italy’

On the first floor, we were led through recreations of the first living-room/kitchen of Frank’s childhood and then the bedroom: ‘Little Italy’ from the novel and finally to the schoolroom. In the living spaces, Una explained how Frank’s family had lived in the 1930’s and 1940’s. We learned about how they lived in cramped conditions. Washed their clothing in the same water they washed themselves in, used the baby’s pram as a ‘vehicle’ to transport coal, cooked over an open fire, slept on a flea-ridden bed with army surplus coats instead of blankets and hung their clothes to dry on a clothes-line running across the middle of the room because of the incessant rain.

Una’s family purchased Leamy House and turned the building into a garment factory. The second floor, where Frank when to school was to be the factory floor, so the internal walls were removed. Part of this huge room is set out as a schoolroom with desks and blakcboards, and the rest as a museum with cabinets and shelves full of Una’s collection of Frank McCourt related paraphernalia, including some of Angela’s ashes. While in this part of the museum she told us what life was like for children attending school in those days, and the brutal punishments meted out by the priests.

Frank McCourt’s collection of rosary beads

There was religious iconography all over the two floors, just as there would have been in Irish homes and schools at the time of the novel. As I wandered around the museum exhibits, I was struck most by Frank’s beautiful collection of rosary beads, one of which was given to him by the Pope. Throughout his adult life, Frank was extremely critical of the Catholic Church, describing it as ‘the worst thing that ever happened to Ireland’. The collection of beads might seem to contradict his anti-church stance, but I can relate to it. I think he was a cultural Catholic, and I think a lot of us Irish are. We take comfort in the familiarity of the rituals, symbols and traditions of the church, and the superstitions we, as a nation, attached to those things. They make up our own particular, Irish brand of Catholicism. Those things aren’t precious because of their connection with the church, but because of their connection to our past. Saint Anthony finding lost items, or the Child of Prague bringing good weather for a wedding or Saint Brigid’s cross over your door to keep evil at bay. We associate them with protection, and safety and kindness, and they are separate and apart from the teachings of the church. I’d imagine there was a little of that in Frank. I’d imagine there was a wistfulness for those things he left behind when he left Ireland. Except for poverty. I’d imagine he was quite content to leave that firmly where it was.

One of my favourite things about the museum was getting to meet Una. Una was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour-guide, as well as an honest and open one. A person not easily forgotten. As a Limerick native, she offers a unique into the city itself. She has a passion for documenting and collecting objects and facts about Frank and his writing, as well as artefacts from that time. She recreated the rooms herself and was true and faithful to the times in doing so. There was a bit of nostalgia there for me and will be for many Irish people, as a lot of the items in the rooms were things my grandparents would have had in her home.

Una herself is a fascinating person. A social historian but also an artist, and a talented painter, hoping to write her own book about the museum. She shared little anecdotes about the museum itself. For example how she can’t keep herself in plastic fleas due to the inexplicable fascination that visitors have with stealing them from the beds in ‘Little Italy’. She also told us that she once opened the museum to find a homeless man curled up on one of those same beds.

Una and I talked about how the Irish hid their poverty well when they suffered it, and out of pride never discussed it. But my mother remembers seeing it. My mother told me that she had seen terrible poverty as a child growing up in Clonmel. My grandmother owned a pub and served men like McCourt’s father, while mothers struggled to care for their many children. And though the pub is an important part of our cultural heritage, I’m glad so many are closing down and coffee shops are opening up in their place. Caffeine is an altogether less destructive drug.

Una is creating mosaics for the back wall of the schoolroom one of Frank (now completed) and one of Angela. Huge mosaics that visitors can paint a tile and contribute to. Before we left Alan and I painted two tiles to be added the mosaic of Angela that is slowly coming together I hope to visit again when it’s finished.

