I have been interested in folklore for even longer than I have been a writer. Books of fairy tales and legends were among my favourite reading as a child but I did not try to write stories of my own until I was in my teens. Also, I’ve always been fascinated by the anthropological side of history, in the stories people told and their daily customs and beliefs, as much as in great events or the development of society. Last year, when I signed up for an MA in Folklore Studies at the University of Hertfordshire, I hoped that the content of the course might provide inspiration for my fiction. I have enjoyed, for example, research into the way people have related to prehistoric monuments down the centuries, although I haven’t yet produced a story based on that. However, the course has also involved learning the techniques folklorists use to study contemporary activities and that has proved stimulating in ways I didn’t expect.
For one assignment, I was required to attend an event as a participant observer and write a report on it. This did not have to be a folkloric occasion of an obvious kind. The subject today is not limited to survivals or revivals of ancient tradition or rural customs but includes the unofficial culture of any group of people. An office Christmas party or a family wedding, for example, would provide plenty of material for a folklorist to observe, in the customs and practices people take for granted, which help make up the characteristics of their particular way of life.
I did not have an event of that sort coming up, in the time allowed for this assignment. I ended up writing about a meeting of Clockhouse London Writers, of which I have been a member of several years. (I later produced an edited version for the Clockhouse website, if anyone is interested in in knowing what a Clockhouse workshop is like.) There were no dramatic rituals to report but I found plenty to say and enjoyed the exercise more than I expected. The role of a participant observer turned out not to be as awkward or new to me as I had thought. Instead, it was a more formal version of something I do all the time for the sake of my writing.
The brief was to record the purpose of the event and its different elements, the look and feel of the venue, the appearance of participants and the way they related to one another. Gender dynamics was noted as a possible topic and so was my own role in the meeting.
I write fantasy fiction, often in a historical or secondary world setting. So I don’t draw on my daily life for the setting of my fiction in obvious ways and I don’t model my characters on people I know. But observation of the outside world and of other people feeds my imagination and helps me imagine characters and settings worth reading about. The way people talk, the flow of an argument or the twist of a joke can be adapted and applied to a fictional context. Noticing the way sunlight through the window affects the atmosphere in a room (and who chooses to sit in the shade) or the distractions provided by noise from outside may provide details that will bring a setting to life. Or they may lead to speculation about the changes that would result from a different environment, if a meeting could only take place by candlelight, for example.
There was one big difference between the MA assignment and day to day observation. The assignment had to be cleared by the University’s Ethics Committee and I had to receive consent from the leader of the Clockhouse workshop, Allen Ashley, as well as all the participants (who were anonymised in the report). Everyone agreed and nobody seemed put off by what I was doing. Since they are all writers, I suspect that they carry out the same activity in their own ways, without the formal label of participant observation. Other people, in daily life, might be more doubtful about the process, but I don’t write reports about them. I reckon that the transformation into the worlds of my imagination is a thorough one, so that the impact on those being observed is not an issue, although it was interesting to see how seriously it was taken in my course.
My report was written in December 2019, well before the lockdown for Covid-19. The experience of the last few weeks has provided even more material for participant observation than usual, not just in the broader changes in society but in the small details of daily life. Swerving to keep at a two-metre distance, when I go for a walk in the local park, has become a habit, for example, and it will be interesting to see how long it persists. I don’t know at the moment how I might use that behaviour in a fictional setting but it could be a custom for characters to observe, in a different time and place and for a different reason.
Sandra Unerman is the author of two novels of historical fantasy, Spellhaven and Ghosts and Exiles. Her short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including Frostfire Worlds and Writers’ Café Magazine, both in November 2019. She lives in London and is a member of Clockhouse London Writers. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Middlesex University.