My writing, NaPoWriMo, Poetry, Writing

NaPoWriMo Day 2 -Rosemary

Rosemary

It’s the thirteenth today;
touch wood.
So long I’ve waited, and it has to be this day?
Still, I’m doing what I longed for
this last three years.
But here’s me, crouched in a toilet,
fiddling with wires,
and I’m to be a teacher!
But the cause is right,
and casualties regrettable.
Touch wood.

18 year old female member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
One of four people killed in a premature explosion at a shop in North Street, Belfast, as she was assembling a bomb on the premises.

My writing, NaPoWriMo, Poetry

NaPoWriMo Day 1 – Linda

Linda

Her da
would sing to her;
two years gone now,
but loyalty, that widow maker, lingers.
His name, etched in stone and statistics
troubles her.
So she gives it a shot,
puts on the serge green, walks the beat;
patrols her home town, still a teen.
Green,
she sticks her neck out,
and the song continues as her life bleeds
across the street.

19 year old female member of the RUC.
Died nine days after being shot while on foot patrol in Londonderry.

Murals, Belfast, 2016
My writing, NaPoWriMo, Poetry, Writing

NaPoWriMo 2019 – 30 Poems in 30 Days

I’ve previously written about my failed experiment with NaNoWriMo and why writing a 50,000 word novel to order in 30 days wasn’t for me.

And yet, in a moment of madness and inspiration (I’ve just discovered Northern Irish poet John Hewitt), I’ve made a commitment to write a poem a day for the 30 days of April 2019, starting today.

NaPoWriMo, or National Poetry Writing Month, is an annual creative writing project in which participants commit to write a poem a day for the month of April. There is no award, or prize – completing the challenge is the prize!

So I’ve signed this site up as a NaPoWriMo participant site 

You can follow all the poems throughout April on the #NaPoWriMo hashtag on Twitter.

Writing prompts are available on the NaPoWriMo site or you can go freestyle as I intend to. The theme of my poems will be “tales from the Troubles” – I’ve been carrying out research using Ulster University’s CAIN website ( Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland) for several years now for my novel-in progress, and the sheer number of names and faces, casualties and victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is overwhelming. My aim is to take random entries from a year (1976) and write a short poem, based on their age, sex, location and any details provided in the CAIN archives.

I want the poems to be a reminder of the lives of people who, apart for their loved ones, are now a footnote in history, a couple of lines of text and maybe a black and white picture on a political history website.

Wish me luck, and let me know if you’re participating in NaPoWriMo too.

 

Helen's Bay, County Down, Northern Ireland
Poem of the Month, Poetry

Poem of the Month -Neither an Elegy Nor a Manifesto, by John Hewitt

I’ve just discovered the poetry of Belfast-born writer John Hewitt, which is a shocking oversight for someone writing a novel based in Belfast during the Troubles.  But then his name is somewhat overshadowed by those other dazzling Northern Irish luminaries:  Seamus Heaney, Louis MacNeice, CS Lewis and Frank Ormsby. I read the poem below and immediately ordered a copy of his Selected Poems, which I’ve been devouring ever since.

If I could put into so few words my sense of conflicted pride, identity, loyalty, pain and longing for Northern Ireland, they would read like this poem, which was chosen to be read out at the site of the Omagh car bombing on the tenth anniversary of the atrocity in 1998, where thirty-one people were murdered by the Real IRA splinter group, who opposed the ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement. This poem also came to mind when I read of the decision to prosecute “Soldier F” for the murder of civilians during 1972’s Bloody Sunday in Derry/Londonderry

Very unusually for the period, my Northern Irish parents were “mixed”, that is, one was Protestant, the other Catholic. My relationship with my Northern Irish heritage and identity, my fellow countrymen and women and how they have affected my family, and the families of most people I know from the region can be read in Hewitt’s appeal to “bear in mind” the dead.

Remembrance, loyalty and justice are words that have been worn out on all sides by the spilling of so much blood, and by a willingness to turn away from deeds committed in a country of incredible natural beauty and otherwise welcoming inhabitants; a time, place and people that are still overlooked and misunderstood by many.