Our mosaic tiles for the large mosaic of Angela on the back wall of the schoolroom

I highly recommend a trip to the Frank McCourt Museum. Not only is the museum a beautiful tribute to a very talented local writer, but it captures a little piece of social history. So often the stories of the poor are ignored. We walk around cities and marvel at the old, beautiful buildings commissioned by the wealthy: iconic architecture, ornate cathedrals, stately homes. We imagine how grand life would have been back then. Yet we forget about the lives of the majority. The majority who lived very different lives, but no less fascinating, and certainly, no less important. Thanks to Frank and Una and her helpers this little piece of Limerick’s history won’t be forgotten.

As I left the museum I reflected on the conditions that Frank and his family lived in. I thought ‘how horrible for a family to be crammed into one room. How terrible that they didn’t have proper cooking or laundry facilities. How awful that they moved from place to place because they couldn’t pay their rent’. And then I remembered: that entire families are living in hotel rooms in Dublin right now, moving regularly, because they can’t afford skyrocketing rents and there is no social housing available or being built. And I remembered Una’s story of the homeless man that broke into the museum and slept willingly on a bed in ‘Little Italy’ to escape the cold of Limerick’s streets. I realised: we think we have come so far since Frank’s time, but we haven’t. Many people were angry when Frank published his book. The fallout of the memoir (there almost always is a fallout when it comes to memoir), was that some people in Limerick took exception to his portrayal of their city. They denied the veracity of the story. And yet here we are, many years later, many years after the great depression. We are now apparently a very wealthy country, and yet people sleep on the streets. Entire families live in hotel rooms in our capital city. And again, many would be scandalised at the suggestion that Ireland was anything but a modern, compassionate, civilised nation. Have we changed that much?

Incredibly, despite the poverty that Frank grew up in, he and his two brothers, Malachy and Alphie, are all published writers. Not many rich families can claim that. Una believes that the poverty they grew up in forced them to dream of better things. To use their imaginations to picture a different life in ways that middle-class children didn’t need to. I think that poor children do dream, and hope to improve their lot in life. Not many will scale the heights of success that Frank McCourt did, and very few will, as he is, but there is hope. And that is why, despite Angela’s Ashes being very sad, its very existence makes it a book filled with the bright light of human potential.

Starting a Writing Group

I’ve written before about the benefits of writing groups and recently I decided to start my own. A women’s writers’ group. We call ourselves Bics’n’Brunch because we had visions of doing lots of lovely writing, and then celebrating with lots of lovely brunch (and rivers of booze…) but so far, all we’ve managed is lots of lovely writing, lunch and caffeinated beverages and I’m okay with that. For now.

So we had our third meeting yesterday and we have a nice mix of members. And we’re all We have a member who has produced a short film and won a competition to have it screened. We have a member who has written the bones of a memoir. We have a member (Liz Cullen) who just launched her website and who has written a collection of short stories. She is now starting the path to self-publication. We have a member (Maria Colgan) who writes a personal development blog. We have a member who is a former journalist. We have a number of members who are just starting out with creative writing, and I’m excited about the future of our little group, and the future of our writing and the friendships we will make. And I’ve learned so much and I want to share it with anyone who thinks they want to set up a writers’ group. So here are some tips:

1. Identify the reasons why you want to establish a group and who you want to include:

There are lots of reasons why you might want to set up a writing group. If you’re in a town without one that’s a really, really good reason to set one up. But even if there are plenty of groups to choose from in your hometown, those groups might not be what you’re looking for. This was the case with me. Despite the fact that there were plenty of options in Dublin I ended up leaving all of them eventually for the following reasons:

  • They were too big which resulted in the sessions being dominated by reading aloud rather than working on our writing or discussing our writing.
  • They were almost entirely focused on essay-style non-fiction writing.
  • They only permitted positive feedback.
  • The groups felt fully established and the members were all very close friends.
  • Certain personalities had become dominant within the groups and ended up monopolising talking time.
  • They were mainly attended by white men of retirement age. They were lovely men and I learned a lot from them, so that wasn’t the problem but I found the writing didn’t have much diversity, and certainly, I didn’t have a huge amount in common with them.
  • The writing, for them, was more of a hobby than a serious endeavour.

