Fieldwork

Fieldwork: Adding improv to the mix

by Suw on November 14, 2023

What do you do to get yourself back in the game after an enforced break from a creative project?

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Fieldwork, the short film script I’m writing for the i-COMET project, largely because over the summer I was either interviewing ecologists or checking their transcriptions, which isn’t very newsworthy. Then, once mid-August arrived, I was almost wholly focused this year’s Ada Lovelace Day Live event at the Royal Institution.

But now it’s time to dive back in.

Back in May, I came up with a four part plan for how this project was going to shake out, and I’ve largely been focused on Part 1, background research. Talking to ecologists turned out to be a delightful experience, always the highlight of my week. I’m going back over the transcripts now and highlighting the sciency bits that catch my eye, or sections that feel funny to me or that seem to illustrate some aspect of character.

I have to admit, I’ve been feeling a bit apprehensive about starting the actual writing, because this whole project doesn’t fit in with my normal creative process. Usually, I start with an idea for a person who’s dealing with a particular scenario and then I explore what might happen through plot logic: if this happens, then that results; and through character: this person would do this sort of thing.

But with Fieldwork, what came first was the context: ecologists working in the field; and the genre: comedy. My brain has been noodling over this for the last several months, despite the fact that I was focused on other things, and building up quite a head of anxiety over whether I can actually write in this way. I haven’t written comedy for, er, quite a long time, so the question of whether I can still be funny has also been weighing on me.

To get over this, I’ve decided that my brain needs a bit of creative shakubuku – “a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever”.

So, to that end, I’ve started improv classes. There is a weekly class held not far from me and last Wednesday I went to my first one. It was huge amounts of fun, but I can also see how it has the potential to rewire my neurones a little, get me back into a mode of more spontaneous thinking, and help me re-find my funny.

Improv (though they seem to have shortened it further to ‘impro’!) is predicated on saying the first thing that comes into your head and not worrying about whether it is good or bad. Even in my first session, once I started to feel the flow, it stopped feeling stressful and started to be a lot of fun. It’s like opening a direct conduit between your subconscious and your mouth, giving your brain a huge playground to just throw stuff up and see what happens. It’s about being open to possibility and responding instinctually to what the people around you are saying and doing. And, most importantly, it’s about refusing to be self-judgemental.

That’s the perfect mindset for playing about with character ideas, plot snippets and humour, and it’s the antithesis of how writers often think.

I remember once being told to throw away the first solution that comes into your head when you hit a problem with your plot or character. Throw away the second one too. The logic is that these are the obvious solutions, and you want to dig deeper to find the surprising solution. But if you take that too much to heart, it becomes crippling as your brain refuses to come up with a first solution at all, for fear of it being crap.

Where writing is rewriting, improv is blurting out all your first thoughts without any opportunity to rethink. And that is, in my opinion, also the first step on the road to comedy.

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A woman riding a buffalo.

This ecologist lost her car keys and had to take an alternative form of transport to the field site. The handlebars later proved useful for carrying samples back to camp.

Are you sure? Absolutely sure? Because I know I don’t have them.

I’m just over a month into the background research for Fieldwork and have already carried out half a dozen interviews with ecologists in a wide variety of disciplines. We’ve talked about everything, from the challenges of surveying plants in highland bogs, to working out which exact tree the bats are roosting in, to the problem of water in your waders.

Already, I’m seeing a few common themes: Keys getting lost/left behind and wellies getting stuck/lost in soggy ground being two that have come up more than once. Ecologists also have to be good at jury-rigging equipment, either because what they need hasn’t been invented yet or because the commercially available equipment is too expensive. There’s a lot of ingenuity involved, but also a lot of learning that battery packs can lie when they say they’re full, as can GPS when it says that the track is passable.

If I had to sum up my conversations, it would be with the phrase ‘easier said than done’. You may happily promise to sample 100 locations, but actually doing so can be a challenge. And, equally, sometimes a more modest dozen locations might not be enough for you to find your target species at all, even if you know it has to be there somewhere.

I’m also struck by just how slapstick a lot of fieldwork fails are, particularly the whole getting stuck in bogs/mud/quicksand bit. I can’t help wondering how future archaeologists are going to interpret a lone pair of wellies, perfectly preserved in the peat.

