Monday, 11 November 2019

Making The Timekeeper's Return: Research and Writing

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One year ago this autumn, I reached the culmination of an overwhelming three months of creative work and collaboration when I designed, wrote and directed The Timekeeper’s Return, a story-based immersive treasure hunt set in Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter.

In this series of blog posts, I want to delve into the detail of how The Timekeeper’s Return was made, including an overview of how the event turned out on the day and the project’s legacy – for the participants, the Cathedral Quarter, and my own future as I continue to work in the area of location-based treasure-hunting games for my practice-based PhD.

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Research and Writing

In my September 2018 blog post, I described how I arrived at the overarching concept for The Timekeeper’s Return – a time-travelling historical researcher called Dr. Mia Augustina, whose time machine, the astrolabe, malfunctions and traps her in the past. I briefly talked about how this concept then informed the graphic design and organisation of the treasure hunt.

However, I’ve yet to describe my experiences of creating the story upon which the event was based, which involved undertaking research to uncover the most evocative details from the Cathedral Quarter’s history, and then writing about them in an engaging way.

I can split up the sources for my research roughly into three categories: online sources, the local history section of the public library, and individuals/businesses.

For my online research, aside from looking up odds and ends relating to the histories I’d already been working on, there were certain individual websites that I regularly turned to for historic information upon which I could base my writing.

One of the most useful websites was Machadoink, which is essentially an index of historic Canterbury.

One particular section of this site, called ‘Canterbury Streets’, allowed me to delve into the records of each building on every street contained within the Cathedral Quarter, including those that are no longer there. The pages for each street are populated with old news items, photographs, public records, and other curiosities that provided a wealth of information I could use to build a picture of interesting historic events or characters.

Another source of online inspiration was the excellent public Facebook page ‘Canterbury: Remembering it as it was’, where old photographs, stories and other historical records are regularly shared and discussed by local residents.

I was keen to ensure that my representations of the histories I’d studied were as accurate as possible, and this is typically where I turned to my old friend, the National Library of Scotland website, for its extensive collection of historic Ordnance Survey maps. These helped me to pinpoint the locations of particular buildings, landmarks and roads over 100 years ago, whose layout has changed considerably in the time since.

Ordnance Survey map published in 1907 showing part of central Canterbury, including the Cathedral Quarter

As for how I found resources at the local library, this involved simply browsing every book on the shelves in the Local History section and picking out those I thought would have the most information relevant to the Cathedral Quarter.

These mostly turned out to be accounts of the WW2 Baedeker raids, which devastated one half of the area, as well as reports from archaeological excavations in the areas around Burgate.

Map showing bomb sites in Canterbury from the 1942 Baedecker raids

Some of the most tantalising leads came from the individuals and businesses I consulted during the research stage, which I could follow up on and develop in my writing.

The Cathedral Quarter team and I sent around emails asking the local businesses to send me any information they knew or could find about the history of their premises, or anywhere else in the Cathedral Quarter area.

The responses ranged from quite detailed records to anecdotal rumours that had passed down between owners, which I could then explore further using other sources.

For example, one of the businesses had heard that their building featured as the home of one of the characters in Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield.

Given the significance of Charles Dickens in the literary history of Kent and the UK, I decided to investigate the rumour further online, and discovered even more connections between the author and sites in the Cathedral Quarter. As a result, this slice of Canterbury history became a recurring theme in the treasure hunt’s story.

From my research into Charles Dickens' connections with the Cathedral Quarter

Additionally, for the first time, I went on one of the official guided tours of Canterbury’s historic centre. This started at the Buttermarket and weaved its way through the Cathedral precincts, and then onto other parts of the city centre.

As well as containing some useful tidbits of information I could draw on in my own stories, I was struck by how effective the demonstrative qualities of the tour were. The guides are very adept at directing visitors’ attention to parts of their surroundings that illustrate the very history they’re describing, and I soon realised that my treasure hunt needed to do the same – to curate people’s journey through, and perspectives of, the built environment in such a way that brings the history of the area to life.

The clearest way this manifested in The Timekeeper’s Return was a QR code text in Butchery Lane that directed people’s gaze from one side of the street to the other, to demonstrate the impact that World War 2 had on this part of Canterbury. Despite looking very similar, one half of the street is lined with buildings that are centuries old, while the other half was all rebuilt after devastating bombing.


Once I’d gathered enough historic detail from my research to use in the treasure hunt, the next task was to incorporate this material within a series of short QR code texts that would be compelling to read and encourage the reader to explore further.

While it was not long before I had some initial rough drafts and outlines for some of the QR codes, the first text that I wrote in full – and the one that shaped my approach to the rest of the writing – was one that took an interesting piece of local history and made it relatable and moving on a personal level.

The information in question concerned the construction of the cathedral’s Bell Harry Tower – not only a key symbol of the Cathedral Quarter, but the iconic sight that has greeted pilgrims to Canterbury since 1498.

I’d managed to uncover some fantastic trivia about the intricate pulley system by which the building materials were raised, and how the structure is surprisingly mostly composed of bricks.

But in considering what emotional resonance the construction of the tower might have for my participants, I started to wonder what kind of toll this labour took on those involved at the time.          

I managed to find some academic texts that considered the life and livelihood of medieval masons, learning how they led a largely nomadic existence, spending very long spans of time away from their families, only to return for a short time before taking on their next round of employment.

Indeed, the master mason in charge of Bell Harry, John Westall, was not from Canterbury at all. Being renowned in his profession, demand for his services took him to Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex before Canterbury.