The groups weren’t what I was looking for. I wanted to be amongst people that took the writing seriously because I felt lonely doing what I was doing. I needed beta-readers who would be brutally honest with me. I also wanted to hear some female writers’ voices, at least for a while. So I decided to set up the kind of writers’ group that I wanted to go to. A group of women of different ages,  interests and backgrounds. Women who write all kinds of things. Women who write for different reasons. Women who take the group seriously. So before launching into starting your group, decide why you want to establish a writing group and who you want to join. These are the questions you should ask yourself:

  • What kinds of writers do you want to invite? Do you want mainly fiction/non-fiction? Bloggers? Poets? Motivational writers? I kept my group mixed because I think we can all learn from one another and it adds a richness to the group, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t narrow your requirements down and be as specific as you want.
  • Do you want to restrict membership to a certain demographic?
  • How often does it suit you to meet up? This is your group, so you decide what suits you best. I think anything less than once a month is too big a gap between meetings.

2. Find Members:

Establishing the group was quite easy for me. There’s a popular social networking app called GirlCrew. It’s an international app, but was founded in Ireland and is extremely popular here. It was created for women who want to socialise with other women (platonically) and form friendships. I went on there and posted an event. I started panicking when I got twenty-two responses. I didn’t know what to do, but the weather on the day of our inaugural meeting was horrific: torrential rain, apocalyptic wind. It was miserable. Four people showed up, so that made five including myself. I thought ‘what a disaster’ but actually, it gave me a good idea of who was serious about the group and in fact, five is a reasonably good number to start off with. It’s easy to manage and not too intimidating, plus you will actually get to know one another. Having had a few meetings now, I’d say a group of eight is optimum. Other ways to find members are:

  • To use socialising apps and websites like GirlCrew, Meetup.com etc.
  • Post on Twitter and Facebook. Invite people to share your post and use hashtags to gain traction.
  • Make your local university/ college/ arts or cultural centre, library and bookshop aware of your existence and leave posters for them to put up on their notice boards.
  • Look at writerly websites for your area. Some writers’ websites have sections that list writers’ groups (The Irish Writers’ Centre and writing.ie has one, for example).
  • Attend book and literary festivals, writing workshops or writers’ retreats and get talking to people.

3. Find a venue:

The most important qualities that a venue must have are: that it is available on a regular basis, that you can relax, that you have a level of privacy that your members are comfortable with, that it is reasonably quiet so that you can concentrate/read aloud without interruption, that it is cheap/free of charge.

Your options are:

  • Writers’/ Arts/ Cultural centres
  • Members’ homes (on a rotational basis)
  • Library meeting rooms
  • Quiet cafes/pub lounges/hotel lobbies (ask permission in advance, and offer to purchase beverages/ food)
  • Pay-as-you-go social or working spaces. For example, in Dublin, we have a place called The Clockwork Door and they charge really reasonable rates for renting a room for a specific length of time. The charge includes coffee, biscuits etc. 

I found that almost everywhere other than the libraries charged, either directly or indirectly. If you’re meeting in a cafe, you should buy something. It’s only polite and right that you should, but as most writers I know aren’t exactly flush with cash, an expensive coffee or two might not feature in the budget. So I approached the newly refurbished Kevin Street Library as our place. And lads! This place is only gorgeous! It’s an old building given a modern revamp with lots of high ceilings, light and airy spaces, comfy seats and books glorious books! They set us up every month with tables and chairs in a lovely space with books lining the walls. Many libraries are only too happy to host writers’ groups. So give your local library a call first. See if they (a) have a meeting room suitable and (b) how regularly it may be available to you. 

