Writing on location is something I’ve often wanted to do but never had a pen and notebook ready at the right time. The key is to plan your writing expedition, which is where OutWrite comes in. Run by Rob Richardson and his lovely wife Chris, who run the WriteInvite short story competitions in Portsmouth, OutWrite is basically a day out for writers.
You are taken to two mystery locations where you have time to look around and get a feel for the place, then half an hour to write a story inspired by the location. At the end of the day you reconvene for coffee and cake to share your stories and get a bit of feedback.
From the upper level, looking across the courtyard at the lighthouse
This weekend I was lucky enough to go on my first OutWrite. The first location was Southsea Castle, one of my favourite places in Portsmouth. Being surrounded by so much history is bound to invoke certain feelings and spring up ideas, and I felt a little well of excitement inside me as we crossed the wooden drawbridge and stepped into the courtyard. We had 45 minutes to explore our surroundings before we set down to write wherever we chose to. That little girl inside me, who loved nothing more than exploring the ancient ruins of an abbey or peeking into rooms in stately homes, imagining what it would have been like to live there, was in her element.
I ran my hand along the uneven wall as I climbed up a curved stone staircase to the roof. Open to the elements, my hair was swept about by the wind as I looked out over the wall at the sea. I tried to imagine standing here in 1545 watching the heart-wrenching sight of the Mary Rose going down, her masts tilting forlornly as they sank below the surface. Making my way along the wall, I ran my fingers into the nooks and crevices, imagining the many hands that have traced this path before mine. In an opening in the wall that looked much like a fireplace I saw what I presumed to be broken-up headstones. A name was engraved into the surface of one, and bending down to get a closer look I saw it said ‘Annie Maria’. The name had a lovely ring to it, and I instantly chose it for my character.
The gun ports, which were sealed up in the 17th century – the one on the left was re-excavated in 1966
Opposite the stones stood the seaward-facing wall of the keep. On the far left a dark wooden door was set into the wall. To the right of it I noticed the outline of a second doorway, and to the right of that, a third. Both archways had been filled in, and I wandered over to investigate. I love spotting things like this – filled-in doorways and windows. There’s something mysterious about openings that once led to somewhere and provided a passage for people from one place to another, that are now blocked, the way barred. It’s as if, once a passageway has been created, the ghost of it remains, even if the way through has since been boarded up. My eager curiosity always wants to know what’s beyond. If you put a doorway there my instinct still wants me to go through it – filling it in with stones doesn’t stop that.
The 19th-century lighthouse
I decided to use the blocked doorways in my story, and moved on around the outside of the keep to the lighthouse. A striking black-and-white-striped figure, it stands elegantly amidst the ancient stones and looks rather out of place. Heading down off the roof and into the keep, I read on the information boards that the lighthouse was added in the 1820s, which explained it not fitting in with the surroundings. There was also a mannequin of Henry VIII inside the keep, along with several examples of period clothing, and I stood before a Tudor dress, taking in all the details and imagining how the fabric would feel against my skin. I felt its weight as it hung on my body, imagined how its cut would affect my movement.
Moving on to a collection of replica Tudor vessels and household objects, I picked up a jug and pictured liquid sloshing around inside as I held it. By now I had decided my protagonist would be a Tudor lady, so I wanted to understand how she would have lived and what it would have physically felt like to be her.
With five minutes to go before we could start writing I made my way back up to the roof and found a spot on the wall opposite the blocked doorways. I had discovered these were gun ports that were sealed in the late 17th century, once they were no longer needed. Fishing in my rucksack for my little black writer’s notebook and a pen, I shuffled around until I was comfy, crossed my legs and got down to some writing.
I’m guilty of editing as I write, which can be a very frustrating and unproductive habit when you only have 30 minutes to write your story. It can also dangerously disrupt the creative flow, so although there was the odd bit of scribbling out here and there, I did my best to just let the words flow and worry about form and polish later. As it turned out, it made perfect sense even without my constant editing, and gave the right-brain-left-brain battle a bit of a rest. That said, half an hour passes much too quickly when you’re having fun, and when your stupid hand tires out long before your words run dry, struggling desperately to keep up with your mind.
A paragraph on the first information board in the keep, and just the reason we were there!
When I read the story to the group at the end of the day I felt excited at the prospect of taking the character and her story further at some point. I wasn’t satisfied with the story as it was – I’d need more time to make it work as standalone piece – but the creation of a character and situation with the potential to develop was the sign of a productive day!
Part deux – coming later this week – will talk about the second mystery location!