John Hewitt: Selected Poems

NEITHER AN ELEGY NOR A MANIFESTO

BY JOHN HEWITT (1972)

For the people of my province
and the rest of Ireland

Bear in mind these dead:
I can find no plainer words.
I dare not risk using
that loaded word, Remember,
for your memory is a cruel web
threaded from thorn to thorn across
a hedge of dead bramble, heavy
with pathetic atomies.

I cannot urge or beg you
to pray for anyone or anything,
for prayer in this green island
is tarnished with stale breath,
worn smooth and characterless
as an old flagstone, trafficked
with journeys no longer credible
to lost destinations.

The careful words of my injunction
are unrhetorical, as neutral
and unaligned as any I know:
they propose no more than thoughtful response;
they do not pound with drum-beats
of patriotism, loyalty, martyrdom.

So I say only: bear in mind
those men and lads killed in the streets;
but do not differentiate between
those deliberately gunned down
and those caught by unaddressed bullets:
such distinctions are not relevant.

Bear in mind the skipping child hit
by the anonymous ricochet;
the man shot at his own fireside
with his staring family round him;
the elderly woman
making tea for the firemen
when the wall collapsed;
and the garrulous neighbours at the bar
when the bomb exploded near them;
the gesticulating deaf-mute stilled
by the soldier’s rifle in the town square;
and the policeman dismembered
by the booby-trap in the car.
I might have recited a pitiful litany
of the names of all the dead:
but these could effectively be presented
only in small batches,
like a lettered tablet in a village church,
valid while everyone knew everyone,
or longer, where a family name persists.

Accident, misfortune, disease, coincidence
of genetic factors or social circumstance,
may summon courage, resolution, sympathy,
to whatever level one is engaged.
Natural disasters of lava and hurricane,
famine or flood in far countries, will evoke
compassion for the thin-shanked 
survivors.

Patriotism has to do with keeping
the country in good heart, the community
ordered with justice and mercy;
these will enlist loyalty and courage often,
and sacrifice, sometimes even martyrdom.
Bear these eventualities in mind also;
they will concern you forever:
but, at this moment, bear in mind these dead.

 

And The Buntings Flew, My writing, Reading and Books, Writing

Begin at The Beginning -Does My Novel Need a Prologue?

I’ve been thinking about beginnings a lot, since, well, the beginning of this new year.  I’m currently reviewing my manuscript for And The Buntings Flew, having put it away for a few months; that distance allowed me to clean up what I’ve written to date, and forge on with the story. I’ve now got 35,000 words that have been through a couple of rigorous self-edits, and a further 15,000 words of raw dialogue and plot points to revise; that’s more than half of the planned novel length!

But one major issue remained unresolved –  how the novel would open. I’ve written three blocks of text that I couldn’t choose between, and they sat untethered to the main story at the start of the manuscript:

  1. A prologue
  2. Some historical background to the story, and
  3. The start of the action.

It seems obvious now that the story should start at the latest point in the action where the story proper begins, but I had such a lot of good historical background info that pertained to the current story; I had to get it in somewhere, and I also wanted to set the scene with a tableau from the story; where to start?

The Prologue

There’s lots of advice out there about prologues, but the only consensus is “proceed with caution”. When deciding whether to start with my prologue, I considered the following:

  • My prologue wasn’t overly long (about 500 words)
  • The prologue was from the POV of the main character and narrator
  • The prologue featured a vignette from the story, but wasn’t something that I couldn’t include in the main story; it did however set the scene.
  • The prologue wasn’t the scene of a violent or tumultuous event
  • I wasn’t using it as an information dump
  • I wasn’t trying to cram in relevant historical information.  I resisted the temptation to drop a lot of context in the prologue; it was simply the main character and a vignette from her day.

So was the prologue necessary? Was it boring? It was quite short (about three paragraphs and not much happens in it, although it gives a few clues to some other main character motivations and points of view.) Would this turn off readers before they even got to Chapter One, or would they just skip the prologue altogether?

The prologue was pertinent to the story that followed;  it was the perspective of the main character, but was it setting the scene for the main character’s arc? I wasn’t sure about that.  It wasn’t throwing the reader into the middle of any battles, betrayals, plot twists etc, which would be confusing. But, could I incorporate the details contained in the prologue into the main story?

