Creative Checklist

maya angelou creativity

Consider the following and ensure that you have thought about each and taken these elements into account


  • Time and place: when is this action occurring; between whom?
  • Setting: a sense of place for backdrop purposes; for symbolic purposes; for atmosphere and dramatic purposes
  • Themes: which of these ideas are you exploring: class; power; ownership; spirituality; secrecy; wealth; family; identity; self-worth; grief; conflict; anger; guilt; bitterness etc….(it’s a long list – hone in on one or two to really explore in detail)
  • Premise: exactly why and in what circumstances is the interaction occurring?  How believable is it given all that occurs in the text?
  • Characters: how are your characters portrayed – their relationships with others/the land, their views and values; their identity; their inner conflicts; are they haunted by memories?; do they wonder about the future?; what do they hope for?; what do they fear?
  • Whose “lived experience” are you hoping to shine a light on?
  • Keep it within the realm of possibility – you should be complementing Grenville’s text, not contradicting it.


  • SHOW, DON’T TELL.  You will need to think about what you want to hint at and how you can show the reader enough for them to infer what you are talking about.
  • Opening needs to be strong and engaging and can open ‘in media res’ – in the middle of the action – or can begin with description of setting or people which sets a mood or atmosphere
  • Consider how you build tension by hinting at discord, increasing the intensity subtly and ensuring that your reader is drawn into the conflict (could even be a person’s inner conflict)
  • Consider how you could use PATHOS to create a sense of pity and sympathy for a character and their position in the story
  • Exercise restraint  – you don’t need to write about a punch-on.  The threatened action need not even occur.  Your writing will be more powerful for the tension rather than the action your try to write.


  • KILL YOUR DARLINGS.  Don’t use 12 words where one will do. Be a ruthless editor.
  • Mix up your sentence structures to control the pace and mood of your writing.
  • Sentence fragments.  Use them.
  • Try for immediacy – don’t lapse into the passive voice.  Keep things active (attributing actions to specific people)
  • Dialogue needs to capture accents, class, education, culture.  It should reflect the cadence of speech (often not fully formed sentences and including trailing off….. Or interrup–I mean, interjections)
  • Punctuate your sentences appropriately – particularly dialogue.
  • Intersperse dialogue with description.  A classic mistake is to open with some scene setting and never ever describe (show) anything again.  That would be the equivalent of switching off the visual feed after the first 5 minutes of a screening a film in a cinema and only allowing your audience to hear the sound for the rest of the movie.  You can’t expect your audience to supply all the visual material to accompany the action and dialogue.  Don’t be lazy.  You have to work hard to keep us willing suspending our disbelief.
  • Vocabulary: do your research.  Use the terminology appropriate to the time and place and characters.
  • Be specific with the details – give your writing authenticity.
  • Appeal to the senses.  Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures – these are all things that evoke a response from your reader.
  • Use the symbols or motifs Grenville has provided you with or introduce new ones: roof tile; fire; telescope; book; boat; river; cliffs; oysters; singing; clothing


  • Read your work aloud.  No, really.  Fix any errors that may have crept into your expression (subject/verb agreement; tense control)
  • Listen out for any parts that sound overly wordy or recount-like.  Kill your darlings.
  • Read your work to a critical friend.  Get some feedback.  Listen to their questions and examine their responses.


Ask WWKGD? (what would Kate Grenville do?)

The answer, my friend, is not blowin’ in the wind, nor is it secret.  It’s right there in The Secret River.

And remember: drafting is a process.

cormier writing quote


Weigh your Words: why the right words matter

Read the following passage (pp. 288-90) and pay careful attention to the writing.  You should select the appropriate expression from those offered in parentheses.  Try to maintain the integrity of Grenville’s writing.

For a moment Thornhill tried to imagine it: turning his back on that clearing carved out of the wilderness by months of [sweat/hard work].   Letting some other man have it in exchange for nothing more than a few numbers on a piece of paper, some other man who would walk over it, smiling to himself at all its [fertility/possibilities/many different ways that it could be used].

He knew [the/his/their/our] place now, by day and by [candlelight/night], knew how it behaved in rain and wind, under [the sun/sun] and under moon.  He thought his way along all those green reaches of the river, those [gold/yellow/daffodil yellow] and grey cliffs, the [wishy-washy/whistle/fantastic and varied sounds] of the river-oaks, [that sky/ the way the sky seemed to look like/ the bush in general].

