Late last year, whilst in the final throes of my doctorate in Creative Writing, I was invited by my supervisor at the University of Southampton to join an interdisciplinary Leverhulme Trust-funded research project entitled: ‘StoryPlaces: Exploring the Poetics of Location-Based Narratives’. Working alongside the university’s creative writing undergraduates, professional writers such as Philip Hoare, and colleagues from English (Verity Hunt) and History (James Jordan), my role on this project was to write a short story about nineteenth-century Southampton for two techies investigating how the latest location based apps (for example, GPS mapping) could grow mobile, location-aware digital storytelling into something that “[escapes] the confines of the desktop and [intertwines] in new and interesting ways with the physical world” (Millard, Hargood, Jewell, Weal, 2013: 1). ‘But I know nothing about computers,’ I responded, before agreeing to join the project.
A few months later I was invited to the university’s school of Electronics and Computer Science – a contemporary glass-fronted, air-conditioned, high-security, sparsely-populated and altogether alien establishment when compared with my nonagenarian campus inside which droves of students can be ‘seen’ and ‘heard’, tatty brown mock-leather sofas abound, the comforting smells of coffee and pizza pervade and cast-iron radiators produce year-round balmy/barmy temperatures that warm already roasted cockles ─ to attend my first meeting with the techies, Dave Millard, Senior Lecturer of Computer Science, and Charlie Hargood, Research Fellow in Web And Internet Science (WAIS). At this point in my digital-fiction-writing journey, the task, or ‘commission’ as it now appears on my curriculum vitae, was still not entirely clear to me: as far as I knew, I was simply going to write a story about Southampton that would be used by my colleagues to make some sort of digital advance in this mysterious realm they called location-based hypertext fiction. Armed with my Moleskine and pen – not even a laptop or tablet device ─ I prepared to note down the following innocuous particulars: word count, submission deadline, required genre, theme and setting. Meanwhile, the whiteboard was peppered with what looked to be, to a sufferer of mathematical anxiety at least, algebraic equations. These algebraic equations were in fact a diagrammatic representation of my colleagues’ conceptual sculptural hypertext model, a model which sought to “create interactive, location aware narratives […] where the [reader of the story] is the principle locus of activity, and interaction is accomplished by moving through a physical space (typically carrying a smart device […] as the interaction mechanism for the virtual space)” (2013: 1, 2). Clearly, I wore my mathematical anxiety upon my face as plainly as some wear their heart upon their sleeve because what followed was a patient explanation of the above in language I could understand. Crucially, ‘Nodes’ became pages; ‘pinned’ nodes became the pages of my story that would only be made available to the reader of my story once they were situated in a predetermined location specified by me; ‘unpinned’ nodes became the pages that could be read by my reader in any location i.e. of their choosing; while sequences of unpinned nodes known as ‘stacks’ became the pages that might or might not be pinned to a specific location, but that I had determined must be consumed in a specific order. (Even as I write this, I’m still not confident that my interpretation of the ‘node’ ─ and I take full responsibility for it ─ is accurate, but it is with this particular understanding of the node that I forged ahead and wrote my digital location-based story.)
As I have already stated, the story was to be located in nineteenth-century Southampton but was to feature the city’s Emigrants’ Home – a home built to accommodate the influx of emigrants who were entering the city to await transportation by ship to the New World. Furthermore, in order to provide a walking and reading experience that would last between thirty and sixty minutes, the story had to total 5,000 words in length, be connected to between three and six additional locations, and provide a narrative capable of being traversed in more than one way. In response to this brief, I duly wrote ‘The Destitute and The Alien’, the synopsis of which follows:
“It is 1895 and Jack the Ripper now lives in the City of Southampton. Newly promoted to caretaker of John Doling’s Emigrants’ Home in Albert Road, he spends his days fumigating the new arrivals and his nights visiting prostitutes in nearby Simnel Street. For seven years he’s kept his knife sheathed and his predilection for murder and dissection supressed. But with the arrival of Golda – a beautiful Jewish girl fleeing from persecution in the Russian Pale – comes the reawakening of Jack’s psychotic compulsions. Will Golda survive her stay at the Emigrants’ Home to board the ship to take her to the New World? Or will her final destination be the cold mortuary slab? To find out, charge your smartphone, don your walking shoes and head for the City of Southampton. In ‘The Destitute and The Alien’, streets you never knew existed, and likewise histories, await your exploration…”
I chose to locate ‘The Destitute and The Alien’ in the following places: The Emigrants’ Home; Simnel Street; Queens Park; the French Garden in Town Quay Park; the White Star Line’s Head Office, Canute Chambers; The Old City Walls; The Frog and Frigate Pub; The Genting Club, and Dock Gate 4.