Another point I considered was a quote from The Writer’s Digest’s Brian Klems:  When To Use a Prologue

“A prologue is used when material that you want to include in the opening is out of time sequence with the rest of the story.

On reflection I decided that the scene and its implications in the prologue could be revealed organically through the action; the events were close to the start of the novels’ opening, they weren’t out of time sequence, and would naturally fit after the first main action scene.  So I deleted the prologue from the main manuscript (although I saved it in another file, just in case!), and turned my attention to the next chunk of text that was jostling for pole position in my novel:

(Historical) Background Information

If I’m not including a prologue, how will I share key historical background information with the reader fairly soon into the main story? And The Buntings Flew is set in Belfast during the mid-1970s when The Troubles were in full, devastating swing.

After living here for forty years, I’m still astonished at how few people on the British mainland understand the intricacies of The Troubles; many people assumed my father, with his broad “Norn Iron” accent, was from the Republic of Ireland, or was automatically a Nationalist supporter;  he was frequently asked if he supported the IRA.

With this in mind, I want to include a potted history of the Troubles and the sociopolitical history behind them fairly early on, as an understanding of the Troubles will help the reader follow the story and its themes. To do so, however, you could end up summarising events back to the 1600s!

The Northern Irish are a people with a long memory, and events such as the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, the 1912 Ulster Covenant, the Home Rule Movement and Act of 1914, the 1921 Partition of Ireland and the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960’s are part of the political landscape still, with events such as the annual 12th July parades celebrating the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II.

Obviously, I don’t need to cover all of these events in detail, but it’s important to have a passing understanding of the historical events that led to the Troubles,  which are the background to my story. Although some events are fictionalized, my story is based on real events, so I want the novel to reflect as accurately as possible the landscape of 1970s’ Belfast.

But I also don’t want to scare off readers with huge chunks of historical text; originally, my plan was to incorporate some history via the narrator, as part of the first chapter, but that slowed the action down. If I just had a footnote to add, it might be fine, but as noted above, there’s quite a lot of historical context to understand the situation in 1970s (and current) Northern Ireland, and some readers may have little knowledge of the history behind the events that are central to my story.

The background history I wanted to include was a good two to three pages, a mix of family history intertwined with the history of NI. I thought of having a prologue dealing with the history, via family members, but  when I dropped the prologue,  I toyed with starting chapter one with a rundown on key events; I decided this was too much of an ask for the reader, who at that point would have no idea how long the history lesson would be, with no framework of the main story  visible yet.

In the end, I decided to jump straight into the action with the catalyst event at the start of chapter one,  and introduce most of the main characters and their situations.  Having given the reader a glimpse of the characters, I felt more comfortable dropping some history in chapter two, before resuming the main plot.

I now feel that the manuscript flows; it gets to the story immediately and introduces key characters, leaving a detailed look at the family (and province’s) history to the next chapter. As chapter one has some fairly high stakes events, a page or two of history gives the reader time to absorb what’s just happened before continuing with the story. It feels like a more cohesive read; the vignette from the prologue will be worked into the main story, so nothing is left, and much gained, by streamlining the start of the story.

I’d be interested to hear your views on using prologues and whether your story was well served by including one?

Postscript: A couple of people have asked me about the building in the header image above; it’s the Garrick Bar in Chichester Street, Belfast.

Poem of the Month, Poetry

Poem of The Month – Naming of Parts, by Henry Reed

This month’s poem of the month came to me during a work meeting recently; it was a somewhat attenuated review of some annual targets, and the use of jargon and corporate buzz words led my gaze to fall from the screen and out of the window to the street below. Students from the nearby university were strolling along the road; it was a bright but cold day, and the trees had just the merest suggestion of buds, but still, I could feel Spring; if not in the air, at least on the way.

The corporate terminology continued; lots of standardized acronyms and phrases you would hear in similar-sized organizations.  The students laughed, and moped, and headed for the pub and the express supermarket. The sun shone and the wind whipped the tree branches. My memory presented a poem I had studied for my “O” level English exam; Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts”, an ode to the mechanical and regimented horrors of wars endured by the flower of often-conscripted young men.

