Writers On Writing / Communicating a sense of place with Felicity Castagna


We spoke with Felicity Castagna about the importance of a sense of place in writing ahead of her course, Online: Writing a Sense of Place.


Your book, Girls in Boys’ Cars came out in July this year ­– what was your process in writing this book?

Like all good books it took many drafts over many years to get the voice and the style right. I really wanted to write a frame narrative where the main character Rosa is in a juvenile correction centre trying to explain how ‘a good girl like her’ might have gotten there after she stole a car with her friend Asheeka and went on a road trip all over regional NSW. Both Asheeka and Rosa have a lot to work through – they’ve got complicated families and community obligations and I wanted to make sure their stories were told in the kind of nuanced and complicated way that would give them integrity. Writing the kind of complicated friendship these girls have took a lot of redrafting as well but it was worth it for the depth it brings their relationship. They are both in love with and infuriated by each other simultaneously. I wanted to show how sometimes we just can’t ever really understand the ones closest to us no matter how hard we try and that’s alright – we all come from different places and that’s what makes relationships interesting.

What role did place play in Girls in Boys’ Cars, and how were you able to communicate this sense of place?

There are many different places in this book because I really wanted to write something that is both about the way that place can define a character but also the way that leaving that place, taking it with you, while you are thrust into more unfamiliar territory can be a character-defining moment as well. 

My two main characters in this book are really urban girls. They are from the Parramatta area, a suburban place that is rapidly redefining itself as a city. Part of what I was interested in doing with Girls In Boys’ Cars was taking two very urban girls and seeing what would happen when they go on a road trip through regional Australia. I think we all come from very local places with their own specific cultures, for Rosa and Asheeka leaving the city is a bit like going to the moon. They get to see that there are many different types of Australia that are very different from the one they know and that forces them out of their comfort zone, which is always a great place for a dynamic character to be.

What advice do you have for writing about place across genres, such as poetry where the amount of words you can use may be constricted?

I’ve always taught my students that it’s the limitations and constrictions that we put on our writing that foster the greatest level of creativity. Think about haiku, for example, because there are so few syllables and lines allowed it means that the writer has to work harder to find the words that can do the really hard job of saying many things at once.

Writing place isn’t about using many words, or many descriptions or many adjectives. It’s the opposite – it’s about finding the most precise word. It’s about using words that are as specific as possible. It’s also about using the least amount of words because when we over-write we distract the reader from the details that are important.

Why do you think place is so important in writing? Where would a manuscript be without a sense of place?

Creative texts are often said to be either character or plot driven but there is a third way: setting or place can also determine plot, language, character and the voice of your text. It’s not backdrop. It never is. 

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Felicity Castagna has written for the stage and radio and her essays frequently appear in magazines and journals. She has created cross-artform and collaborative work with many other artists, work which has featured at major festivals and art galleries such as The Sydney Festival, The Museum of Contemporary Art and The National Theatre of Parramatta. Outside of writing she teaches writing, talks about writing and helps to run a lot of storytelling, mentorship and art projects. Her most recent book Girls In Boys’ Cars was released in July 2021.

Join Felicity for Online: Writing a Sense of Place, 13 October to 19 October.

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