A lot of the comedies I love the most – Sex Education, Ted Lasso, The Good Place, Schitt’s Creek – are predominantly character driven, so it’s going to be an interesting challenge to work out how to combine that with authentically slapstick ecology.

I’m still looking for ecologists to interview, so if you’d like to chat to me you can either email me to set up a time, or pick a time via Calendly. These conversations have rapidly turned into my favourite time of the week, so if you’d like to have a relaxed, informal chat about your experiences in the field, please get in touch!

(Or, if you’d prefer, you can complete as much or as little of our survey as you please.)

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Fieldwork: A look at what’s to come

by Suw on May 17, 2023

Who knows where these creative seeds will land.

It’s always good to have a plan so that you can point at it and laugh when reality has other ideas.

I thought I’d go through the rough project plan for Fieldwork so that you can see what’s involved and the sort of things I’m going to write about.

To some extent, this newsletter is as much about me working out how all the pieces of the jigsaw fit together in my own head as it is about updating you on my progress. It’s also about documenting the process and my learning, so that I can come back to check my notes and maybe even see how far I’ve progressed.

I expect to be working on these four aspects of the project, probably simultaneously:

  1. Background research
  2. Comedy research
  3. Script development
  4. Funding for production

Part 1: Background research

I want Fieldwork to be based on reality – particularly real science and real fieldwork experiences. Scientists in TV comedy and drama often end up as caricatures: tweedy, obsessive and lacking in social skills. I know a lot of scientists and none of them are like that. And I have to ask, how are we going to encourage children to take science seriously if we’re portraying scientists so poorly?

The science itself in TV is generally ignored, trivialised or misrepresented, probably because it sci-comms is hard and there are fewer TV writers with experience in sci-comms or science than we need. Thus, it gets reduced to scribbles on a white board in the background which, even if full of in-jokes for physicists (looking at you, Big Bang Theory), doesn’t do much to explain how science actually happens or why it’s important.

So I’m going to be talking to as many ecologists as I can and asking them questions about their work. I want to know what they are studying and why, where they go when they’re doing fieldwork, where they stay and what it’s like, and in particular I want to know about #fieldworkfails, those times when things didn’t go to plan. I’ve already heard about keys getting locked in cars during a thunderstorm, close encounters with bears, and the importance of choosing your tent location carefully. If you’d like to add to that list, find out how here!

Ecology is a good choice in terms of explaining how science happens and why it’s important. Many ecologists are working with species or habitats where the basics are easy to explain, and they’re doing it because they want to better manage that species or habitat, because their work will help us to grow more and better food with fewer chemical inputs, or because they want to understand the impact of climate change.

The way that a lot of ecology fieldwork is done makes it great for comedy: You’re out at a field station or camping somewhere and away from day-to-day life. Plus you’re doing things that can easily go sideways and you don’t have much time or many resources to fix the things that do go wrong. It’s just begging to become a sitcom.

This all sounds very much like I planned it this way, but Fieldwork is a part of an existing project that I’ve been working on with Prof Thorunn Helgason, Dr Pen Holland and Prof Bala Chaudhary since 2019, the International Collaboration on Mycorrhizal Ecological Traits. Our original plan was to run a workshop for about 20 international ecologists at the University of York in order to develop a design for an easy-to-build mycorrhizal spore trap, and for me to do some basic training around mentoring, which was my contribution to the project (not being an ecologist, ’n all). Unfortunately for us, our workshop was due to start the week after the first Covid travel bans came into force. Oops. We had to cancel with just a few days notice.

So Fieldwork is, in essence, our way of finishing off this project with a flourish. And I feel very lucky that the subject is ecology and not, say, nuclear physics.

Part 2: Comedy research

Back when it was “the new Rock ’n Roll”, I performed at open mic stand-up gigs, some of which actually went very well, even though the performance aspect of it terrified me. I’ve written novellas, a full-length novel, a feature film script and a six-part TV series, have trained as a TV script editor, and have a wealth of journalistic experience having written for The Guardian, Forbes, Melody Maker and a bunch of other newspapers and magazines.

What I’m doing now is building on what I already know about writing by adding the specifics of comedy. Although there are similarities between genres, there are also some aspects that are really very different, so rather than dive in and wonder why it’s not working, I’m investing my time in learning as much as I can about the form. Specifically, I’m reading everything I can about:

  1. Sitcom structure
  2. Plot
  3. Character

I find this all absolutely fascinating. I’ve always loved deconstructing everything I’ve watched or read (and thankfully have a husband who enjoys these conversations too), so I’m in my element.

