Practice-based research in writing Fantasy Fiction
(presented at Performing Fantastika, 28 April 2017)
Firstly, to qualify the validity of practice-based research as a core methodology in my discipline, creative writing:
‘original creative work is the essence of research in this practice-led subject’ (‘Creative Writing & Research, 4.6 QAA Benchmark Statement, 2015)
‘Research in or through creative practice can provide a way to bridge these two worlds: to result in an output that undeniably adds knowledge, while also producing a satisfying work of literature.’ (Webb, 2015: 20)
My creative practice extends beyond the page but feeds back into it …
As a storyteller, performance poet, host of spoken word events and fledgling folk-singer, I have used my creative practice to inform my prose fiction, field-testing material to live audiences. In 2002 I co-created and performed in a commissioned storytelling show for the Bath Literature Festival called ‘Voices of the Past’. In that I performed a monologue as Robert Kirk, the ‘fairy minister’ of Aberfoyle. Little did I know then I was to undertake a PhD with him as a major focus, or that this kind of method-writing was to become a central practice of mine.
An Otter’s Eye View
In his 2005 article on nature writing, ‘Only Connect’, Robert Macfarlane describes the approach of Henry Williamson:
‘Williamson’s research was obsessive-compulsive – writing as method acting. He returned repeatedly to the scenes of Tarka’s story as it developed. He crawled on hands and knees, squinting out sightlines, peering at close-up textures, working out what an otter’s-eye view of Weest Gully or Dark Hams Wood or Horsey Marsh would be. So it is that the landscape in Tarka is always seen from a few inches’ height: water bubbles “as large as apples”, the spines of “blackened thistles”, reeds in ice like wire in clear flex. The prose of the book has little interest in panoramas – in the sweeps and long horizons which are given to eyes carried at five feet.’
‘Only Connect’, Robert Macfarlane, 2005
As a keen walker, my experiential research seeks to experience the equivalent of Williamsons’ ‘otter’s-eye view’: to immerse myself in a landscape, to fully experience it in an embodied way that inhabits me and informs my writing and reveals countless telling details in the process.
As part of my ‘way into’ the world of my novel I have walked long-distance footpaths: Hadrian’s Wall (2014), West Highland Way (2015), Offa’s Dyke (2016), Southern Uplands Way (2017) … walks exploring borders and debatable lands, And I have discovered my enjoyment of singing in the process … While walking WHW solo I started to pick a song each day to keep me going. For the Offa’s Dyke I created a deliberate songbook. These walks gave me an embodied sense of geography, of psychogeography, and plenty of time to think about Borders. Outcomes include a poetry collection, Lost Border; a performance at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, ‘Across the Lost Border’; a ballad and tale show; and of course, the novel itself.
In particular the two worlds of the ‘spoken’ and ‘written’ forms have cross-fertilized most of all in my creative practice and published works (a selection of which are seen here). Since I first started to write poetry, back in 1991, I have straddled these worlds – discovering that the performance of my words (initially at ‘open mic’ nights) was just as important as the writing of them, as a way of ‘getting them out there’, connecting with an audience, gleaning a response, starting a discussion. I soon realized that do so successfully required practise and sometimes a tailoring of the text for performance, focusing on its orality/aurality and factoring in mnemonic devices. I have made a study of these aspects and techniques (and the traditions that inform them) ever since. I collected my field-tested research in The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, published by Gothic Image 2006. In my folk tales collections for The History Press I rendered into prose fiction a mixture of folklore, folktale and ballad – culminating in the anthology I’ve edited, Ballad Tales. These, in turn, have been restored to orality in subsequent launch events – through either straight reading, extempore performance or song. In storytelling, the ‘performative text’ – not a verbatim transcript but the cluster of phrases, gestures, plot points and tropes the performer holds in their memory (Honko, 2002) can result in a different telling each time. There are many paths through the forest of the narrative, modulated by the feedback loop of performance, audience, performance space, regionality and topicality (‘The Gate’, Manwaring; Gersie, 2012).
