Katherine Wiseman

Kate Wiseman

Stimulating Creative Writing Using Found Objects

Author Kate Wiseman finds all sorts of scope for the imagination in objects she finds mudlarking on the Thames. Here she shares her approach for inspiring high school students to infuse their fiction writing with curiosity and historical-based speculation.

The first thing to say is that I am a mudlark, licensed by the Port of London Authority to comb the foreshores of the Thames at low tide, searching for trash and treasure. Very often my finds fall into both of these camps: broken clay pipes and pot shards are as exciting to me as medieval spurs (I haven’t actually found one of these yet and it’s second from top on my wish list) and Roman rings (I have found one of these. Well, the top of one.) Mudlarking is about history and the challenge of uncovering what the mud and water have been camouflaging for hundreds of years, not about money. Having said that, some mudlarks do make spectacular finds, of course: Roman statues, bishops’ rings, amethyst seals, intact Bellarmine jugs and even a complete ball and chain are just a small sample of the treasures pulled from the mud in recent years. There is an awful lot to find.

 Think about it: for millennia, people have been discarding their belongings into the waters of the Thames, sometimes wittingly, sometimes not. Amphorae have been lost from Roman ships; medieval sinners seeking atonement have lost their pilgrim badges in its concealing waters; seventeenth century Dutch and German sailors have flung empty wine jars bedecked with images of bearded men from the decks of their ships; Victorian revellers have knocked back their pints and smoked their complementary clay pipeful of tobacco and then simply lobbed the pipe into the river—the equivalent of a modern-day dog end. And every day, the obliging tide reveals objects hidden for hundreds of years and clears others away. Quite literally, you never know what you will find. The next thing is that I am also a writer of children’s books. My Gangster School series is published in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany and is currently being translated into Turkish for a 2020 release.

 I’m also working on a new series based around the adventures of a pair of Victorian orphans who try to support themselves by mudlarking. I’m really enjoying writing these and consider myself very fortunate to be able to combine my two passions of writing and mudlarking. Like most children’s authors, I love to visit schools, and while I find that my Gangster School series lends itself well to creative workshops with younger children (design a villain; use creative language to describe her/ him; write a report for a new student after his first year at Gangster School; what lesson would you introduce to a school for evil geniuses?) I wanted to be able to offer stimulating and creative workshops to older learners, too. This is where my strange array of mudlarking finds, regarded with confusion at best and with scorn at worst by friends who fail to see their magic, come into play. This is how the workshops operate.

Step One: Establish conditions for the poor in Victorian London

An examination of the difficulties of life for the poor in the nineteenth century is a part of the history curriculum in most schools, and of course it complements the study of nineteenth-century authors in English. Great Expectations and Oliver Twist are still core texts for many, and an understanding of Oliver’s dire predicament and of why Pip is so keen to rise above his lowly origins will promote engagement with these potentially rather forbidding texts. I use Henry Mayhew’s fascinating and very readable London Labour and the London Poor (1850-52) to set the scene. His short essay ‘Of the Mud-larks’ startles many first-time readers when they realise that for children like Joe and Edie, my protagonists, there are no social services to care for them when their parents die, and that far from being treated with kid gloves, like many children are today, Victorian youngsters were often regarded as expendable nuisances.

Step Two: What the river has given to me

This is where I bring out a selection of the objects I have found, and pass them around. I make sure that they are diverse—bullets from World War One, eighteenth-century musket balls, toy soldiers, coins, rings, pieces of ceramic featuring interesting words or pictures, pipes, fragments of anti-aircraft flak from World War 2 and a small bronze statue of Krishna as a child, holding a ball of butter. I always include my ‘Mystery Object’ and encourage speculation about its purpose. I will give the answer to this question at the end of this article, in case you’re interested. I’ve had some amazing, imaginative answers but no one has got it quite right. So far. I never fail to be fascinated by the responses to these objects; everyone seems to find something that strikes a chord with them. The key is to ensure that the items are as varied as possible. Of course, they needn’t be real finds, although mine all are. However, I have to confess to being very tempted by the finds of others that sometimes appear on a certain online auction site. But that’s another story.

Step Three: How my finds have inspired me and others

This usually starts with a reading of the first chapter of my first Mudlark Mystery: ‘The Grinning Throat’. The first chapter ends with a cliff-hanger. Joe has found something unnamed, which might be a dead body. This invites questions: whose body could it be? How did they meet their end? If they were murdered, who murdered them? Why? Did they leave any clues to what has occurred? On my website I have published some of the best stories written by students as a response to my workshops. I often read one of these, either instead of, or in conjunction with, my own work.

Step Four: Planning a story

Then it’s time to invite participants to pick an object that particularly appeals to them. They are asked to start thinking of a story concerning it. How did it end up in the Thames? How long has it been there? Sometimes students want to write from the point of view of their chosen item and that’s fine. It often elicits a surprisingly imaginative and empathic response. You would be astonished how often my peaceful little statue of Krishna takes on the personality of a grumpy old man, bored and frustrated by his long sojourn in the water and willing to do just about anything to get out. I know from first-hand experience that my fiction flows more easily and logically if I write a detailed synopsis before starting. Creative Writing now forms part of the GCSE English Language syllabus, and it’s important to emphasise the need to plan to a story to prevent it from veering off madly in the wrong direction and letting itself down, or drying up altogether. Students have different ways of tackling this task, but the two I tend to encourage are mind maps and sequential bullet points. You may have other preferences, of course.

