Please do have a read and let me know what you think and if you would like to read more excerpts; more importantly, if you would buy the book!
I was reading author J.F. Penn’s newsletter today (check out her excellent site by the way!) and discovered how she uses Pinterest to great effect by having boards for her upcoming novels pinned with pictures which provide tantalising hints to readers of where the stories will take them!
Without further ado I headed over to Pinterest, and have created a board with some pictures that convey the setting and subject matter of And The Buntings Flew, to give prospective readers a taste of what’s to come. I’d love to hear what you think of this idea, which I think is brilliant (it would never have occurred to me), and your thoughts on my fledgling board!
What a serendipitous find!
I was browsing Irish Central the other day and came across this really interesting article on the source of the phrase “Black Irish” in relation to people of Irish ancestry with dark or tanned complexions, black hair and dark eyes.
I refer to the “Black Irish” colouring in my novel, as a mixed blessing – exotic, yet very different from the majority of Irish complexions, which tend to the very pale, with light coloured eyes and either fair, red or dark hair.
Several characters in And The Buntings Flew exhibit typical Black Irish colouring, as do I, and many of my family (check out my profile picture) – pictured above is my paternal grandmother who was a beautiful example of the Black Irish colouring.
Irish Central’s article provides a great introduction to the subject, so please have a read, as it gives some context to a phrase that might otherwise be misunderstood, as it is not one in common parlance.
For many years I’ve wanted and needed to write a story based on some of the things that happened in my childhood in Northern Ireland. These things either happened to me, to members of my family, or I was a (way too young) witness to some truly heart wrenching events.
I’ve struggled with bringing this story into the light of day in many ways, but one particularly interesting conundrum which might apply to your writing is, should I write my story as a childhood/family memoir, or as a novel, as fiction? There seemed to be strong reasons for both options: I feel that this story has merit and universal appeal, and will make a strong compelling read, but I don’t want to embarrass or hurt anyone involved in the story. However I was a child and no doubt missed on many other events and nuances; my take on the situation would undoubtedly differ from say, an adult who lived through the same experiences.
Added to these questions are my own preferences; I prefer to read novels, which can explore wider themes and questions, than a “that happened to me” type memoir. Also, another personal perception, I feel the memoir market may not be right for my story, and also that your story would have to be very “out there” to compete in the memoir genre, filled as it is with some truly gut-wrenching stories.
One of my all time favourites novels helped me reach that decision; I am enormously influenced, in writing And The Buntings Flew, by the wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Like Purdey, the narrator of my novel, Scout was also a small girl caught up in some life changing events. Many elements of Scout’s story were based on Lee’s childhood and family, but then many events in the book are fiction, and are used to explore the themes of courage, injustice, prejudice and innocence.
Adair Lara at Writer’s Digest explores this subject and makes some really great suggestions for making the decision: novel or memoir; in the end I decided that my story would best be written as a novel, after considering the following factors, which seemed most pertinent to my story:
1. Did everything you want to include actually happen?
A memoir is a non-fiction story, and autobiographical to some extent. The events described in my story all happened, but I have changed the denouement, although it is true in spirit. However I will be taking those key events and amending them to support the key themes of my novel. There are also a couple of characters who are amalgams of several real people, so again I can’t say that they are “real”.
2. Will my family, and people mentioned in the book, be angry/hurt/want to hunt me down?
I hope my novel will be enormously successful, allow me to devote myself to writing full-time and launch me to international stardom. Or do I? What if in doing so I hurt those closest to me, or even, unlikely though it might be, gave them uncomfortable publicity? My story is based in 1970’s Troubles torn Northern Ireland, and focuses on a particular area of the city. Our family name would be recalled by some. Terrible things happened all around us, every day, and as noted above, my story is told through the prism of a child’s eyes. Even if I changed names, people might recognise the story, certainly people close to us would, and whether they are hurt or not, I might find my authorial hand is stayed, with regards to some of the unpalatable details I want to tell. Also, it’s a long time ago, and I don’t want to drag up any ancient history for anyone. My story deals with the ordinary human condition in extraordinary times and places, it is not a finger pointing exercise or a political manifesto. Paradoxically, I can deal with the subject matter more honestly, by fictionalising it.
