Tuesday 9 October 2018

An Awfully Big Adventure: Pantsing by train (Anne Rooney)

I'm sorry to say I missed my slot to post last month, because:
Plaque marking the birthplace of
Vlad Tepes, Sibiu, Romania

Vampires. I was in Transylvania and I couldn't get my iPad to connect to ABBA.

Up a misty mountain in Salzburg, in the rain,
looking through an arrow slit in the old
city wall
This was a final pre-Brexit European adventure. I wanted time to write and read, so I bought an Interrail ticket and booked a night in a hotel in Koln (Cologne) in Germany and left the country with some books and my iPad and a backpack. On my own. A writing retreat on the move.

I like writing on trains, and I like reading on trains. In fact, I barely touched the book I wanted to work on as I found I can't edit on an iPad. But I wrote other things, so all was well. Over two and a half weeks I spent around 70 hours on trains, walked over 200,000 steps and travelled as far as Romania. I didn't want to tread familiar ground, so stayed away from the usual writerly haunts of France, Italy, Spain, etc. And I didn't have a plan.
Finding fossils in the mountains,

Writers divide into plotters and pantsers: those who meticulously plan where their book is going and those who fly by the seat of their pants and make it up as they go along, seeing where the book takes them. I think travellers divide along the same lines.

Some people like to know exactly where they are going, on the page or the plane. They research their destination and plan what they will see and do when they get there or on the way. I prefer just to get going. A couple of weeks after I got back, I went to the Bookseller Children's Books Conference in London. One of the speakers started off by saying that when you go on holiday, you do lots of research, or at least choose where you are going. Plan where you are going? Why would you do that?

Sibiu, Romania

Of course there are dead-ends and you have to rewrite or retrace your steps. Just as I might start a story knowing only that it will be a bit Gothic and set in the past, so I got onto Eurostar thinking I'd go a bit east and stay in decent hotels. (This wasn't to be a return to studenty hostels. This was interrailing for grown-ups. Cockroaches are all very well when there's no alternative, they have their place, but in 21st century Europe?)
Each night I decided on the next day's destination and booked a hotel. Or occasionally I did it the morning I was leaving. A vague route emerged but, just like writing in this way, it didn't always work. In Salzburg, I decided to head itowards Sarajevo. It seemed a suitable place in this last year of the centenary of the First World War. And if I was going to Sarajevo, I might as well do the whole war-and-conflict thing and go to Bosnia and Kosovo, too. So I got a train to Ljubljana in Slovenia with the rough intention of going from there to Bosnia and from Bosnia to Kosovo and Montenegro.

 I found this set into the platform at the railway station in Ljubljana:

James Joyce had been to this station before me

City wall, Sighisoara,
 It seemed like a good sign, but, just as when you write a good opening line to a chapter and think it means things will go well, it was a delusion. My hotel (which was expensive) was horrible. The room was the size of a matchbox and it was opposite the A&E department of the largest hospital in the country, which had a helipad on the roof. It poured with rain, as though someone was pushing clouds down a funnel straight above my head.

I spent two nights there trying to find a way to get to Bosnia, but all the trains into and through Bosnia had been suspended. I could go by train to somewhere in Croatia and get a bus, but it would take a very long time and I'd have to do the same to get back. Going through Serbia was little better. There was one train a day south from Belgrade and it left at 6 am. It needed a reservation and couldn't be booked online. I'd have to go to Belgrade and hope there were seats. It was too much of a risk. I'd travelled myself into a corner. Time to throw that chapter away. I spent a few hours bemoaning my lost adventure in Kosovo and booked a hotel in Budapest.

Entrance to tea shop in a bomb
shelter, Bratizlava, Slovakie
I was last in Budapest the night the Berlin Wall came down. Then, the station was as packed with people fleeing to Berlin and that little gap in the wall. This time the most remarkable thing was that there are no cashpoints and I'd forgotten Hungary isn't in the Eurozone. Budapest had changed beyond recognition, with all the bullet holes fixed and the secret Hospital in the Rock no longer secret but open to tourists. I went to a dinosaur museum. I wanted to see a Magyarosaurus on its home ground. In fact, the dinosaur museum (the Hungarian Natural History Museum) set me up pretty well for spotting wildlife from the train in Romania. From Budapest I got a train to Romania. One of my daughter's college friends had lived in Romania so I messaged her and she told me some places to go.

Firewood for the winter,
The trains in Romania are slow, cronky and full of elderly people smoking and carrying their spades and things. There were no goats on the trains, but the occasional horse-drawn cart still in the fields, and I got the feeling they would have brought their goats if they could get them up the steps. The trains stopped *all the time* at any random crossroads or wherever someone seemed to wave them down. It took 13 hours to get from Budapest to the first stop in Romania but the trains within Romania were even slower: 4 hours for a 100 miles seemed about the standard. This isn't a travelogue, so I won't go on about how wonderful Romania is, but I will go again. I did buy garlic in the supermarket the day before I got the bus out to Bran and Dracula's castle. And I did hear wolves howling in the night, and go through forest-draped mountains in a thunderstorm. So it was a bit Gothic and rather set in the past.

Nuremberg — where the rallies were
I came back through Budapest again, Bratislava in Slovakia, Nuremburg and Koln once again, but it didn't feel like coming back until Koln, so often a last stop before Eurostar that it rather feels like home being nearly home.

Pantsing as a holiday method is just as exciting and unreliable as pantsting as a writing method. But even the dead ends are interesting.

Anne Rooney

Dinosaur Atlas, Lonely PlanetShortlisted for Royal Society Young People's Book Prize 2018 and
School Libraries Association Prize 2018

1 comment:

Penny Dolan said...

What an amazing time you had! And an excellent analogy too, although I'm now in a muddle as I generally write as a pantster but cannot bear to travel without knowing where I'm going and what plans are involved, if any.