I found it quite moving to think of someone dedicating years of their life to a building that would define the future of Canterbury, and enduring all the hardships this work involved, despite not even being from the city.                                                             
Of course, there’s a limit to the amount of ‘life story’ you can convey in a few hundred words. But what I could do in the QR code text was light a little spark of awareness, from which participants might sympathise with the kinds of sacrifices that made the Cathedral Quarter what it is today.

From this first complete story onwards, the main objective of my writing was finding ways to transmit the emotional currents of the historic events I was recounting, within the narrative frame of a time-travelling researcher. The story wasn’t supposed to be a history lesson, but an invitation to connect with the timelines of the Cathedral Quarter on a personal level.

Now, let’s talk about the actual act of writing.

My relationship with writing is very much love-hate.

The times when I can look back on my work and be happy with how it reads are wonderfully satisfying.

But equally I tend to find the process torturous. My pet hate is not being able to conjure up the right words to precisely express what I want to say.

Instead of doing what is always recommended to writers – just getting what you want to say on paper and then editing it later – I tend to leave huge gaps in the middle of sentences and paragraphs where I haven’t yet found the appropriate terms to use. This means that writing for me tends to be a gradual process of ‘filling in the gaps’.

If you have lots of rough but finished drafts of a piece, a least you have something ‘complete’, even if it needs adjustments.

The problem with my method is that nothing is ever complete until it’s basically as good as it’s going to get.

This undoubtedly lengthened the time it took for me to finish all of the QR code texts, and for them to be uploaded to the Cathedral Quarter website. I was very grateful for the patience of the Cathedral Quarter team and the website designers as I toiled tirelessly on getting the writing to the best standard I could before the event.               

Perfectionism isn’t my only writing foible. Anyone who knows me well will know that I really struggle to write concisely.

The problem isn’t that I ‘pad out’ my writing with pointless information. Anyone who proofreads my work finds it difficult to recommend which bits of my writing to cut.

Rather, the problem is that everything I include seems relevant and useful, which makes the process of culling even harder.                      

For a project like this, though, there was no room for leeway. The aim wasn’t to have people standing around for ages reading text on their phones, but instead to get them looking around and noticing things in their surroundings; discovering people and places that they didn’t know about before.

Ultimately, this meant that I had to limit my ambitions for the narrative. There simply wasn’t space to include several interweaving subplots and intricate details, which might work well in something like a novel, where the reader is expecting to take their time delving into the text, but not for this kind of outdoor, interactive narrative experience.

I suppose what I realised was that the depth of intrigue and immersion that I wanted to inspire during the event had to come predominantly from the player’s physical surroundings, rather than just my words.

One technique I did use to make my writing more digestible is to make sure that my paragraphs were always only one or two sentences long. This is something I’ve learnt from blogging, where I’ve found that readers are more willing to keep scrolling when the text is broken into smaller chunks. It also tends to mean that individual sentences can have more impact and convey dramatic tension more readily.

I also borrowed an interesting method from scriptwriting for TV series. That summer of 2018, I re-watched the entire first series of the modern Doctor Who (my absolute favourite), and started looking into the process through which Russell T Davies and his writing team managed to make each episode so affecting, while having a clear purpose in the wider arc of the series.

I learnt that for each episode they assigned a word that encompassed the ‘tone’ they wanted the episode to have, which was always reflected clearest in its denouement – the part of the story that determines the emotional residue the audience is left with.

By keeping a clear emotional signature in focus as I wrote each QR code text, and reinforcing this in its denouement when Mia expressed her thoughts as she departed to the next point in time, I was able to carefully direct the emotional undercurrents of the story, despite the shortage of words available for me to use.

In the end, though, I would say that I just about reached the upper limit on what was acceptable in terms of length. Even though this required some very difficult decisions in terms of sentences and paragraphs that needed to be culled, any longer and some participants might have found it all too much to get their heads around.

As it turned out, the length of the final texts turned out to be enough to include a significant amount of historic and narrative detail without compromising their engagement in the activity.                                         

The last thing I want to talk about here is the music that so effectively kept me inspired and focused throughout the writing process.

Nowadays I often find that my work flows best when I listen to orchestral or neo-classical music, from artists such as Olafur Arnalds, Zoe Keating and Message to Bears.

While writing the story for The Timekeeper’s Return, I’d been watching a wonderful anime called Violet Evergarden. It’s a stunning series that beautifully explores what it means to feel emotions and communicate them after traumatic pasts or during challenging circumstances, and part of what makes it so special is its orchestral score.

I found a YouTube video with the full soundtrack and listened to it pretty much on repeat for the duration of September and October 2018. By the end of September I was so infatuated with it that I actually ordered the CD of the soundtrack directly from Japan, so those involved in creating it would receive as much of my money as possible.

I think that the reason this music resonated so deeply with my practice was the result of my aim to capture the emotional half-life of the historic events I was describing. When I was listening to the soundtrack, there would be these uncanny moments of attunement between the nuances of the music and the feelings I was attempting to evoke in the QR code texts.

So as well as helping me to zone-in on the task (when I didn’t just sit there and appreciate it), I’m convinced that this music subconsciously shaped my writing style.                

You can listen to the full soundtrack here. All of it is genuinely wonderful and I would love to highlight so many of the tracks; but if you could only listen to one, I’d say it would have to be ‘Across the Violet Sky’. It’s simply awe-inspiring.

So, after several challenging weeks of writing and 7388 words later, the QR code texts were complete and ready to be uploaded.

But the real test of the story I had devised, and the treasure hunt as a whole, would be in the playing.


The next post in the Making the Timekeeper’s Return series reflects on the process of testing the treasure hunt.


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