4. Decide What You Want to Do:

There are loads of activities that writers’ groups can engage in during their meet-ups, and outside of them. Here’s a list:

  • Writing! Obviously. But what do you want to write? Decide whether you want to do a mix of free writing, working off prompts (see my article on prompts here) or working on existing projects.
  • Reading aloud from your work. You can read stuff you’re working on within the group or finished or almost finished work from outside of it. My group is still a little shy, and so I’ve asked them to read from other people’s work, works that they enjoy and find inspirational.
  • Holding each other accountable. Sharing your goals with the group, sharing your strategy for achieving those goals, and updating the group at every meeting on how you are progressing with projects. I use the SMART goal-setting formula for maintaining focus and planning. It’s a good one to share with your group. 
  • Sharing information. Informing the group about competitions that are coming up or literary events that might be of interest.
  • Problem-solving. A problem shared is a problem halved. Many writing groups discuss problems with their writing and brainstorm solutions. 
  • Teaching and Learning. Sharing tips with one another is one of the greatest benefits of a writing group. 
  • Critiquing as a Group. Not all writing groups give critique, and that’s fine. Sometimes in-depth critiquing can’t be combined with writing and reading aloud. There may not be time to do everything, especially if you’re a large group. Circulating manuscripts before meetings does save time.  Decide what your priorities are. Good quality, objective constructive criticism is a resource that’s hard to come by and personally, I welcome it because I want to write as a career. Fluffy, over-generous and gushing praise for bad writing is not good for my progression. Equally, people who like to write for fun shouldn’t have to face having their tyres deflated by a negative Nelly. So, at the outset decide what kind of group you are, manage expectations, set boundaries and at first, regardless of what kind of group you are, work on developing trust. 
  • Finding a beta-reader. Beta-readers carry out a deep analysis of a full manuscript and give written responses to questions posed by the author. Beta reading involves a lot of focus, a lot of effort and is a huge commitment, and should be taken seriously. I am so grateful to all of the people that beta-read my novel, and it absolutely wouldn’t have been as good as it is without them. Give-and-take is important with beta-reading, so make members aware that if if agrees to beta-read for a group member, they should offer to return the favour. 
  • Having company at writerly events. I’ve been to a lot of events solo. It’s nice to have company that shares your interest. As a group, you can Attend book-launches, open-mics, literary festivals, plays, movies that are book-related as a group.
  • Organising your own writerly events.  It’s easy to organise a writers’ retreat nowadays with AirBnb. Pick a beautiful, peaceful location and organise yourself a bit of solid writing time together. You can also agree to take turns in researching writing lessons and teaching the group. If you’re a decent sized group and you are all willing to pay you could contact established writers directly and ask them to give a workshop. Most writers give workshops and talks to earn extra cash. You could possibly organise it in collaboration with your local library or other writers’ groups. You could also look at staging plays written by group members or by the group as a whole. 
  • Working on group projects. One group I know published their own book of short stories, essays and poetry. Another group did a reading on the radio together and wrote a play collaboratively. The Boyne Writers have their own literary magazine. You could create a group blog and take turns in contributing content. All brilliant ideas. But it could be as simple as writing a short story together, creating a group podcast or a Spotify playlist for your group.
  • Book recommendations. Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. Reading for pleasure and reading to learn is important when working on your craft. I love getting reading suggestions from people I trust.

5. Pick a Chair and Communicate:

Every group needs a Chairperson to put a structure on the meeting. Most groups rotate chairs, and I recommend this. It’ll make the group democratic and make everyone feel invested in the group.

Chairing involves:

  • Preparing an agenda which may include: updates on member progress on projects, selecting a ‘writing tip of the month’, supplying prompts, making members aware of upcoming competitions, events etc.
  • Allocating and managing time for discussion, free-writing, writing and reading aloud.
  • Arranging a date for the next meeting. Notifying any absent members and the venue of the date and time of the next meeting.
  • Organising tea/coffee, cakes, lunch where necessary.

Also, pick a method of communication between group members so that you can share work, share tips, suggest meet-ups etc. I use WhatsApp but other groups use Facebook Groups or communicate via email.

So there you go, you have everything you need to establish your writing group! Except for a name (just FYI Bics’n’Brunch is copyrighted. Devastating, I know. It’s a good one).