The History Usherette’s Guide to Using Historical Resources as Creative Writing Prompts

  1. Old Newspaper Reports

The British Newspaper Archive is a must for the history enthusiast. It contains copies of millions of newspaper pages dating back to the beginning of this method of communication and new pages are being added all of the time. A subscription can be pricey, however. I would suggest taking out a single month subscription and setting aside plenty of time to make the most of it.

The most fascinating newspapers are those that are local to you. For me, that would be the Sheffield Star and the Derbyshire Times. While researching my latest publication “Sin in the Cinema”, I found an article in a Sheffield newspaper that gave me cause to think. Here’s an extract from my little book:

 

“However, I did find one short newspaper report of a case which took place in Sheffield in 1922. Up in court on a charge of indecency in a picture house were Dora Jones and Peter Whistler. But my initial thought that this pair were a courting couple that had simply got carried away was dispelled as I considered the facts further. The most interesting point was that while Peter was fined £5, Dora was committed to prison for a month. The wide separation between their residences also flagged up that there was more to this case than was reported in the reticent newspaper article. Dora lived on Acorn Street in Sheffield, which is in the Kelham Island area of the city. Back then, this would have been an unpleasant place to live. I had a grandparent that was born just one mile away, and I remember the tales of the stench rising from the River Don and the continual thumping of the hammers in the steel works. My Great Grandmother drank herself to death after giving birth to baby after baby that didn’t live. Kelham Island offered the sort of life that can drive people to desperate acts. Peter meanwhile gave his residence of a manor house in a small village in Derbyshire. I doubt he was the master of the manor, he was probably a servant there; who had either caught a train and returned to Sheffield to visit family, or to sample the sins that were not on offer in the small close knit villages around where he worked. It therefore seems unlikely that Dora and Peter were an ordinary courting couple. The severity of her sentence compared to his strongly suggests that she was a prostitute, plying her trade in the warm dark of the picture house. The report stated that Peter denied the charge…if the pair were caught in flagrante perhaps what he was in fact denying was the fact that money had changed hands. Dora only stated that she was sorry for what had happened. Poor Dora.”

 

This shows that a combination of old newspaper reports and local knowledge can help you to unravel the untold stories of the past.

Why not find a few articles in local papers from the 1920s to the 1950s – a time distant enough for us to have an objective view but close enough for living memories to be able to play a part. As a creative writing exercise you could re-write the story into a new truth. Or tell the story from the point of view of two of the protagonists.  This is a good exercise in forming and getting into characters.

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Click here to download for £1.29

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The History Usherette’s Guide to Using Historical Resources as Creative Writing Prompts

  1. Old Postcards

I’ve been using old postcards to inspire poetry-writing exercises for some time now, and have been posting some of my PostcardPoetry on my Instagram account – @Adventureswithword.

First, look carefully at the photograph on the front and find 20 words to describe what is going on. This can be a daunting task but when you really study the picture, small details begin to emerge that you may not have seen at first. This encourages you to think about what is going on, and to get inside the image. Use these 20 words to inspire a 4 line poem and write it on the back – you then have your very own artwork.

To step this up a little, think about what might be going on just outside the picture. You could write a short story about something that is taking place just out of sight, or behind the photographer perhaps.

You might not be able to write your poem on the back because it was written on by the original sender. This can be even better – whole stories can emerge from one sentence written on a postcard – just look at the Twitter account @PastPostcard. I recently used postcards at a poetry workshop where our theme was the seaside. One of the group used a postcard that had been sent by a couple called Charlie and Eileen in 1991, and she ended up writing two poems combining the photo on the front and the imaginary adventures of this couple.  Just from those few lines she had developed characters for the pair. You could write character descriptions for people depicted on the front of the card, the sender or the recipient.

Here’s one of my recent ones. I decided that the two children depicted had been fighting in the car all the way to Swaledale from their home in Leeds and were now plotting murder.