3. Is the Story Credible as a Novel?
Counter intuitively, I think that the more “out there” and bizarre your tale is, the less likely it is to read well as fiction. The phrase “fact is stranger than fiction” sums this up well. A memoir is probably the better vehicle for a story that is off the wall, overly dramatic (or has overly dramatic characters!) and relies on huge coincidences (as life can). Although my story is certainly not “ordinary”, it happened to the backdrop of well publicised events and political situations, and I think that nothing in the story lacks credibility, if viewed from that perspective.
4. Am I a Reliable Witness?
The key events in my first novel (I hope it may become a loosely connected series) occurred when I was between five and eight years old, although in the novel timeline the events are compressed into a period of one year. Although the events are very vivid in my mind, I will certainly have remembered many things imperfectly, or misunderstood actions by the grown ups around me. Adults are after all pretty incomprehensible. So some of my recollections of events, people, even places will be incorrect or incomplete, seen through a child’s eyes.
Although many memoirs have been written from childhood recollections, I thought that my story would not be best served by being presented as fact. The uncertainty generated by a child narrator is a great device for my novel: although I have tried to research to make sure I make no glaring errors, at the heart of my story is a child, whose understanding is still developing, although it’s safe to say that Purdey is an old soul in a young body and hopefully thus not an unreliable narrator! So part of the attraction of having a child narrator in a novel format is to add to that uncertainty and ambiguity – can we be sure that she is always correct in her interpretation of events and people?
I would love to hear your thoughts and how you made the decision to write either a memoir or a novel.
This is an updated and trimmed version of the synopsis I wrote last year, which brings the novel straight into the action; I had previously considered starting the story a couple of years before the main events outlined in the synopsis, but that may need to be included in a prequel at a later date!
It is 1975, and shy, thoughtful eight-year-old Purdey (short for Perdita) is a mongrel – half Catholic, half Protestant. She loves to leave behind the painted kerbs, Union flags, and street murals of her Belfast home to visit the nearby shore of Belfast Lough, but her parents don’t take her often enough. Her mother has told her stories of her own youth spent by the Antrim coast, and has promised to take her to see the birds this summer, both residents and migrants, that nest in the reeds and bushes of the mudflats and lagoons of the lough.
Purdey and her family’s lives are shattered that fateful summer when she is an unseen witness to what appears to be a terrorist attempt on her father’s life following a stand off with the IRA. His crime? He refuses to hand over his young Catholic assistant for “punishment” after an unspoken transgression. Unknown to anyone else, Purdey catches a glimpse of the uncovered face of one of the gunmen, and recognizes him.
Not long after, Purdey’s mother is also struck down by a catastrophic brain haemorrhage, leaving her comatose in the city hospital, deep in the Republican part of town where Protestants fear to tread.
With both her parents afflicted by misfortune, Purdey faces an overwhelming dilemma: tell the grown ups that she knows who shot and injured her father, or say nothing and live with the terrible knowledge. Either way, her life and the lives of those close to her are in danger.
The violence surrounding Purdey’s family and neighbours escalates, culminating in the senseless double murder of a pair of young Catholic brothers, shocking even the battle weary Loyalist residents of Troubles torn Ulster.
Together with help from some unlikely allies, Purdey must find her way through the fear and hatred in her community, and the betrayals by those closest to her. All is not as it seems, and loyalty is no longer a word upon which anyone can rely, on either side of the political and religious divide.
NaNoWriMo is a fantastic concept for the budding novelist – the National Novel Writing Month which takes place annually in November saw more than 300,000 budding writers take up the challenge of writing a 50,000 novel in 30 days for the 2013 contest.
I signed up in 2013, like so many others thinking this would be a great vehicle, tool and inspiration to knock out my début novel, which has been kicking around in my head and on Word documents and spreadsheets, scattered and unfinished. I made a valiant effort, but I failed miserably, and that failure took a while to overcome – what had meant to be a boost to my writing brought it to a temporary, but ignominious halt.
We often refer at work to the Five P’s of success: corny but accurate:
“Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance”
My initial white-hot frenzy of creativity lasted until I reached the part of my novel beyond which I hadn’t planned (not very far indeed as it turned out). I have written quickly and with a very sketchy plan before, but mainly for non-fiction articles, and writing fiction is a very different proposition indeed. My imagination floundered because I couldn’t see where the story was taking me and I had no idea how the novel would end. Unlike non-fiction, I couldn’t Google or Wiki myself out of this writing corner. I had set out with those same disjointed notes and ideas; what I needed wasn’t word count targets, but a well planned novel outline, plot and fleshed out characters with the end in sight, if only viewed from afar!