In my novel I have attempted to dramatize the creative process of cross-fertilization that occurs when song- and tale-cultures are taken to new lands, and sometimes back again: ‘diasporic translocation’. The focus of my research at the University of Leicester, (p/t since September 2014) has been: Longing, Liminality and Transgression in the Folk Traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians. After extensive time in key research libraries, the Scottish Borders and North Carolina, I have created the following story: Janey McEttrick is a Scottish-American musician descended from a long line of gifted but troubled women. She lives near Asheville, North Carolina, where she plays in a jobbing rock band, and works part-time at a vintage record store. Thirty-something and spinning wheels she seems doomed to smoke and drink herself into an early grave, until one day she receives a mysterious journal – apparently from a long-lost Scottish ancestor, the Reverend Robert Kirk, a 17th Century minister obsessed with Fairy Lore. Assailed by supernatural forces, she is forced to act – to journey to Scotland to lay to rest the ghost of Kirk and to accept the double-edged gift she has inherited, the gift of Second Sight: the Knowing. Janey, as my performer-protagonist, is the ideal vehicle for exploring notions of world-walking. She is of mixed heritage, being half-Scottish, half-Cherokee – a Meti hybrid, the blood of the Old and New Worlds run in her veins. She is a semi-pro rock musician who becomes, as a result of reconciling herself to her inheritance, a professional folk musician. Her down-to-earth sassiness counterbalances the otherworldly elements she encounters. She is kick-ass but also fallible, gifted but self-sabotaging. A hedonist who needs to learn to reconcile herself to a supernatural reality. Within her she contains the dialectical discourse of my narrative, though if you told her that she’d punch you on the nose.
Through digital formats, my PhD project explores ways in which the reader ‘performs the text’ in their interaction with hypertextuality. The heteroglossia of my narrative (the voices of Janey’s ancestors, the supporting characters, the antagonist) suggested to me a different way of navigating the text could be more effective than a conventional linear one, and so in creating the ebook version of The Knowing, I tackled the various technical challenges of creating an interactive multi-linear narrative. This involved learning new software and grappling with coding. I created a series of motifs symbolizing the different characters. As metonymic representation was intrinsic to the narrative (the 9 McEttrick Women are connected to through their respective heirloom). Epitomizing the characters with motifs seemed satisfyingly apt and something as an artist I enjoy doing. Embedding these within the text, the reader clicks on the motif if they wish to discover the ‘hidden voice’. Rather than disrupt the flow of the main narrative with these subplots – either through inserted sections, chapters, or footnotes – a small hyperlinked motif enables the reader to choose, thus bestowing upon them the same agency as my protagonists who are all driven by their desire to know in some way. This chimes with the conceptual underpinning of my novel as an epistemological enquiry: what do we know? How do we know what we know? Why is some knowledge valued above other kinds? Can we ever know another, or even ourselves, fully? Can any knowledge be ‘solid state’ in certainty, or does objective truth disappear into contradictory details the closer it is examined? In a ‘Post-Truth’ age of Trumpian fake news, such questions seem timely (although I suspect they are perennial – such questions have been haunting critical thinkers for a long time). But to return to the notion of reader-performer: any readers ‘performs their text’, in reading of a line, the turning of a page, and the transforming of marks into meaningful narrative, but in an ebook with multiple pathways that performance seems more explicit (though paradoxically less physical). I liked the idea that each of my links is a kind of portal (a digital wardrobe to Narnia or a rabbit hole to Wonderland) taking the reader to another paradigm. The ebook makes the reading experience an acting out of the classic ‘Portal Quest’ Fantasy (Mendelhson 1999), although in truth any book can provide a trapdoor in reality. Recent works such as Iain Pears’ Arcadia (2016) augment those portals with apps and websites, but any reader with sufficient imagination can provide their own – whether through daydreaming, drawing, fan fiction, cos-play, gaming and so on. Initial Reader-Reception of the ebook has so far been encouraging:
‘this novel has an appealing plot and uses digital media in a clever way to bring other voices into the main narrative.’ Everyboy’s Reviewing [accessed 25.04.17]
‘Like the Fey and the plot, the e-book itself is full of cunning entanglements.’ Amazon.com review [accessed 25.04.2017]
‘The use of links within the ebook text to jump between narratives gives a real sense of the narratives being separate and ongoing outside what is written, while not detracting from the flow of the novel itself. It’s an interesting use of the technology that works really well in what it sets out to do: to give the reader the choice of reading the initially hidden narratives or to allow them to read the main narrative and then the related narratives afterwards. I feel the choice of the reader mirrors Janey’s choice to read Kirk’s Journal or not; it gives the reader a little taste of what Janey herself faces when she receives her ancestor’s contraband form of communication.’ Good Reads review [accessed 25.04.2017]L
One byproduct of my PhD research has been the ‘ballad and tale’ show called ‘The Bonnie Road’, a one-hour blend of storytelling, song, and poetry co-created with my partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith, which draws directly upon the supernatural Border Ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and my research into Scottish folk traditions. This illustrates how it is possible to turn elements of a novel into a ‘live lit’ experience, one that is co-created with the audience in a slightly different form every single time due to the extempore style of delivery. It has been performed at festivals, small theatres, pubs and gatherings. Bringing alive the characters in the two ballads: (Thomas the Rhymer; Tam Lin; Janet; The Queen of Elfland) in some cases acting them, was an effective way of getting under their skin and finding a ‘way in’. Embodied insights which deepen my understanding of them, nuancing my depiction of them in fiction. This was augmented by a workshop I ran called The Wheel of Transformation in the US and UK in which participants role-played those 4, sometimes swapping roles and genders.