(Just a heads up: My writing and comedy craft posts will very likely be paid posts, and they’ll sit in the Essays subsection of Word Count. All my project update posts will be free, and they’ll sit in the Fieldwork subsection.)

Part 3: Script development

This is the hard bit. But also the fun bit. And the painful bit.

I’ll be writing a script that’s between 10 and 15 minutes long, so that’s between 10 and 15 pages, as usually a page of script equals about a minute of screen time. Within those pages, I need to set the scene and have perhaps two cycles of the main character trying to fix a problem but accidentally making it worse before the final resolution. And I need to cram in as many jokes as possible.

Easy.

????

Once I’ve got a draft that’s as good as I can make it, I’ll work with a comedy script editor to hone it further before organising a table read to see how the jokes land when actual actors say them out loud. What works on the page doesn’t always work when spoken, so there will likely be rewrites at this stage.

Part 4: Funding for production

The funding we have doesn’t cover actually filming the script, so whilst all of the above is going on, I need to find a way to pay for filming. This might involve applying for grants or running a crowdfunding campaign, as well as developing the paid tier here on Substack so that I can put more of my time into Fieldwork itself.

To do all that, I’ll have to learn about film production and budgeting. I have been involved in a short film production before (and somewhere on the internet you can see me ‘acting’ in one, and no, I’m not going to link to it), but things have changed a lot since then. Much more can be done much more cheaply these days, but I have an abiding belief that people should be paid for their time, so that’s going to be the cornerstone of my fundraising. I don’t believe in asking people to work for free or “for exposure”, especially not during a financial crush, so raising enough money to pay crew and actors is a hill I am willing to die on.

The future

This project won’t stop once the short has been filmed. My plan then is to develop a script for the pilot of a half-hour ongoing sitcom and see what I can do to get it in front of producers. Because I really believe that this is a great concept and that it’s a show that could be hugely entertaining and successful.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and this is mine. I hope you will join me to see what kind of countryside we pass through. Just make sure you pitch your tent inside the electric fence, in case of moose.

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Introducing Fieldwork

by Suw on May 2, 2023

Everything you need to know about Suw’s latest creative project.

If you’ve ever been on a science field trip, you’ll know that, in amongst the experiments and data gathering, things can go hilariously wrong. The longer you spend in the field, the more likely you are to have had animals carry off your equipment, experienced unexpected malfunctions, or seen creatures other than your target species appearing in your camera traps.

We are collecting examples of #fieldworkfails from ecologists, particularly in the UK, and listening to their experiences of working in the field to inform the development of a comedy drama. The first output will be a short film script, but we may also use data collected as the basis for other outputs, including this newsletter.

Our aims are both to entertain and to increase awareness of ecology as a subject and as a career path. Television and film can have a powerful effect on people’s perceptions of a subject. The X-Files inspired a generation of women to become interested in science, technology, engineering and maths with what is now known as The Scully Effect. Bones encouraged women into science, as has Black Panther’s Shuri.

Can we do the same for ecology?

What will this newsletter cover?

I’m going to be chronicling the entire process of writing and making the Fieldwork short film. I’ll talk about my background research, possibly sharing some snippets from my interviewees, and exploring life in a field station.

I’ll also be sharing my journey into the world of comedy writing, delving into the complexities (or simplicities) of character, structure and joke writing. I dabbled in stand-up comedy many years ago, so this isn’t entirely new to me, and I’m very excited by the idea of re-finding my funny.

If you’re interested in comedy writing, then this newsletter is very definitely for you.

How will this newsletter work?

If you are already subscribed to Word Count, you have been automatically subscribed to Fieldwork, but if you’d rather not receive these emails, just change your settings. Equally, if you only want to receive Fieldwork emails, you can unsubscribe from the other sections in those same settings.

I won’t be publishing on a set schedule – news will arrive when it arrives, though I suspect there’ll be more news in the beginning as I get everything set up.

I’m an ecologist! Can I take part?

Yes, you can! Just drop me a line and I’ll let you know when our online survey and interview schedule is ready.


Fieldwork is part of the International Collaboration on Mycorrhizal Ecological Traits, organised by the University of York, University of Edinburgh, Dartmouth College and Ada Lovelace Day. It is funded by the National Environmental Research Council.

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