In this respect NaNoWriMo was very useful for me, although initially dispiriting. I still hadn’t progressed my novel, but I had learned that, just like at work, if I wanted to deliver a quality project, I had to prepare, research, plan and then and only then, deliver.
Throughout 2014 I pondered on my story, trying out different outcomes and story arcs, until towards the end of the year I had my initial plan, which I’ve since fleshed out into a comprehensive outline; more importantly I’ve started to knit together and write-up all those observations, character quirks and beautiful snippets of text, easier now because I have some bones on which to hang the words and ideas. My novel is now progressing at a steady pace, the early chapters captured and ready for beta readers very shortly!
It’s purely a personal preference but the NaNoWriMo experience for me was unpleasantly reminiscent of my cramming for my MBA; something I had to achieve, but with little enthusiasm and little heart; rather it was a memory and speed exercise. Writing is an entirely different activity, and I knew that the output I had from NaNoWriMo was little better than my exam cramming notes. I discarded what I had written, although I cherished the idea and vowed to devote to it the time it deserved.
I have carried a story within me that I must tell, and it deserved my best attention and efforts to help it be born, live and reach a wider audience, and to be the very best I could make it. Another work saying is apposite here – I often say, when asked to produce work to an unrealistic deadline (and what is more unrealistic than a quality novel of 50,000 words in 30 days?) “How would you like this to be done – quickly, or correctly?!”
If like me you struggled with NaNoWriMo, use it as a useful experience on your path to becoming a published author. I am sure that there are some writers out there who can produce a quality 50,000 word draft in a month, but many cannot, and how many of the classics were written to such a deadline? We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, and I took from NaNo a very useful lesson; that style of writing is not for me; more importantly it gave me some insight on what my style was. I’m not going to be a sausage machine writer, but with hard work, diligence, planning and commitment to my work I can produce the best work I have it in me to create.
I’d be very interested to hear your experiences of NaNoWriMo, good and bad, in the comments!
At work I may have many names unknown to me, but one I do know and revel in is “Excel Queen”. I just love spreadsheets; when used properly they have so many uses aside from bean counting and graphs.
Excel permeates every aspect of my life, probably because I am a list person, chart your progress person, and a someone who struggles with time and task management, it helps to note things down in a way that’s easy to sort and prioritise. Conditional formatting and sorting by colour are cool too!
So where’s the connection with writing a novel I hear you ask? I actually thought I was a bit odd, because I use Excel whenever I roll up my sleeves to do some writing. I have a master spreadsheet with tabs for the timeline, plot, a broad chapter summary, and handy character and place name lists (real and fictional).
What I didn’t consider was using a spreadsheet to track my overall progress, and it wasn’t until I Googled whether there were any other weirdos out there like me that I discovered that I’m not alone, and found some other great spreadsheet tools to aid my writing..
Jill Barville has used Excel to create a simple yet very effective Progress Report spreadsheet which tracks word count against weekly targets, and against the overall goal. I’ve used Jill’s template to create my own progress sheet, and it really incentivises me to see what percentage of my novel has been written up, and spurs me on to do more!
I’ve written and publish a dozen or so non fiction (heath, well-being and spirituality) articles, but I decided a long time ago that I wanted to be a novelist. Wanting to be and getting on with it are very different things, and although I’ve been gathering material, carrying out research and messing about with names and plots for a long time, I hadn’t actually sat down with my laptop and written ANY of this story that I have carried around for at least two decades. Last year I committed to actually writing, and finishing the story that burned within me, but it was sporadic.
At the end of last year I had an epiphany; I was scared. Scared that this story wasn’t worth the telling, or more likely, that I could not tell it. It would be feeble, juvenile, leaden writing, boring, cringeworthy.
I sat me down and gave me a talking to. Lets make 2015 the year you write out this story, for better or worse. Write it down, edit, print it out, re-edit, have it beta read, publish or self publish.
So these posts will follow my journey this year. I have set myself a target – to write up my story as an 80-90,000 word novel, and have it ready to publish by the end of this year. The weekly word count isn’t a huge challenge: 1600 – 1700 words. What will challenge me is to see this through, to approach it as I do a project at work, bringing my planning and execution skills to bear on something I am wrangling from my own imagination and history.
Follow my progress here and the progress of my first novel, And The Buntings Flew, together with lessons learned, any new tools I discover to help new writers, and my successes and opportunities to improve. Join me on my journey!