Feeding Back into the Novel
All this ‘research through practice’ has enriched my visualisation of the novel and deepened understanding of the characters. The response from the audience, discussion generated and comments garnered have helped create a fertile feedback loop. Furthermore, my archival research has discovered fascinating details (marginalia in the notebooks; poems; diary entries) which have been directly fed back into the novel – in characterisation and plot, which you can read about on my Bardic Academic blog [eg ‘The Remarkable Notebooks of Robert Kirk’].
Pushing the Boundaries
The Knowing has attempted to push the boundaries of both form and content – finding fertile ground in the creative tension between the Actual and Imaginary, as Nathaniel Hawthorne terms it (‘The Custom House’, introduction to The Scarlet Letter). I argue that true Fantastika lies within the negative space of these apparent extremes. I certainly choose to pitch my flag in this liminal zone where the magical and the mundane rub shoulders, finding neither straight realism (so-called mimetic fiction) or high fantasy to my taste. I have dramatized this transitional space as ‘The Rift’ within my novel, a place between the Iron World of humans and the Silver World of the fey – ever-widening after the cataclysm of the Sundering, when the Borders were sealed. Yet in my novel there are irruptions on both sides: characters and contraband slip through; and in the Trickster figure of Sideways Brannelly, a 19th Century Ulster-American who has become a ‘Wayfarer’ – a trader between the worlds – I have someone who acts out the synaptic cross-fire between these hemispheres. He smuggles the lost journal of Robert Kirk out from Elfhame, metaphorically mimicking the production of the actual text itself – the result of my own walking between the worlds. And in my career as a writer-academic I continually straddle the apparent ‘creative-critical’ divide, finding it a place of intense creative generation – a mid-Atlantic ridge for the black fumers of my mind!
My practice-based research continues to inform my writing. And in author events such as book launches (eg Steampunk Market, Chepstow, 22nd April) the ‘performance’ aspect comes full circle, as I sometimes ‘role-play’ characters from my novels (in this case, my Edwardian aviator Isambard Kerne from The Windsmith Elegy) to bring alive the storyworld for the casual browser, enticing future readers to ‘walk between the worlds’.
- Gersie, Alida, et al, Storytelling for a Greener World, Stroud: Hawthorn, 2012
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel, ‘The Custom House’, introduction to The Scarlet Letter, 1850.
- Honko, Lauri (ed.) The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, 2002
- Macfarlane, Robert, ‘Only Connect’, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/26/featuresreviews.guardianreview33 [accessed 25.04.17]
- Manwaring, Kevan, The Bardic Handbook, Glastonbury: Gothic Image, 2006
- Manwaring, Kevan, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013
- Manwaring, Kevan, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013
- Manwaring, Kevan, Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2017
- Manwaring, Kevan, The Knowing – A Fantasy, Stroud: Goldendark, 2017
- Mendlesohn, Farah, Rhetorics of Fantasy, Wesleyan University Press, 2008
- Pears, Iain, Arcadia, London: Faber, 2016
- QAA Benchmark Statement (draft) 2015
- Webb, Jen, Researching Creative Writing, Newmarket: Frontinus, 2015