He remembered how it had been that first night, the [fearsome/massive/scary] strangeness of the place.  Those cold stars had become [new/old] friends: the Cross, nearly as good as the Pole to steer a course by, the pointers, and the Frying-pan, which was nothing more than Orion, only upside down.  He could tell over the bends of the [river/Hawkesbury] the way he had once been able to tell over the bends of the Thames…

….He was no longer the person who thought that a little house in [a little street/a town/Swan Lane/the south of France] and a wherry of his own was all a man might desire.  It seemed that he had become another man altogether.  Eating the the food of this country, drinking its water, breathing its air had [made/remade/given birth to him], particle by particle.  This sky, those cliffs, that river were no longer the means by which he might return to some other place.  This was where he was: not just in body, but in [mind/soul/conscience] as well.

A man’s heart was a deep [pocket/place] he might turn out and be amazed at what he found there.

The sun had risen now, high enough to brush the crests on the cliff, puff-balls of brilliant green glowing against the shadows.  The white [parrots/sulphur crested cockatoos] all rose at once out of the tree they roosted in and spread like a scatter of [river stones/stars/sand] into the sky, the sun catching the brightness of their wings.

Beyond the cluster of people waiting for him to speak, the cliffs hung over the river, [mysterious/ big/ vibrant/magnificent], colourless in the early morning shadows.  At this hour the cliffs were [a kind of patterned cloth/a soft cloth/a coarse cloth], the weft of the layers of rock, the warp of the trees straggling upwards.  Beyond the [neat/regimental/ragged] line of tree-tops, the sky was a sweet [blue/red/green/gold].  A sudden gust of wind on the river ruffled it into points [like giant waves/of light/like a school of sharks’ jaws] and the forest [slept/heaved/shuddered/sighed] under the morning breeze.

Check your versions with the original text and try to think about why Grenville’s choices work in this passage.

The writing process is a process of weighing up language and expressions.  Avoid cliches.  Find new ways of showing us ordinary things.



Dialogue and Themes

Let’s look at the  various characters attitudes to the indigenous population by completing the following table:

Character Attitude to Indigenous People In their own words…

Draw a line which represents a moral continuum between good and evil.  Place these characters on the spectrum according to their views, values and actions.

GOOD                                                                                                                            EVIL


Examine the novel’s end and the way the stories of each of these characters come to a close.  Make a note about each and what Grenville’s novel might suggest about these different views and values..

Power in The Secret River


Here’s a nice passage from Jean–Marie’s 2002 UNESCO paper, ‘Non-Violence in Education’ that might serve well as a talking point for The Secret River (emphasis added):

“Power over objects begets power over others. The desire for possession is profoundly interlinked with the desire for power. While competing for possession of objects, individuals are also struggling to assert their power over one another. So there is an organic link between property and power. Power is often what is at stake in clashes between human beings. Naturally, everyone has to have enough to meet his or her basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) as well as enough power to ensure that his or her rights are respected. Desiring property and power is legitimate insofar as it enables an individual to achieve independence from others. Adversaries in a conflict, however, each have a natural tendency always to demand more. Nothing is enough for them, and they are never satisfied. “They do not know how to stop themselves”; they know no limits. Desire demands more, much more, than need. “There is always a sense of limitlessness in desire,” writes Simone Weil. To begin with, individuals seek power so as not to be dominated by others. But if they are not careful, they can soon find themselves overstepping the limit beyond which they are actually seeking to dominate others. Rivalry between human beings can only be surmounted when each individual puts a limit on his or her own desires. “Limited desires,” notes Weil, “are in harmony with the world; desires that contain the infinite are not.””

Part 1: London [themes and motifs]

Examine how Grenville establishes the following themes and motifs in Part 1: London.  Name the events and characters in their contexts which are associated with each big idea.

  • identity and the significance of a name
  • poverty
  • survival
  • death
  • anger
  • humanity
  • class division and social structure
  • morality
  • role of the church
  • justice and the law
  • power of literacy
  • property and ownership
  • cold and warmth
  • the river

To jolt your brain into gear ask questions like:

What evidence is there?

To whom does it relate?

Is there a pattern to the references or use?

What is being shown about this idea?

What significance does the idea take on in the rest of the novel?

The Spoken Word: an exercise in dialogue

How does Grenville use dialogue in the text?  What are your initial impressions?

Read this selection of direct speech taken from pages 98-105.  Observe its use.  Consider what it can tell us about:

  • characters (their dreams; views and values; relationships with others)
  • time
  • place
  • mood
  • themes
  • hawksbury river painting

    A European view of the Hawkesbury River


    A. J. Taylor
    Last Light Hawkesbury River

Blackwood Thornhill Smasher
Where the river comes out

Our Hawkesbury

They call this Broken Bay

River comes in yonder

Best hidden river in the world

Never find your way in nor you’d been shown like I’m showing you

See yonder?

Oysters, the shells

Suck the guts out, chuck the shells away.  Been doing it since the year dot.

And fish!  My word they get the fish.

Not putting none by.

Why would they?  River ain’t going nowhere.