Step Five: Starting to write

There’s nothing more daunting than a blank page glaring at you and daring you to despoil it. The hardest part is getting down that first sentence. This is where I urge students to take the plunge and simply start writing. It won’t perfect and I emphasise the need to edit and draft their work in order to make it the best it can be. Of course, it’s unlikely that they will finish their stories in the workshop, but my aim is to communicate enough of my own enthusiasm to keep them going after I am gone. The possibility of publication on my website’s ‘Hall of Fame’ helps, too. There are few modern kids who aren’t attracted to the idea of seeing their names on the world wide web.

But I’m not a mudlark!

Perhaps these words are echoing around your brain as you read this. Well, I don’t think you need to be. Any collection of diverse and evocative objects could be used in the same way. How about using fossils? Or broken toys? Or various newspaper headlines? Pages or paragraphs from books? The possibilities are very nearly endless. The important thing is that they provoke speculation. For me, mudlarking is the perfect hobby. It allows me to combine my love of history with my job as a writer and communicator. Every teacher knows that joy of passing on knowledge on a subject they are passionate about; mudlarking allows me to be enthusiastic about both of my passions and to inspire others, too. I can honestly say that I have never encountered a student who didn’t gain some enjoyment from my motley collection of discarded or lost bits and pieces. No one (to date) has left one of my workshops holding a blank sheet of paper. For an hour or two, I have opened their eyes to our past and, I hope, helped them to acquire a skill that will be useful in their future lives.

Student Story... Mudlarks by Emma Rowling - Pershore High School

The waves gently washed ashore and laid a small, brownish, worn-out looking lump on the dark silt before retreating back again into their icy barracks. Looking closer, one might be able to discern the features of a gallant soldier atop his trusty steed; albeit, the rider was headless and the stallion legless. If a head were upon those shoulders, it would’ve worn a sad, tired expression with a long story to tell. After being made, their world was darkness. Then suddenly the darkness tore open for them to be plunged into a world of light, noise, grabbing hands and a child’s delighted laughter. ‘I love it! I love it! I promise I’ll treasure it forever!’ Many happy hours followed of daring fights, thrilling chases and exhilarating escapades. Gradually, though, these became less frequent. One day they were being held very tightly and large hot globules ran down over them. Outside the child’s room two angry voices yelled:

  • ‘No! No! There must be a mistake – let me see!’
  • ‘There is no possibility of a mistake I assure you! Please calm down.’
  • ‘You’re absolutely sure it’s fatal? Please tell me this is some sick joke.’
  • ‘There is nothing we can do for your son if you refuse to go to hospital.’

The small figure and his horse could do little but watch and listen wide-eyed, the young child clutched them to his chest as they were enveloped in a sea of salty tears. Some days or so later, the little horse and soldier were plucked hurriedly, and rather disjointedly, from their spot amid cries of refusal. Flying in a steel grip down a blur of stairs and out into a bitter, snowy street the little rider and his horse were pulled. Ominously gloomy skies loomed above as a carriage was hailed. ‘Please! My son needs to get to hospital!’ The child and his toy were flung in an urgent manner into a dark carriage box, the door was slammed shut and there was a jolt of movement as the horses sprang to life. The figure could feel the hands of the boy were as cold as the ice on the street, and shivering violently. “What’s going to happen?” He whispered, and though reassuring words came from the father silhouetted against the light the soldier was once again showered in tears.

After that, the two tiny figures were brought into a strange, new place and raced through seemingly endless corridors; all the while seeing through two pale fingers. Eventually, the soldier could hear many voices as the child was placed into and unfamiliar bed while coughing and shaking. It seemed like forever with people going back and forth while the figure was clutched in a shaky grip. He could hear harsh, rasping breaths, over time they became slower and slower as the voices just got louder. Then the shaking stopped and the noise ceased, save for muffled crying. After a time, the once-loved toy was extracted from the cold, still hand. In a sudden fit of rage the lead figure was hurled roughly to the ground – shattering legs of the poor horse. The soldier and wounded steed – still connected – simply lay there, unmoving until they were picked up again. 

Back through the corridors, back onto the street where the snow piled high and a chill wind blew, wailing as if it were grieving too. The toy was thrust into a pocket with only a sliver of harsh light in their view. After an age they were brought back out into a desolate looking place, a fast running river with an abandoned factory and dilapidated houses across its banks. The soldier and horse were held high up and, with an air of finality, thrown forward. They tumbled through the air before hitting the freezing waters and being swept away. Days, months, years, decades and more passed by and the child’s toy saw many places and travelled many miles. 

Finally, after so long in the eroding waters the soldier and stallion were relinquished reluctantly by the river. At last it was laid on the dark silt, waiting to be found again.

For more information on mud larking and the Port of London Authority, and lots of photos of interesting finds, check out these links:
Port of London Authority Mudlarking Permits: https://www.pla.co.uk/Environment/ Thames-foreshore-access-including-metal-detecting-searching-and-digging
Thames and Field:
http://www.thamesandfield.com Lara Meiklem, London Mudlark @LondonMudlark on Twitter and Facebook The Mystery Object is an eighteenth-century clay wig curler. They were heated in ovens before being inserted into the wigs that most monied gentlemen wore. ‘WB’ was the most prolific maker of these objects. This one is broken at one end, presumably why the disgruntled hairdresser dropped it into the Thames.
Kate Wiseman is the author of the Gangster School book series and she runs creative writing workshops in schools. More information can be found at https://katewiseman.uk

Knowledge Trails

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