The History Usherette’s Guide to Using Historical Resources as Creative Writing Prompts

2. Vintage Cotton Reels

For several years now I have had something of an obsession with old Sylko cotton reels. These very common yet tactile and evocative relics of the days before throwaway fashion are very collectable. Each reel can tell it’s own story, I often wonder who originally purchased it and why. What did they make or repair? Was the colour a good match for their fabric?   Those colours – so wonderfully named. Dewhursts didn’t just call their colours by a dull serial number. Gay Kingfisher, Buckingham Lilac, Old Gold…

If you’ve got a few reels lying around – many of us do – then use them as writing prompts. Use the colour shade to influence a poem or short story.  Build a story around your idea of what the reel was originally used to make.

If you have a few reels, use them as a wellbeing prompt. What colour do you feel now? Why? Which colour would you like to feel? How can you achieve that?

Download my book – Sewing with Sylko, A Treasury

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The History Usherette’s Guide to Using Historical Resources as Creative Writing Prompts

  1. Cinema

After several years spent writing the blog The History Usherette, it was inevitable that old films would begin to influence my creative writing.  I have written three collections of short stories for example, where the starting point was a film.

“The History Usherette’s Second Seat, Third Row” and “Roads to Corryvrekan” both focussed on the audience for Powell and Pressburger films that were made at the end of World War Two. “Joyce to the World” meanwhile contained several short stories influenced by Joyce Grenfell’s film appearances.

If you would like to use film to launch a creative writing project, here are a couple of ideas to get you started:

Watch a film carefully, taking note of how things are different to the modern day world. This could be in terms of clothes, household objects, or ways of behaving – anything. Then make two lists:

  1. What aspects of the film makes you want to live in this past world?
  2. What aspects of the film make you glad to be alive now?

Use each list to write a short story about a single character, one where they live a happy life in the past, one where they live a life of misery in the same period.

Did any of the scenes or props in the film unlock a memory from your own past? Did your Grandmother wear a hat like that? Did you have one of those radios in your sitting room? Did your Dad drive one of those cars?

Write a poem about your memory.

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Click here to see The History Usherette’s books

Sin the the Cinema!

In my latest History Usherette themed book, the torchlight sweeps across the cheap seats at the picture house and reveals some very illegal goings-on. From spivs and prostitutes to murderers and mayhem, all human life went to the flicks with trouble in mind during the heyday of British cinema. The History Usherette brings together some of the most fascinating crimes, illuminating British society at its worst. Prepare to be appalled.

There are five sections:
1. Heavens Above – the hand-wringing over the morality of the cinema
2. Too Many Crooks – the temptation of the weekly takings…and other things
3. Brief Encounter – the beastly antics of the men with busy hands
4. Bang! You’re Dead – the perilous life of a cinema manager
5. The Happiest Days of Your Life – juvenile delinquents get into their groove

I lost myself in the British Newspaper Archive, digging out reports of all kinds of criminal activity from the 1920s to the 1950s. Not only are the stories compelling, they shed a really interesting light on how our society has changed. You can download it from Amazon for £1.29:

Click here to go to Amazon.co.uk

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The Wooden Spoon Under the Bed

I have now published a small collection of poetry via Amazon Kindle. The 15 poems are inspired by letters sent into problem pages in the 1940s and 1950s. Here’s the blurb:

It is easy to be persuaded into a nostalgic view of the post war period in Britain. Especially if you are a fan of those films of the period that offer glimpses of unspoilt countryside, near-empty roads and close knit communities.

But if you were a woman, it could be argued that this was one of the worst periods to be alive. The evidence of this can be found in contemporary problem pages. Letters to magazines and newspapers often follow similar themes and present a life of drudgery and entrapment, where half of the population was a hostage to convention. Conventions that were convenient to the wealthy and the male.

This pamphlet presents a series of 15 problems, and the poem that each inspired me to write. I was born in the early 1970s, and unfortunately I have experienced some of the things that I write about because it has not been quick to go away. There’s no denying that contemporary society is a mess, but I think I see slivers of light that I hope will shine more fully onto my daughters.

I hope this collection will leave you as it left me – glad to be alive now.