I was fifteen and attending a Catholic secondary school when I first read the poem. I surreptitiously googled it and had a re-read, while the presenter of the financial performance presentation flipped onto slide seventeen.

And it was a revelation! I remembered being taught that Reed’s poem contrasted the regimented, dead language and efficiency of the military with the living, reaching beauty of nature in Springtime, but I hadn’t realised how sex-filled the poem was! But that makes sense – Henry Reed was conscripted when he was 27, and wrote the poem the next year; he was still a young man, and many of his peers would be in their teens, or barely out of them;  young men becoming proficient killing and destruction machines, when they should, like the birds, bees and flowers, be busy fulfilling their natural destiny; making love in fact, not war! This was a side of the poem not taught to me by my Catholic teachers, and it was a beautiful surprise, like a bonus poem hidden behind the one I already knew.

Reading the words that narrator used  – the swiveling, easing, glistening, using the finger and strong thumbing, and rapid backwards and forwards – it was clear that this particular soldier, like many of his peers, rejected the philosophy of dealing death on the orders of old men, and chose life and its beautiful, natural and erotic perpetuation.

NAMING OF PARTS

BY HENRY REED (1942)

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have the naming of parts.

Poem of the Month, Poetry

Poem of the Month – The Journey, by Mary Oliver

I’ve just created this new regular feature for 2019, after re-reading some of my favourite poems; it occurred to me that I’d discovered many of them by browsing around online on all sorts of sites, literary and otherwise. Some of these poems have become touchstones in my life,  and I revisit them regularly to refresh my dry and jaded sensibilities, or maybe my thirsting goals.

So I want to pass on some of these favourites, in the hopes that you, constant reader, will discover a new gem of your own.

So to kick us off, I’ve chosen a poem by Mary Oliver, who isn’t exactly an obscure name; she’s one of America’s best-selling poets, and you can find many a quote from her works on Pinterest and Instagram, but I discovered her only a few years ago.

Her style is accessible; it’s not “clever”, full of obtuse words and hard-to-follow metre, but for all its simplicity, her poems, through their worship of nature, give us access to what is fundamental, divine and even sacred in our lives, or perhaps, what should be if it isn’t already.

Having said all of the above, the poem I’ve chosen to start this new series isn’t really an essay on the essence of nature, or at least, not on the surface level. The journey that Mary Oliver speaks of isn’t one perhaps that we all need to undertake; for those who do, however, it is fraught, perilous and painful.

The seeds of my own journey can be found strewn throughout the budding family dynamics described in And The Buntings Flew, but as this is still a work in progress, perhaps I should just state here that I have had to undertake a journey of my own, perhaps several, although it took me many years in some instances to step out the door and start my journey of a thousand miles.


THE JOURNEY

BY MARY OLIVER

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Folklore and History, Food, Travel

Happy Nollaig na mBan, 12th Night, Epiphany 2019!

We took down the last of our Christmas decorations today, as we always do on the 6th January, or the Epiphany; it’s a tradition carried on from my own mother, who insisted almost fearfully that every last scrap of tinsel and turkey must begone by this date, or a calamitous year of bad luck would lie ahead.

I recall as a very young child the decorations coming down and then a visit to one of my mother’s friends for a cup of tea and maybe something light to eat; a cake maybe, or biscuits.

It wasn’t until much later that I recognized this as a hangover from the old Irish tradition of Nollaig na mBan, or  Little Christmas/Women’s Christmas, which is seeing something of a resurgence in the Republic of Ireland, and which my mother’s family may have observed as Catholics.

Nollaig na mBan (pronounced something like “Null-ag na Mon”) marks not only the end of the 12 days of Christmas, the Epiphany, and the deadline for many for the removal of Christmas frippery, but also the day when hard-working Irish wives and mothers would be granted a much-needed break after feeding their large families throughout the Christmas period. Menfolk and children would pick up the reins for this day, while their women met for a break, a breather, a natter and maybe something to eat.

I’d like to state that this was an outdated notion by the time of my childhood (1970s), but alas the tradition, if not the name of the day, was still in full force in most of the families we knew.

