How does environment inform our actions, our thoughts, our emotions? What can we tell about someone just from the way they physically respond to their surroundings?

As part of PEN’s Summer Writing Institute, Readers & Writers Director Stacy Leigh and instructor Geof Bankowski took their workshop of high school students to lower Manhattan on a “literary expedition.” Two separate groups were set loose at 38 Aquarium in Chinatown and Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side for an exercise in careful observation of people and place.

At 38 Aquarium—an iconic Chinatown shop specializing in parrot fish, arowana, and varietals of showy and bizarre fish—students took notes on the neighborhood’s diverse cross-section of cultures, paying close attention to customers and passersby, as well as the store’s appearance, the shopkeepers, and, of course, the fish.

At Russ and Daughters—a Lower East Side specialty foods store founded in 1910, famous for its smoked fish, caviar and baked goods—not only were students asked to examine their environment, select students were instructed to order smoked fish and engage the staff in conversation while others observed their body language and the dynamics of the interaction.

Returning to the workshop at PEN’s office in SoHo, students reported on and discussed their observations from each location and then set to work turning their notes into stories. The prompt:

Depict a character whose actions alone speak: the character’s movements should communicate her or his immediate situation; their gestures should convey an emotional state. The settings in which the narrative takes place will be integral to the unfolding of the story. When creating a story in actions, consider this: many of our “authentic” actions are actually reflexes, automatic responses to changes in the environment. Think of our animal selves—with needs to eat, rest, hold territory, etc.—as you “show, rather than tell” this character’s story.