Every-bloody-where, mate

They seen us alright

Now they’re telling the others, up the line.

One thing you best know, only time we see them is when they want us to.

Smasher Sullivan

Come out on the Minstrel along of me

Burns the shells for the lime

Plus does a lot of mischief besides.

Damn your eyes, Smasher

Get on that other damned oar, Thornhill.  Look sharp man.

Ain’t nothin in this world just for the taking.

A man got to pay a fair price for the taking.

Matter of give a little, take a little.

Got my place up there a ways.

Where that First Branch come in.

Got myself a pardon, be two years this summer

Best pardon money could buy.

Picked meself out a hundred acres.

Catch a few fish, grow a bit of corn, brew a bit of rotgut, I can please myself

Not a matter of ask up here mate

Get your backside on a bit of ground, sit tight.  That’s all the asking you got to do.

I seen you looking

That back there

That ain’t no good

Give a little, take a little, that’s the only way

Otherwise you’re dead as a flea

Not putting none by?

For tomorrow, like?

Where are they, then?

How’s that?

They give you a hundred acres just for the asking?

Got no argument with that

Got the bugger!

Leaned that poxy thief

Learned him good and proper!

Look what I done

Last time that bugger thieves from me


  • Vocabulary
  • Sentence structure: read about sentence structure in this handout Tredinick-Subordinating_Sentences .  Look particularly at Sentence Fragments as you consider dialogue since you will have noticed that these are predominantly sentence fragments.


  1. Write a 300 word piece that centres on an interaction between two characters from the text at a moment in time not recorded in the text (an imagined instance/a moment after the action of the book.   The dialogue will sit within the description of setting and action. It should draw on what you have considered about the structure and nature of dialogue and what it can reveal.  You can choose from the following pairs:


Mrs Herring and Sal

Dick and Thornhill

Sal and Dick

Sal and Long Jack

Blackwood and Dick

Bub  and Dick

Dick and a stranger to the area

Part 3: A Clearing in the Forest

Read this anaylsis of the relationship between indigenous Australians, early settlers and clothing by Grace Karskens.

Read the following extract from The Secret River p.200:

But the women came up to her and showed her what was in their wooden dishes, crowding around and screeching with how funny it all was.  One had a big speckled lizard hanging limp from the string around her waist, slapping against her knee at every movement.  She held it up, fat and heavy, its legs splayed out from its pale belly, shouting at Sal as if she was half a mile away.  Very nice I’m sure, Polly, he heard Sal say, but you ain’t going to eat it surely? pointing at the lizard, miming eating, pointing at the woman, and they all shouted and laughed at her, copying the way she had gone hand-to-mouth and pretended to chew.  Their teeth were the most astonishing white Thornhill had ever seen, strong and shining in their faces.  Sal was enjoying the joke of being able to say what she pleased.  Ain’t you the saucy one, Polly, what about rats, and how would you go about stewing a nice little pot of worms?

Behind the older women the younger ones hung back laughing behind their hands with each other.  One, bolder than the rest, darted forward and took hold of a bit of Sal’s skirt and then dropped the unfamiliar texture with a little shriek as if it had burned her.  But Sal took a step towards her, holding the skirt out and offering her a handful.  Why, you’re no better than a dumb animal, she said, smiling, and the girl took it for permission, darting in and this time picking up the fabric in her and and feeling it.  Now the others crowded in around her.  One touched Sal’s bare arm , her hand very black against it, first quickly as if it might bite, then laying her whole hand along it and watching Sal’s face, and behind her another was dabbing at her bonnet, the rest screaming encouragement.

Then one of them had Sal’s bonnet off and on top of her own head, sitting white and incongruous on the black curls.  It was the funniest thing any of them had ever seen: Sal was doubled over, and the girl did look a sight, stark naked but for the bonnet crooked on her head, her face under it split with mirth.  The other women all wanted to try it then, so the bonnet was passed from hand to hand, head to head, until the lot of them were staggering with laughter.



Part 2: Sydney


Augustus Earle, ‘Natives of N. S. Wales as seen in the streets of Sydney’, c1826.

Maggie Brady is a researcher in the ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research and has recently published “First Taste: How Indigenous Australians Learned About Grog” which you can read here: first-taste-how-indigenous-australians-learned-about-grog-maggie-brady   The work addresses common perceptions of indigenous Australians and grog and how little or much research there is to support these ideas.


You Can’t Ask That: Indigenous

Watch this episode, the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That: Indigenous, which is a chance to hear the answers to all manner of silly, obvious, naive questions put by members of the public to a group of indigenous Australians. Listen to the passion with which they speak and the uniquely personal perspectives offered so generously. Understanding ‘The Secret River’ is as much about the story of the our present as it is about the past.