Last Sunday I helped out with a trial of Storyplaces, a research project exploring the poetics of location based storytelling. The exploration has two big questions behind it: How do writers change what they do to write locatative text? and, How does experiencing text “on location” affect the reader?
My job for most of the day was to follow and observe readers as they used the stories (which are available as an HTML5 web-app, when you are next in Southampton), to ask them a few qualitative questions and record their answers. But before any volunteer test subjects arrived I got to give a story a go myself.
I chose The Titanic Criminal in Southampton, which took me on a walk from the Tudor House where we were based to the area known as Chapel, where my story started on the site of a working man’s house on Chapel Street. Even before the story started, I was in “storyspace” on the way to the start point. I’m not that familiar with Southampton (apart from the docks) so as I walked I was exploring new spaces. Was it novelty or the idea that a story was about to begin that made everything seem so magical? Or was it the eerily beautiful liturgy sung through the doors of the Greek Orthodox church I passed?
That sound stopped me in my tracks, and I loitered until the verse was finished, but it set up expectations that were ultimately disappointed. I was ready to be blown away by the poetics of space and story, and when I got to the start point, just other other side of a level crossing, even the run-down post industrial scene that greeted me had a certain ephemeral quality as I read the story of the houses that used to stand on this spot.
Then my phone directed me to the next location, The Grapes, a pub on Southampton’s Oxford Street. Storyplaces does not suggest a route, it just shows you the location(s) on a map from OpenStreetMap. So I followed parallel to the railway line a little way, then crossed it over a foot bridge, feeling very much as though I was on a little adventure. The Grapes has a wrought-iron sign dating from the early twentieth century, which the text of the story pointed out. But at this point I came to realise that this particular story sat uncomfortably half-way between an imaginative narrative based on fact and a guided tour of Southampton. My professional interest began to impinge on my enjoyment of the story, and I couldn’t immerse myself any more in the narrative.
And then the story broke. The text offered a link to a video on the BBC website, which failed to play, but succeeded in emptying my browser’s cache, meaning I couldn’t get back to my place in the story. I went back to base to carry on with volunteering.
I was lucky enough to we assigned to observe the writer of one of the stories as she tried out the app for the first time. We talked a little about her process of writing, and translating her imagined experience into the the rules that the StoryPlaces software uses to deliver the narrative (a process which, we discovered, hadn’t quite done what she had intended). The conversation made me want to give it a go, and to write a least a first draft in situ, as I explore the places that later readers will be lead to by the narrative.
I shall have to ask the David and Charlie, if I can be one of the writers for a future iteration of the project. In fact, I’ve just decided I will write them an email straight away.