Reflecting on my Research Trip (Part 1: York & Whitby)
Hello, Dear Readers, and welcome back to An Eddying Flight. Today I want to start a two-part reflection on my first research trip as a doctoral student; what I went in hoping for, what I really learned, and how this will change my research and writing going forward.
Now for some details. My PhD is in Creative Writing and will take the form of an 'artefact & exegesis', which means that I'm tackling my research questions generatively, by writing a novel. This research method will allow me to explore all my topics and themes and hopefully answer those key questions through the process of creative writing itself. Very handy. However, at the same time as the novel, I'm also creating a 20k critical commentary on the work, which explicates the creative and research process and underlines what I've found out.
My book - which I will refer to as ASL, here - is a dual narrative timeslip novel. Effectively, it is the story of two stories, taking place at different points in history, and of how these impinge on each other in time. The setting of this novel is a small, rather isolated seaside town called Winterthorne, on the North coast of England. Appropriately enough, I imagined it, too, as having a dual aspect, envisioning it as a kind of amalgam of York (a city where I lived for three days a week as an RLF Fellow for two years) and of Whitby (a place I frequently visited with my family as a child). I wove my memories of the two together to create a town with a unique personality of its own, caught between the sea and the land, with stunning geography and a dense accretion of human history, the layers of which I intended to excavate through the plot of my book.
By the time that I began work on ASL, I hadn't actually been to York for a couple
of years. I hadn't visited Whitby for at least twenty. Some places I was able to call to mind immediately and vividly, others were easily invented. It's helpful that, as well as giving my invented town a new name, I had also taken some fairly huge liberties with its substance, replacing the ruin of Whitby Abbey with another ruin entirely, shrugging up the surrounding countryside into hills and drawing forests over them, shoe-horning certain locations from York into place within Whitby's seaside setting to create Winterthorne. But at certain points, during certain key scenes in my writing, I felt a kind of resistance: a sense that the setting wanted something. That my memory was either failing me or else trying to tell me there was something better, somewhere realer and more authentic, that I was missing out on.
And so, after getting approval from my supervisors and successfully applying for funding, off I went. My trip - accomplished entirely by bus and train, because I don't drive - began with a day and a night in York, then two nights in Whitby, and a further day and night back in York. I bookended the journey with my stays in York this way because the train journey to Whitby from my home in Lincolnshire is five hours, and that's if you're lucky enough to suffer no delays. I wanted to try and squeeze the most out of each day in both of my locations, and this seemed the best way to achieve it: two hours to York from home, and then three hours from York to Whitby would maximise my actual time to explore, wander, ponder, and above all write in both places.
Heading out filled with enthusiasm and the desire to move my work on substantially, I stumbled over my first hurdle: my urge to do everything, see everything, and take pictures to prove how hardworking and productive I was. In retrospect this was obviously in direct opposition to the mood of dreamy, meditative open-mindedness that I actually needed in order to write. When my train was cancelled on the first day, meaning that I had to catch another, much later one, and subsequently miss out on the trip to York's Clifford's Tower which I had already booked and paid for online (no refunds from English Heritage) I became so stressed out that I nearly cried.
Unfortunately it was much easier to tell myself that being tense and anxious was
counterproductive than it was to force myself to untense, and feel relaxed and at ease with the vagaries of life and the UK rail system. I did my best though. And it was lovely to return to York. In the short time I had before it started to get dark, I had a ramble through some of my favourite places - places I had stolen and reimagined for my book - took a few photos, and tried to get my brain to release it's stubborn sense of urgency.
But the backbrain whisper of 'hurry up! Get inspired already!' wasn't helped when I faced similar disruptions on my journey to Whitby the following day. The plus side was that this gave me a few extra hours in York, to walk the city walls and revisit the market. The minus side was that I knew before setting out for Whitby that I wasn't going to get there in time to achieve anything on my first day, other than finding and checking into my hotel, before it got dark. This meant that I was going to have to cancel my intended trip to Robin Hood's Bay (a location which had been specifically recommended to me by one of my supervisors and which I was keen to explore) on my 'second' day there, and spend that day focused just on Whitby instead.
Funnily enough, what helped me to let go of the stress and allow my creativity to unfurl a little was the train journey itself.
As I said above, the journey from York to Whitby is three hours long. It's one of those rattling, lonely services that stops at every little town along the way but hardly ever seems to pick up any passengers, that goes backwards sometimes, and sometimes stops unexpectedly at a little siding in the middle of nowhere for five minutes for no apparent reason, engines off so that you can hear magpies screeching in the hedgerows in the sudden silence. You pass by great rocky ridges, dense copper-grey mountains wreathed in mist. You flash over little secret streams, rippling black and silver under the tracks. You glimpse forgotten hollows, red with bracken and guarded by slender white trees. Dark birds spray out of coppices as blackthorns and scarlet rosehips thrash with the wind of the train's passing. At one point I saw the unexpected flash of a white horse carved into a chalk hill - a clumsy, lumpen shape, nothing like the elegant beauty of the Uffington White Horse, which I love intensely (and, thanks to Diana Wynne Jones, secretly believe is really the skeleton of a dragon).
Enchanted by the scenery, I forgot to get out my camera or stare fixedly at my notebook, waiting for words to appear. Instead watched the weather change, low waves of steel grey clouds unrolling across the hills and crow dotted fields, sunlight spilling beneath them like golden syrup onto the hedgerows. Rain swept across the train - first soft and glittering, and then thunderous, grey and heavy as the sun was squeezed away. After a while the rain flew away again, flew back up into the clouds, and the clouds lifted themselves up into a thin high bowl, white as bone China with the sun shining in through it, before splintering into long tumbling shreds of mist against the late afternoon blue of the sky.
I realised I was seeing a cross section of weather. Local weather, local time. Falling into place only to change, and again again, like sets from a play put on for me because I was travelling through it, relative to it. I was witnessing half a dozen different days experienced by different people in different places; a day of rain in Rusworp, sun in Glaisdale, gloom in Lealholm. Each real and distinct for those places, but fleeting for me, who belonged to none of the places - to none of the days - attached to the names.
At this point, of course, words were magically appearing before me on my notebook pages. That crackling sense of connection to my own book had sprung to life inside me, a kind of electric current of perceptions, an inner monologue that wasn't, quite, mine - as if I'd become one of my heroines, Xanthe, on her train journey back home to Winterthorne after a period of self-imposed exile. And I felt
a great swell of excitement when I identified that feeling, because one of the biggest stumbling blocks to progressing ASL, all along - a much greater resistance than any I'd ever felt from the setting, and the main motivation for my research trip - was my connection to Xanthe. My ability to bring her worlds, the inner landscape and the outer one, vividly and authentically to life for the reader.
I had wrestled with Xanthe for months. Struggled to see past a kind of filter of 1920s pastiche that seemed to want to obscure my view of her and her experiences. This is not a problem I usually experience with viewpoint characters so it was not only frustrating but a little frightening. Why can't I get at her, I'd ask myself? What am I doing wrong, here? Why doesn't she want to let me in?
But now, unexpectedly, she had let me in. And it was my job to figure out how to keep that connection open if I possibly could.
I'll talk more about what I learned in Whitby in Part 2 of this blog...next week. In the meantime, I wish you joy, Dear Readers! Drop me a comment below or on Twitter or FB if there's anything you'd like to chat about.