Coincidentally my husband prepared Sunday lunch today as I untangled the garden lights and nodding reindeers, once more retired to the garage for eleven months or so, but I’m glad to say that this was a coincidence; I no longer have to slave until the first week in January to get parity of workload around the house for a single day.

So as I boil the kettle for a refreshing cup of Punjana, I wish mammies around the world, Irish or otherwise, a happy Nollaig na mBan, while simultaneously hoping devoutly that it’s just a symbolic break for them, and that the division of labour is more enlightened in their families. img_2246

The Codsway Chip Shop, Bushmills, Northern Ireland
And The Buntings Flew, Food, Travel

For Cod, and Ulster – Northern Ireland’s Enduring Love of Chip Shops

This is a post I wrote on my family history blog in July that I meant to crosspost sooner;  it’s a short musing on food and language in Northern Ireland, both important themes in much of my writing!

via For Cod, and Ulster – Northern Ireland’s Enduring Love of Chip Shops

My writing, Reading and Books

2018 Review – Freeing the Flow and Looking Forward

20160717_172111
Goodnight, Sweet Prince

Hi constant reader, I’m still here, in case you were wondering; I took a summer/autumn hiatus from all things writing; my creative outlets were limited to completing a drawing course, gardening, and some pre-Christmas knitting. I promised to read more (and more physical books – Kindle on a tablet makes it way too tempting to stray back onto the internet) , and although I’ve done some, it’s very hard to wean myself from the online successor to what Harlan Ellison called the Glass Teat (television and American TV culture), ironically now available on innumerable devices, not just the thin black box crouching in my living room.)

I don’t know why, but I ceased pretty much all activity unrelated to work, keeping my home presentable and the odd weekend away to nature, or as close as we could get to it. I don’t know why I was able to draw, but not write; my block extended to anything longer than a To-Do list. I didn’t even update this blog with news of another short story being published;  there are some changes I’d like to make in my life but the time isn’t yet ripe, and frustration is ironically making it even worse to pursue what’s really important to me.

So I’ve fought off the funk and I’m back to writing up ideas and looking unflinchingly at my works in progress. Time away from my writing always provides useful, if uncomfortable perspective, and I’ve found lots of low hanging fruit to edit and possibly some major rewrites, but rather than lamenting this extra work, I feel like I’m putting my best foot forward to write the best fiction I can; this makes me feel a bit better for having whiled away the summer and autumn.

So what have I achieved writing wise since my last update?

I had another short story published in Reflex Fiction, as part of their Summer 2018 long list; Let Me Be Your Fantasy is another morsel of real-life inspiration. During my early thirties, I worked in an office next door to a famous London nightclub, and the pull of the music, the wild outfits, and the exorbitant drinks were strong, but I  mostly resisted. My twenties were fresh in my memory, and to be honest I hadn’t partied much then either, but I still had some lingering regrets that I was more of an introvert and that I’d only really enjoy a nightclub if I shared it with just three friends in the room.

Reflex Fiction published an earlier story of mine, The Shore Road, which features in their first print anthology,  which you can find here:  Barely Casting A Shadow Volume One. Alternatively, you can just read the longlisted stories on their site.

I took another trip to Northern Ireland in July,  and visited many locations along the coastlines of Antrim and Down that featured in my childhood, and possibly in And The Buntings Flew. (Watch this space for a post in early January). Catching the 12th July parades in Belfast brought up so many memories and conflicting emotions that I’m still processing them, and if asked if it was a positive or negative experience, I still couldn’t tell you my answer until I’d uttered it. We also made contact with my father’s only living sister; a link between my past and present was reconnected in a nursing home dayroom where the Lisburn train rattles past residents who no longer require transport.

One of the life events that threw me off-balance was the loss of one of our cats, Kenny, who was put to sleep at the end of November. He was nearly nineteen, and the hole left by his absence is achingly painful. He was regal, imperious, affectionate, clingy, loyal, playful, and deeply nosy – our nickname for him was “The Gaffer”, and he was the bane of anyone making a delivery to our house. I miss him deeply, and I’m sure he’ll crop up in more than a few of my stories.

So constant reader, I’m meeting the New Year with a revamped site, some fundamental rewrites in mind and a renewed sense of time passing; I wish you all a happy, productive and creative 2019, and hope to have the craic again with you soon.