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Click here to download the collection for 99p

Write a Poem and Feel Good

Following on from my session where I explained to some Tinnitus sufferers how journaling might help them to take control of their symptoms, I was asked to lead three poetry workshops for group members. Tinnitus has no cure and the main symptom is hearing unwanted noises that have no external source. Many secondary symptoms follow on from this, including headaches, sleeplessness, neck tension and stress. The more you can’t sleep because of it, the worse it gets and the more you can’t sleep. It’s easy to see how tinnitus can spiral down into depression.

Nothing can be done to stop the internal noises, but those tinnitus sufferers running this local group particularly advocate activities that distract the mind. Poetry appeared to be an ideal addition to the array of activities that members can turn to – and two of the committee members were already avid poets. Being mindful of where you are, of what you see and feel in order to find poetic subjects is a healthy distraction, as is the puzzling out of what words to use and how they should fit together.

An average of ten tinnitus sufferers attended each of the three workshops and the feedback was just as we hoped. Comments included:
“It is a very good coping skill.”
“Diverts my thoughts from tinnitus.”
“No pressure or stress – a great distraction.”

We asked for words that summed up how people felt:

Positive Encouraged Uplifted Inspired Interested

All but one person said that they were going to carry on writing poetry – the odd one said that they might, but it was just a case of self-confidence.

For any other health groups with an interest in starting your members off in writing poetry – here’s what happened…

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The Poetry Buzz!

It was important to make these workshops feel informal. People were a little nervous so the last thing they wanted was to feel like they had gone back to school. The meetings took place in a community café that was closed to the general public – we laid on hot drinks and biscuits and got everyone to sit in a circle of comfy chairs. On an administrative note, we realised that clipboards are helpful for this kind of set up! We also gave everyone a nice notebook to encourage further use, and put out pencils and erasers. Each of the three sessions had its own worksheet which was given out on the day. These acted as a starting point and extra exercises were added in depending on how time was progressing. It was difficult to predict the timing, as it all depended on the length of poems that people chose to share, and how much discussion was inspired by them.

Session one focussed on acrostics and haikus. Acrostics introduced the idea of thinking more deeply about a given subject and playing with connected words. No rhyme or metre is required. Everyone wrote their own SUMMERTIME acrostic then each contributed a line to make a group one – everyone was impressed by how well it worked! This simple start began to build confidence. Haikus introduced the idea of syllable count. We joked about counting them on our fingers and played around with a range of words that encouraged a natural or seasonal theme.

Session two started with another fun acrostic, then we had a good laugh at a few Limericks. Following on from this, we discussed the form of the Limerick showing how patterns and rhymes can give a poem a good rhythm. I then read some of Auden’s ‘Night Mail’ as another demonstration of poetic rhythm. Naturally, some of us pretended to be a train, and this led to someone else discussing a poem that they had read as a child that had a similar effect. Each member then read out a published poem that they had brought along. We had stressed that the reading aloud parts were optional and no-one would be forced to do this against their will – but even the shyest member of the group was happy to join in, showing the importance of fostering an informal and fun atmosphere. We talked about each poem in turn and thought a bit about how it had been formed – the rhyme scheme, the syllables and patterns – but most importantly what we liked about it. We ended with a discussion of free and blank verse and that ultimately, it’s your poem and you can do as you damn well please. The group were sent away for a week to write their own poem.

Session three started with everyone writing a rhyming couplet about what they had done over the past week. We then shared and talked about our own poems, then finished with talk and activity around finding inspiration. I brought my vintage postcards and poems were written inspired by the pictures.

Throughout these sessions, those members already writing poems shared their own works, thoughts and ideas. One told us that to her, writing poetry is like a creative crossword puzzle, while another uses poetry writing as a form of gratitude and reinforcement of the positivity in her life.

We set out to make members realise that anyone can write a poem. The end result might not fit in with what academics and critics think a poem should look like – but so what! Poetry writing is ultimately about your own wellbeing and that is all that matters.

I’ve been sharing a few poems in my new blog about village halls – click here