Saturday, 10 January 2015

Place and Character Headspace

My main hobby, aside from writing, is medieval re-enactment with the Society for Creative Anachronism. It's the kind of hobby that can expand to fill all available resources, so I've chosen to limit my involvement to the part of it that means the most to me: big events, preferably overnighters, most preferably in historic locations such as manor houses and castles. These are the events that leave me feeling blissed-out and rejuvenated from the time spent with friends in amazing locations - even if I've worked hard the entire time!

Something else often happens at these events, when I find some time to be alone. Always, since I was very small, I've found it easy to slip into internal storytelling, making a narrative of my circumstances and surroundings. The surreal otherworldliness of an SCA event enhances the ability, and once I'm on my own I find myself automatically weaving stories in the air around me, putting me straight into character headspace.

This can be a very powerful tool for coming up with new story ideas or exploring the feelings of existing characters. Because I'm so immersed in it, I respond more realistically to the story my mind is telling, because I'm physically in that space.

Raglan Castle, Wales. Photo: CSF.
Sunset at Raglan Castle, Wales. Photo: CSF.

SCA encampent at Raglan Castle, Wales. Photo: CSF.

I've been to Ffair Rhaglen, or Raglan Fair, twice (2010 and 2013) and will be going again this year. It's grown into a 10-day event, in which the SCA takes over the castle, interacting with the public during the day then enjoying exclusive use of the site after hours. From the groups of medieval tents, the ruined castle, and the rural landscape surrounding the site, the scope for story immersion here is immense. As I walk around the site, I find stories of community and survival most often dominate my imagination. If there is, one day, a novel about a court in exile, fled to the ruins of a long-abandoned castle, you will know that this is where it began.

Hot air balloon at Raglan Castle, Wales. Photo: CSF.

On both occasions when I've attended Raglan, our late-afternoon weekend idyll has been punctuated by the sudden emergence of hot air balloons from below the treeline. Watching a balloon, astonishingly close, loom up and over a castle gives rise to spectacular steampunk imaginings. Who is in the balloon, and where is it going? Why are those on the ground so astonished by it?

Raglan Castle, Wales. Photo: CSF.
OK, I'm playing around a bit here. I don't write Fanfic, but if I did, the walk from the mundane tents to the portaloo would create an irresistible opportunity. And if the Doctor stepped out of that, I'd totally go.

Bolton Castle, Yorkshire. Photo: CSF.

On a break from helping in the kitchen at Bolton Castle, I needed some alone time. With my recorder and my sheet music folder, I climbed into a window embrasure in the ruined, roofless chapel, overlooking the maze and gardens where many of the other event attendees were gathered or wandering. For half an hour I played quietly to myself, delighting in the image of being a secret, magical, invisible source of music. A faerie haunting, unsuspected and unsought.

Buckden Towers, Cambridgeshire. Photo: Rob Ross, used with permission.
It was here, at Buckden Towers, that I had the longest-lasting story-immersion experience I've had. It's a stunning site, ideal for events. The main floor is a grand hall, while the two upper floors and the towers are given over to dormitories and bedrooms. However, it was in the basement - you can see the window shafts at ground level - that I found myself so deeply wrapped in a narrative. I was part of the main kitchen crew this time, and spent the best part of six hours entirely involved in food preparation. While my hands were busy with endless puréeing, assembling, stirring and cleaning, my mind beavered away with a narrative about a young woman learning to be content with indentured servitude after some poor decisions. I have a mental image of my cold, chapped hands turning the old iron latch, the fur edging of my shawl wrapped around my wrists, as I slipped out of the kitchens on an errand. These are the hands of a character, and one day you will see them opening the door to her own kitchen and emerging into adventure.

It feels very strange and exposed to be sharing these fantasies, though I don't think I'm alone in this habit of narrativising one's experiences - I've heard it from others before. Finding opportunities to physically slip into character, even if it's only in my own head, is a vital part of my writing practice, and I can heartily recommend it.

Dressing up helps, too!

I'm on the left. Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge, Epping Forest, London.
Photo: Andrew Leavesley, used with permission.

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