StoryPlaces – Southampton Old Town

Last week we ran our first location-based story event as part of the StoryPlaces project, making location-based stories based around Southampton Old Town available to members of the public. We set up in the beautiful Tudor House, and over three days helped around 100 people to read one of 6 stories set in the city – including ‘The Destitute and the Alien’, a piece by Tory L. Dawson, that we commissioned as part of the project.

StoryPlaces is a project that aims to explore the poetics of location-based storytelling, and that means being led by writers and learning what sort or stories they want to tell and how they want to tell them. StoryPlaces is based around three story projects, of which Old Town Southampton is the first. The goal of this first project was to allow the writers to lead, bring in the technology to support them, and then learn from both the authoring and the reading experiences.

We began last year, working with 40 creative writing students on the English department’s Writing Place module. We gave them some basic guidance on what a location-based story was, showed some simple examples of the sorts of locations, conditions, and rules that they might use, and provided them with a simple form in the spirit of paper-based prototyping. We encouraged the students to express themselves however they liked on the form, and even to ignore the sections or write across them if they liked. We asked for at least 10 nodes, and around 200 words per node, but this was really for guidance (and to avoid any short stories written in a single node) and some students ignored us anyway.

In fact, when the students submitted their stories in January, we were amazed at the variety of stories and structures that they had created using the forms (we have since analysed these 40 student stories, and our paper on ‘Patterns of Structural Hypertext’ based on the analysis won the Engelbart award at ACM Hypertext 2016). We selected 5 of the very best stories in terms of their use of the places themselves, and coded them into the format used by the StoryPlaces web app.

We also commissioned a writer and PhD student in the English department to write a longer piece. Tory L. Dawson created the ‘Destitute and the Alien’ for us using the same forms and guidance that we gave to the students, and produced a page-turning Victorian thriller that imagines what would have happened had Jack the Ripper moved to Southampton after his London disappearance. Tory wrote a fascinating piece on her experience  that really reveals what it’s like to come to this technology cold and encounter the world of digital writing for the first time.

It was wonderful to watch people experiencing these stories at the event, and the thing that was most clear to me was how transformative actually being in location is. It is something that you can read about – and we expected it as a result – but experiencing the stories ourselves, it was absolutely clear that their impact was changed enormously by physically being in the space. It was also apparent that the physical space is paramount, and the stories that worked the best were those that used that space wisely (for example, taking people on sensible routes). This is something that we noticed a few months ago when we were exploring our own location-based story in Tiree.

We made observations and conducted interviews with both readers and the authors who joined us on the day, and have some really interesting data to analyse over the next few months.

In the meantime the stories are still available on the StoryPlaces website, so if you are visiting Southampton why not choose one and try it out!