A witty and articulate host, delivering a splendid writing workshop

19 May

She steps down from the carriage into the yard. Behind the snort of horses and whispers of wind, there is silence. It clings to the branches of the trees, hides in the hedges and the nooks of walls…

So begins The Huntingfield Paintress (Pamela Holmes’ first novel). And my day at Lower Shaw Farm begins in exactly the same way. Arriving early for Pamela’s workshop, I find the farm crowded with silence. The only activity comes from three ducks. The trio quack their way around a corner, briefly inspect my shoes – presumably to check my shoelaces are not made of bread – then waddle away to attend to some undoubtedly serious duck-business elsewhere.

Author Pamela Holmes leads the writing workshop
Image © Fernando Bagué

Lower Shaw Farm is full of surprises. It’s not long before I spot a BBC Wiltshire van, complete with several camera- and microphone-toting staff. Live broadcasts are underway and I make sure not to catch anyone’s eye, just in case they’re looking for someone to interview. If I am collared, I plan to mention nothing but the ducks.

But the BBC crew are not around for long. They’re here to do an article on Step Out Swindon – an incredibly friendly and ever-growing walking group. The walkers set off, closely trailed by the BBC. All are unaware that the various denizens of the farmyard are giving them thoughtful looks. Perhaps the ducks are keen to join Step Out Swindon too.

The Huntingfield Paintress, is inspired by the true story of Mildred Holland – a rector’s wife who redecorated the ceiling of the parish church of Huntingfield, painting it from end to end with vibrant angels, colourful shields, glorious banners and sparkling crowns, with the occasional lamb or pelican thrown in for good measure.

Looking up pictures of this church online, it’s plain to see how strongly such a place could influence a talented author like Pamela. Mildred spent seven years lying on her back, painting a ceiling. How could anyone fail to be intrigued by such a character? And how could any writer not feel the urge to dig deep into the history of this fascinating woman?

While waiting for Pamela’s workshop to begin, the unique environment that is Lower Shaw Farm offers another surprise. Two beauties from the Spring Festival’s resident circus troupe take it upon themselves to don sparkly leotards and commandeer the farm’s rope swing. Before long they’ve installed an acrobat ring – dangling from the 50 foot-high ceiling – and are practising hard, spinning and twisting through the ring with all the apparent effort of kestrels borne on the breeze.

The workshop begins with a healthy vegetarian lunch – another fine product from the Lower Shaw Farm kitchen! Over crisp jacket potatoes, salad and cheese, the writers chatter amongst themselves. We are a mixed bunch, ranging from absolute beginners right through to a published novelist. Regardless of achievements, we’re all here for similar reasons: to share ideas, to explode some creativity onto the page and, of course, to pick Pamela’s brain for tips.

Our first task is an excellent one: create a character. For the purposes of the exercise, I choose to create a new one rather than work with one I’d already invented. This new character turned out to be quite the enigma. On the brink of teenhood, she’d already formed unyielding opinions about how she expected to be treated by others, and was working hard to break any stereotypes forced upon her by society.

The second task was to wander through the farmyard until we found a quiet place to sit and write – a simple ten minute session of scribbling, during which we were looking to dig deeper into our new character. What was she like? What secrets does she hide from her family? I went out with the best of intentions, but found myself by the farmyard chicken coop. Ducks and chickens wandered free, while their new chicks and ducklings were safely in the coop. Should I do my writing, or should I make “aww” noises at the adorably fluffy yellow ducklings? A difficult choice.

As the workshop exercises continued, I discovered my character had an older sister, and that the two regularly fought over the most trivial of things. Unfortunately one of these fights went too far, and a serious injury occurred. How the two sisters come to terms with that injury, and how it affects their relationship, is something I feel could quite easily turn into a novel.

And this is why I love workshops so much. Through Pamela’s gentle guidance, a blank piece of paper became a character, became a person, became a family, became a living breathing story, ready to be told.

Whether I find time to spin the idea of these two sisters into something resembling a novel… Well, that remains to be seen. But the seeds are sown, and for me that’s what writing is all about. We create something from nothing and then will stretch it… beat structure into it… tease theme and meaning and poignance from it. Your simplest idea can grow into your proudest achievement.

Our day ended with a quick tour of the farm animals. A fine pair of pigs wished to say hello, and a couple of lambs showed surprising strength as they drained their feeding bottles. We were also shown the Writer Retreat Hut – a magnificently spacious structure which was jokingly referred to as “the shed”. Having viewed the interior décor, a better description would be: luxurious cabin. I could well imagine living in that glorious space for a summer while producing enough words to fill at least a novel, if not two.

A last farewell to the baby ducks and chicks, and then it was time to head home. I immediately typed up my notes and plans for the new novel and, for now, have filed it away until the “NaNoWriMo” event that happens every November (in which thousands of authors all over the world unite on nanowrimo.org for the crazy endeavour of writing 50,000 words in a month).

Meanwhile, I have time to consider plot. As Pamela said, often novels are about structure. As readers, we are used to a strong three-act plot. Perhaps the two sisters in my new story should be raised together, separate after a fight, then come together again at the end. That’s a simple way to break their story into three very simple acts… now all I have to do is sit down and write it.

Many thanks to Pamela Holmes for a splendid workshop, and thanks as always to Lower Shaw Farm for being such a magnificent venue. And to all the writers out there – keep going! That creative spark is the only guide you’ll ever need.

Pamela Holmes hails from the USA but has lived mostly in England. She has been a journalist and sings in a rock band. In 2014, Pamela won the Jane Austen Short Story Award. Find her on https://www.pamela-holmes.com. Her novels are The Huntingfield Paintress (2016) and Wyld Dreamers (2018).

Words by Mark Farley. Image © Fernando Bagué

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