Saturday, November 14, 2015

How to time-travel without a star ship... by Sheila Claydon

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What do you see? Is this just a derelict building gradually falling apart in a piece of forgotten woodland, or is it history?

Visiting Anglesey in north Wales recently, I came upon this tiny stone building while I was walking my dog.  It was at the bottom of a steep hillside, its roof long gone and its doors and windows shored up by wooden struts. My companion walked on without really noticing it but the dog and I stayed behind and did some exploring. Eventually we found a small notice hidden by an overhanging branch. It said The Old Mill 1325.

1325! That really is history.

I immediately went into a typical writer's research mode and discovered that the mill is situated in what, in the fourteenth century, was the village of Llanmaes. Located on the shore of the eastern entrance to the Menai Strait, it was an important medieval port that was briefly the capital of the kingdom of Gwynedd. 

By the end of the 13th century the village had become such an important trading center that it was renowned for its ale, wine, wool and hides. It also held two annual fairs and maintained a busy herring fishery. I could go on and tell you how it was eventually conquered by the English King Edward I, who moved the villagers to the opposite coast of the island, built a castle and a new town, and took over the port, but this post is not about the history written in books, it's about imagining what life was like in the days when the mill was busy grinding the corn into flour for the local population.

Nowadays the derelict mill is the only relic of the original village and the river is long gone, although I suspect the shallow, leaf-clogged ditch beside it will still have a trickle of water in a long, wet winter. There is absolutely nothing else left to show how it might have looked, however. The surrounding land has been turned into a golf course and the local buildings are mainly holiday apartments. Even the carefully managed woodland is more recent.

It has atmosphere though, and because of this the writer in me can see a young girl of about thirteen years old carefully carrying her father's lunch to the mill. She's barefoot and her long, brown hair is blowing around her face. The miller is hot and sweaty and covered in white dust and she can hear him shouting to her brother to hurry up and finish loading the flour. He grins at his sister as he hoists a heavy sack onto the cart while a stout welsh pony waits patiently between the shafts?

That's the beauty of being a writer. I can travel back nearly seven hundred years and populate the village of Llanmaes with villagers, reshape the countryside to fit my imaginings, and create a history that might have a vestige of truth...and if it doesn't, well who will know. 

One day I will write that story. Until then, those long ago villagers will live as characters in my imagination, long forgotten and yet somehow still alive.

A writer can time-travel whenever they want to; backwards or forwards. I did this in my book Reluctant Date. It is set in a place where I once had such a magical holiday that I never forgot it, and when I eventually wrote about it I populated it with my own cast of characters, reliving a wonderful memory.  To do this I had to time-travel forwards a few years in order to imagine what it might be like now and yet also time-travel backwards so I could remember. That's the magic of writing.

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