Exercise 2.0 Write about a stranger from a photo

Exercise 2.0

Leaf through your commonplace book, looking for photographs of people you don’t recognise. If there aren’t many, start a temporary folder, taking cuttings from newspapers and magazines. You could also borrow a couple of original photographs from a friend, so long as you don’t know who the people are.

  • Look closely at these strangers’ photographs. The images were snatched from real people in a single instant of time, so try to imagine what the person might have been doing immediately before and after the photograph was taken. For example, one person might be looking away from the camera in the picture, but imagine that you can watch as the person starts to turn towards you. Include body language, facial expressions and clothes.
  • Start writing using the listing technique practised in Part one, Project 4.
  • Now look through your list and circle with a red pen the parts you are not happy with. Use your highlighter to emphasise the parts you like.
  • Turn to a new page and redraw the description, utilising the highlighted parts, but trying to find better ways of putting what you were trying to say when you used a red pen. Refer to the examples above if you get stuck. Try to involve some of the other senses. Does the person have a lingering scent or smell? How does their voice sound?
  • This exercise is fun to do, but it also leaves you with a character sketch that you can use later, when you need one for further writing. Save your work in a named file.
  • Return to your picture folder and choose again, repeating the exercise over the next few days or weeks until you’re skilled at it and have several character sketches. Allow up to an hour for this first attempt.


Second draft

Alec has the message in his ear to ignore Fairy, the undercover colleague.

He is thinking a bacon sandwich would go down well, it’s a long time since breakfast.

His waistline is a bit too think but a bit of bulk can be useful in this job.

His look is practised, stoic, impassive, unimpressed. He feels the recently acquired contact lenses allow his blue-eyed stare to penetrate better.

He likes this new fresh-faced look. He is pleased he shaved off the beard and had the blond locks cut short.

He is aware of his square jaw and sets it to best effect.

He puts his weight on his right foot. His left knee is a bit painful after last night’s cricket practice.

Everything smells of horses as well as Alec after that earlier incident.

This crowd is not that noisy but its early yet. There will be shouting when the horses start galloping up to the field where the Fair is. Still, he is glad his earpiece is working today.

Alec is feeling chilly but doesn’t want to show it, he believes the folded arms are an appropriate stance they increase his bulk and make him look unassailable. He wishes he had a jacket on though, everyone else has.





Alec, the Policeman at Appleby Horse Fair.


Alec listens to the instructions in his ear and ignores Fairy, his undercover colleague who walks straight past him. He has been standing here now for two hours and is cold. He wishes he had a jacket on. He folds his arms knowing it will increase  his bulk and make him look unassailable and feel a bit warmer. He’s thinking a bacon sandwich would go down well, breakfast is a dim memory. His waistline is increasing but a bit of extra weight will be handy on the rugby pitch next season.

He shifts his extra weight to his right foot to ease the pain in his left knee. Last night’s cricket practice knackered it. Maybe he’s not as fit as he was. Still, he does like his fresh new look. He’s pleased he shaved off that wispy beard and had his blond curls sheared. He can show off his good square jaw now. He strokes it thoughtfully and wonders if Bella will be impressed.

The contact lenses were her idea. He practises his penetrating blue-eyed stare at a group of gypsy boys. His face is otherwise immobile, stoic, impassive, unimpressed. They nudge each other and turn away.

The crowd is not that noisy but it’s early yet. There will be plenty of shouting when these horses start galloping up to the Fairground. He’s glad his earpiece is working properly today. Might need it later. Everything smells of horses, even Alec after that incident earlier on.


Fairy, a man at the fair.


First draft – after rough notes – rough sentences.


He hoped he wasn’t easy to describe, medium height, darkish, medium weight, no particular age, but not old. He had an accent, slight but could be Irish, southern, soft. He blended in, standing out from no-one neither the public nor the gypsies. He could be a breeder, a buyer or a bystander, whatever you like.

He appears to slouch around moving quietly and quickly through the crowds.

He is lean, ultra-fit, astute, intelligent and very good at his job.

Watch him very carefully to see he is alert, constantly watching surrepticiously, quietly.

His eyes flicker here and there while he pretends to make a phone call.

He melts into the background.

He smells of horses and doesn’t smile.

He is an undercover cop.

He is not local. He is from Dublin, working for them. He is Irish but his mother was a Romany.

He stands very close to groups of gypsies discussing horse prices and deals, nodding sagely

He is not scared of horses, he shows he is at home with them.

He has infiltrated the horse dealing world where there are drugs, illegal sales counterfeit paperwork and counterfeit money.

It is a dangerous job.

Got his nickname as he spends a lot of time going round horse fairs .

He is married but rarely sees his wife as she too works away – a human rights lawyer operating out of Cape Town.




Fairy,  undercover at the Fair

Section redraft


Fairy emerged from the crowd and slouched past the uniformed copper on duty near the barrier. The policeman looked the other way.

Fairy hoped he wasn’t easy to describe, medium height, darkish, medium weight, no particular age, but not old, an accent, slight, but could be Irish, southern, soft. He blended in, standing out from no-one neither the public nor the gypsies. He could be a breeder, a buyer or a bystander, whatever you like. It was a carefully prepared ‘look’. His clothes were dark, a quilted jacket as favoured by stable lads, blue jeans in a universal style, expensive trainers but well-worn and rather dirty, no cap. His skin was dark, neither white nor black and his greasy dark hair was slicked straight back in no particular style.

If you watched him you could see he was at home with horses, he moved amongst them confidently. It was almost impossible to register his interest in the group behind him. He appeared engrossed in his phone call while closely examining a horse. His eyes, however, never stopped moving while he recorded the nearby conversation very effectively. He may have resembled an insignificant tinker but beneath the assumed character he was a lean, ultra-fit, astute, intelligent and very important undercover officer from Dublin.

He smelled of horses and melted into the background as soon as you had seen him. He smiled inwardly, all the time whilst presenting the face of a not-too-bright Irish immigrant who might once have been a jockey.