In the wind of Curiosity – young adults writing Historical Fiction

Curiosity, Movement, Memory and Writing.

Creative non-fiction writer, Malachy Tallack in his autobiography of exploration, 60 Degrees North writes

Human beings have always moved from here to there…with a combination of memory, acquired knowledge and curiosity

He goes on to talk about the internal maps that guide us and that are often passed down from one generation to another. Such maps give a sense of powerful physical and creative identity to those who hold them in mind.

To write within the historical environment is to make new maps inspired by what we experience in the moment and the knowledge of past generations that is shared with us through the place itself. At the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem in Israel, visitors are told that they have now been inhabited by the souls of those who died during the Holocaust and that those departed souls will speak through them to tell their stories. As we map the historical environment as writers, we find that it holds voices who demand to live on the page.

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The writer’s map is idiosyncratic, it is created out of their present personal circumstance infused with the focus of their research. It therefore comprises as much the physical energy of the writer’s curiosity as the historical facts.

The concept of Curiosity could be used to describe the innate, hard-wired creative faculty that calls the brain into shape as we develop in the womb. From the moment that the finger-buds differentiate themselves from the hand-bud of an embryo they start to move. The touch sense begins to process the world and to build brain capacity – our first movements creating our first memories creating our first recognitions. And uniquely for humans, that movement can be put to use to create writing, amongst other forms of communication, further enriching intellectual and creative potential. The faculty of curiosity drives us to move, touch, explore, build memories, knowledge and wisdom. Curiosity is the engine-driver of us as skilled humans.

The Imagining History UK programme has been developing the use of the historic environment as an field classroom for creative writers since early 2015. At the heart of the programme is the devising of ways to energise curiosity. We surround young writers with creative partnerships that allow them to extend their exploratory, analytical and language skills in places that are filled with incitements to physical discovery and questions to their intellect.

Imagining History UK workshops take advantage of the hard-wiring of the human brain to be ever-moving forward and ever-building knowledge.  We have found that young adult writers are naturally innovative and keen to find new forms of expression by building on what they already know. They move and think in rangy, impulsive and often surprising ways. They are also driven by an ethic of satisfaction, ready to take their creative work seriously as they discover their world. We give them the opportunity during the hours of an IHUK workshop to be rangy, impulsive and to astonish themselves. This is frequently reflected in feedback that has, after four years, become commonplace… I was amazed that I could come up with so many ideas.

IHUK workshops take place within a vibrant atmosphere where all facts are fiction in the moment when they are discovered for the first time. Historical places are functionally astonishing, rich in real-time objects, facts and hidden corners inviting sensory engagement. We have developed innovative processes of guiding and mentoring a young writer’s first contact with the historical – linking the senses with writing in immediate and energetic ways. Our work celebrates the developing thought processes of young adult writers – we question but do not push for answers, believing that time will tell.

Young writers come to workshops having been trained in technical aspects of understanding history, literacy and imaginative story-construction. Our aim is to complement this learning by giving a guided free-form atmosphere in which they can experiment with their developing knowledge. There is no pressure to write a story during the workshop. Feedback from participants supports the observations that our young writers are ‘in the zone’ and coming up with material that is allowing them to feel satisfied with their writing. Over the course of several hours we offer them a space in which they can further develop their creative thinking and writing in an entirely idiosyncratic way.

We are constantly developing new ways of engaging and nurturing young creative writers through working in the historical environment. Our project in Cornwall, in partnership with the Sir James Smiths Community School and the North Cornwall Book Festival, has grown so successfully that our school-partner has agreed to commit school funds to extending the project further into the academic year. In Norfolk, we have just begun a pilot collaboration with the Norfolk Museums Service and Horatio House, exploring how writing in the historical environment can open up lines of personal and creative satisfaction for students alienated from standard schooling.

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IHUK is the education programme of The Young Walter Scott Prize(YWSP), the UK’s only prize for young adults writing Historical Fiction. We shortlist and award writers who transport readers into historical worlds, often unexpectedly but always completely. YWSP and IHUK celebrate young writing and thinking about the historical, and perhaps the modern, world.

Young adults who come to an Imagining History UK workshop are encouraged to scale up their writing to enter the Young Walter Scott Prize. Whether they win or not, each one is given feedback from the judging panel, chaired by Elizabeth Laird and made up of writers, educators and literary agents. We value and reward the act of preparing an entry itself, and we award those writers who write with panache and courage, all the while respecting the historical sources of their work.

The novelist, broadcaster and campaigner for the written word, Damian Barr writes: 

I think this is a great prize and your approach to it is refreshingly rigorous but also open-ended. I would so have loved to enter something like this when I was a kid.

Alan Caig Wilson – Director of The Young Walter Scott Prize & The Imagining History UK Programme.

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