Six of my locations: The Emigrants’ Home, Queens Park, The French Garden in Town Quay Park, Simnel Street, Canute Chambers, The Old City Walls. Photographs by Tory L. Dawson, 2016
In order to create more complex digital interactions and experiences for the reader, I was also encouraged by my colleagues to attach temporal as well as locational conditions to the story. This I was able to achieve when relaying the historical fact that before the Emigrants’ Home was constructed, many emigrants were forced to spend nights sleeping rough in Queens Park. To help the reader visualize this scene, I decided that the relevant page/node should only be made available to the reader in Queens Park after dark. (In the interests of keeping the reader safe, I also attached the condition that this node/page would only be made available when there was more than one reader present in this location i.e. a group of three or more.) In terms of genre, the choice was mine alone. However, since my story had to be located in nineteenth-century Southampton, a Neo-Victorian sensation thriller seemed the natural choice since, like location-based fiction, “Proximity is, indeed, one great element of sensation” (Mansel, 1863: 484). I also wanted this story to be a ‘page-turner’ not some thinly veiled didactic tour-guide that bored my reader and failed to breathe life into my chosen locations. I imagined the digital location-based fiction equivalent of a ‘page-turner’ to be one that compels the reader to hurry, not amble, to the next location in order to access the next page/node of the story. To achieve this, I knew I would have to ensure my reader was totally immersed in the Victorian setting. However, in order to reach the story’s Victorian places, the reader would have to pass, and therefore experience, Southampton’s twenty-first century places such as its high-rise tower blocks, car parks and shopping malls. It was then that I became interested in anthropologist Marc’s Augé’s theory of the ‘non-place’ which he describes as “a place that cannot be defined as relational, historical, or concerned with identity” (Augé, 1995: 77, 78).
Southampton’s ‘non-places’. Photographs by Tory L. Dawson, 2016
As far as I could see, my story was located in a geographical area that was littered with Augé’s ‘non-places’. What was I to do about them? Was I to acknowledge these ‘non-places’ by means, perhaps, of a dual narrative, or simply ignore them in a bid to preserve/maintain the nineteenth-century setting? I began to view these ‘non-places’ as potential saboteurs capable of causing my story to fail and by extension, my reader to amble between locations. In response, I spent many hours at the locations, travelling between them, attempting to view them as my reader might. Ultimately, I decided that Southampton’s ‘non-places’ would not be ignored and that it was better to acknowledge them directly. Thus, the narrator of ‘The Destitute and The Alien’ invites the reader to take some time away from the narrative to consider their own first impressions of Southampton. The reader is made to ask the narrator: “Victorian Southampton or twenty-first century Southampton?” Before the narrator replies:
“You can see how hard it’s been to keep you in Victorian Southampton when contemporary structures such as the one before you on the corner of Albert Road, intrude. (Betwixt you and I, dear reader, these ugly modern architectural excretions have caused me more than one attack of the vapours.) I have often had to consider how best to proceed. Have you ever been present when an upright elderly relative has loudly let one fly in company? Consider what might be one’s reaction? The unpleasant eructation is generally ignored”.
This narrative exchange is designed to enable the reader to acknowledge Southampton’s ‘non-places’ before swiftly returning them to the story’s Victorian setting where, hopefully, they’ll feel compelled to hurry on to the next location to discover what becomes of Golda and Jack.
I began the StoryPlaces project claiming to know ‘nothing about computers’ but it would have been more accurate to say that I knew nothing about digital locative fiction. Now that my participation in the StoryPlaces project is at an end, I don’t claim to be an expert in the field, but what I will say is that I enjoyed writing digital locative fiction and would jump at the chance to do so again.