Practice-based research in the creation of a novel
In the creation of my contemporary fantasy novel, The Knowing, the main focus of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester, I have undertaken extensive experiential research as part of the practice-based research of writing the novel itself. It has to be emphasised that the writing of the novel is the research, for it is as much a scrutinization of the creative process as a dramatisation of that process through the characters, setting and plot. The PhD began as an examination of the ‘Longing, Liminality and Transgression in the Folk Traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians’ (as my initial research question framed), at least when it became ‘conscious’ – in September 2014 when I began my part-time research degree – yet creative aquifers had been at work long before that.
I have long been interested in the folklore, tales and songs of the Scottish Borders, but things crystallized the day that Janey McEttrick, my main protagonist, walked into my head with her mane of red hair, steel-string guitar and second sight. She wanted her story told, and she wouldn’t let me go until I told it. She’s the kind of woman that you simply cannot turn down. And, besides, I fancied spending time in her company, having been hanging out with an Edwardian aviator and the lost of history for over a decade (in the writing of my 5-volume series, The Windsmith Elegy). I felt the need for a change of register, to write something set (mostly) in the present day, and from a different perspective – looking back at the Old World from the perspective of the New.
A Scottish-Native American folksinger, hanging out near Asheville, North Carolina, Janey’s story dramatizes the diasporic translocation I was interested in. Descended (on her mother’s side) from a long line of singer-seers, she epitomizes the cross-fertilisation that took place when waves of Scottish and Scots-Irish migrants upped sticks – through force or choice – and undertook the perilous crossing to the Americas, settling all the way from the taiga of Canada to the swamps of the South, but in particular, in the Appalachians where the mountainous terrain made them feel at home. They brought their songs and tales and folklore with them, in many instances preserving and customizing in fascinating ways. When I heard how Elizabethan ballads were discovered being sung by the early song collectors I was intrigued, and wondered what else might be preserved in these polders – what traces of the Old World could be found in the New? How had they adapted and mutated? And how the so-called Celtic Fringes had extended their borders into the West – to the point that the plaid of the clans became the classic checked shirt of the cowboy, and in a million other peculiar ways Celticity reinvents itself, a restless global meme: a way of seeing and a way of being that transcends genealogy.
I have found the most effective way to bring alive the world of my characters is to have analogous experiences. If I cannot go to the actual place where they lived, then I will go to somewhere equivalent and equally as evocative – for it is always in the telling detail, discovered beneath one’s feet, that the location comes alive. And often by walking in the footsteps of your characters – real or imaginary – you gain an insight into them. So I opt for a ‘method-writing’ form of approach, especially as I want to be able channel the voices of my characters (mainly Robert Kirk and 9 generations of McEttrick Women) as convincingly as possible. Note I didn’t say authentically – for authenticity in prose is as much a performance as anything. For genuine authenticity one would only be able to write about oneself, one’s limited world – resulting in mere solipsism – whileas a novelist, with sufficient empathy, research and skill, can and should write about lives for beyond his or her own. To undertake such a creative challenge requires requires an almost fanatical obsession with research. A PhD, in particular, requires nothing less. It is the ultimate anorak. And in the journey of the research one is engaged in a continual feedback loop – gauging one’s ideas against what one finds, discusses, is challenged by, and practices.
And so off I set on my quest, following my wandering star … Here is a summary of my practice-based research to date:
- In August 2014, hearing the call of the Borders, I decided to walk Hadrian’s Wall –an 84 mile long path from Newcastle to Carlisle, following the line of the Roman Empire’s northernmost border – with my partner, Chantelle Smith.
- From here we headed farther north, to the coast of Wester Ross – to a croft I have returned to again and again as a place of inspiration.
- Heading south I visited key sites associated with the Border Ballads, Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin and Tam o’Shanter, as well as climbing Schiehallion, the ‘fairy mountain’ in the Cairngorms.
- In 2015 I walked the West Highland Way solo, a 100 mile long distance footpath from the Lowlands to the Highlands, camping along the way, and climbing Ben Nevis (4000ft).
- From these trips emerged my collection of poetry, Lost Border (Chrysalis 2015), which I performed at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2016 with Chantelle.
- In 2015 I also became a Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies, based at the Eccles Centre, the British Library. This year long fellowship enabled me to undertake research in that amazing research library.
- I also received a Postgraduate Fund which enabled me to spend time at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, Camden – as I delved into the archives, researching the field trips undertaken by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles to Southern Appalachia, 1915-1918.
- This was augmented by a field trip to North Carolina in late summer 2015, made possible by the generosity and hospitality of my American friend, Debbi McInteer. I joined her and her family on a road trip from Jamestown RI, to Asheville, NC, visiting key locations associated both with Cecil and Maud, and my fictional characters. I got to experience the fabulous music and meet some descendants of tradition-bearer Jane Hicks Gentry and the Ward Family.
- While in the States I ran a workshop based upon the folkloric motifs of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin (‘The Wheel of Transformation’); try out some wild-writing; and co-host the ‘Crossways Medicine Show’ – a social gathering and sharing of cultural songlines.
- Out my research into the Scottish Borders, I developed a ballad and tale show with my partner, called ‘The Bonnie Road’ which we performed in 2015 in various venues.
- I was granted the fantastic opportunity to spend a month at Hawthornden Castle International Writers Retreat in late 2015. Here, in the home of the poet William Drummond, I wrote the second draft of my novel (160,000 words).
- While at the castle I made several forays into Edinburgh to visit the fabulous archives at the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh. In their Special Collections I was able to see first-hand the surviving manuscripts and notebooks of Robert Kirk, the 17th Century Presbyterian Minister, and author of the monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (a key character in my novel).
- In 2016 I instigated, commissioned and edited Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, to be published by The History Press, June 2017. This features 19 retellings of traditional ballads, pushing the envelope of genre and gender, setting and sexual politics.
- My practice-based research really began when I first started performing ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ in my early 20s, and visited the Eildon Hills, wild-camping upon them in the hope of inspiration or encounter!
- And my connection with Kirk began in earnest when i created and performed a monologue in character, with Fire Springs, for ‘Voices of the Past’, Bath Literature Festival 2002.
- Finally, I really felt I could not write a novel about a musician unless I had some first-hand experience to draw upon, and so my practice-based research has also involved learning the guitar and plunging into ballad-singing. I certainly have found the latter to be something I enjoy both in isolation (e.g. while walking the long-distance footpaths such as Offa’s Dyke) and amongst friends (starting ‘Sunday Song’ with Nimue Brown as a place to share in an informal way). And studying the former has certainly given me more of an insight and appreciation of songcraft.
- Other activities have included: presenting papers at conferences on aspects of my research; writing a blog (Bardic Academic: crossing the creative/critical divide); tweeting; undertaking commissions which allow me to explore the creative/critical voice in my writing (eg Marginalia; Houdinis of Bewilderland) and entering competitions, eg The Re-imagined Book, winner of the AHRC 10 Essay Prize.
And, until it is all complete, the journey continues…