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I’d like to state that this was an outdated notion by the time of my childhood (1970s), but alas the tradition, if not the name of the day, was still in full force in most of the families we knew.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.
Make voyages. Attempt them. There’s nothing else. – Tennessee Williams
Sometimes, rather than peace coming to me “dropping slow“, it’s inspiration. The inspiration to realise my writing dreams waxes and wanes, given the daily grind of job, commute, and paying the bills. Waiting for inspiration doesn’t get things done, and it can be interminably slow in showing up. So slow that it starts to rival the Tar pitch experiment.
But some things do inspire me and give that drip of pitch a helpful jiggle; for example when another piece of my flash fiction is published. Enchanted is a 100-word mini-fantasy tale of a modern fairy with very traditional views of mankind. The story has been published at 101 Fiction; please take a moment or ten to have a read of some of the flash fiction that John Xero is publishing; I especially loved a couple of this month’s stories.
As I’ve written on here previously, flash and short fiction for me is fun, but ultimately a distraction. It’s working without getting the real job done. It’s cleaning the oven when I should be writing my thesis, spring cleaning when I should be researching 1970s Irish fashion and politics.
My dream voyage is to write novels, good novels; with gripping stories, something to say about the nature of humanity and something that I can look back on as jobs well done. As my legacy in fact. Fine, lofty goals, but they require hard work and persistence, planning and delivery, in the face of the daily grind, the daily annoyances and disappointments, or just the daily can’t-be-bothered. If I wait for inspiration, they will languish in the electronic drawer of my Dropbox, forever.
Yesterday was a nice day; cloudy, with bursts of sunshine. I wanted to go out with my husband, but we had to wait at home until 1pm. Then the question was; what do we do now? I couldn’t think of what to do, a destination that wouldn’t involve long drives in a hot car. But I wanted an experience to round out the day. In the end, we “just” went for a walk, along a river, with no destination in mind. That’s not something I’m often comfortable with; I have a project and programme management background in my day job, and I need to have a plan (and a budget) or it’s not happening! But yesterday, I went along with it as I had nothing better to offer.
And we had a lovely time. We found a different route that almost no one else was taking, we strode alongside bushes that trembled with beautiful black and blue butterflies, and we finally reached (on foot) a pub that was on our wishlist, which was as cosy as we’d hoped. We rewarded ourselves for our long walk with a drink or two.
The quote above from Tennessee Williams reminds me; I have to make more voyages, or at least attempt them, because what’s the alternative?
With this in mind, I’ve opened up both my draft novel documents and have renewed my commitment to them both, to complete them! Short fiction might sneak in here and there, but not at the expense of my longer fiction. I might not know how the novels will turn out, but the voyage is not only a worthy quest, it’s an essential part of reaching the goal!
I’ve also booked another week in Northern Ireland in July, to refresh my memory, and to bring new inspiration for And The Buntings Flew. I may discover new butterflies, write about them, and I may have a drink or two. On that note, we discovered the best Guinness in the world (so far) in a pub in beautiful, sleepy Cushendall, on just such another impromptu voyage of discovery; let’s make more voyages, or at the very least, attempt them.
I re-read my 2017 posts last night and really enjoyed this short mystery story that I wrote for Goodread’s #MysteryWeek in May; the idea is to write a short mystery story in no more than five sentences.
Okay, so I pushed the five-sentence rule to the absolute limits of credulity-twelve hundred words! – so I’ve edited the story to more reasonable sentence lengths while minimising any changes to the structure or flow of the story.
It’s a short revenge story set in the land of my childhood; our last home in Northern Ireland overlooked the outer dock and the shores of Belfast Lough.
THE HAND OF KANE
Barbs of rain flayed the granite skin from Napoleon’s Nose and lashed down Cave Hill towards the steel-grey lough and the harbour ring road. The forensic team was clearing out, and the peelers were ducking beneath the tape that surrounded the burnt-out Vauxhall Vectra.
“Here’s what we have so far, from the VRN and ID in the vehicle…”
The young RUC officer’s eyes were pasted to his notebook, not wanting to see again the pathetic contents being zipped into the body bag. One glimpse of the dead man’s right hand had been enough, sloughed off skin, the muscle roasted and shrunk to reveal bones. The rest of his body was cherry red, untouched by fire and intact, apart from a crushing bruise over the right temple.
“James Kane, 54 years old, North Belfast, a cashier at the petrol station convenience store up the street, going by the lanyard around his neck.” He waved his hand along the road that loped around this outcrop from the shore, this dreary hinterland of distribution centres and the outer harbour ferry terminal.
“Thon’s Jimmy Kane – your man did a twenty stretch for shooting those wee Quinn lads, Catholic brothers they were, in the 70s, yonder down the road on the Jennymount estate,” his older companion and superior, Swanson, replied.
“Surprised he’s lasted this long outside – could be a Republican revenge hit. Come on Corr, we’ve had another call, possible suicide down at the city port – still feel like a bite to eat?”
The port of Belfast authority staff had taped a cordon on the dockside, where the body lay close to the ferry that was looming, waiting to return across the North channel to Cairnryan.
“We didn’t see him here for a wee while down there, at the bottom of the rock wall”, explained a harassed port authority supervisor, wiping his forehead, sweaty despite the biting breeze scuttering over the water. The body lay, half in the grey water, snagged on the gabion walls that augmented the natural quayside – male, medium height, rail thin, age maybe mid-sixties.
The trajectory was clear to all who saw his broken body; he’d leaped from the ferry, but not the one currently docked; had they really not noticed him here for four hours, Swanson wondered, dragging his fat, inexorable finger down the printed ferry timetable he was handed by the port supervisor. The previous ferry had docked just before seven this morning.
There was some connection between these two deaths, he mulled, and when Corr called Swanson’s attention to the pair of well-worn leather gloves that lay on the ground just above the body, he knew there was more to this than the suicide of two auld fellas; he had a hunch that probed his hardened but not sclerotic sensibilities, and chilled him more than the wet salt wind that dove deep into the fissures of his craggy features.
Pathology was pending, but the reports would confirm what Swanson knew; Jimmy Kane was knocked out by a mighty blow to the head and left in his still-running car with a hose from the exhaust. He suffered third-degree burns to his right hand, probably inflicted from the half-full canister of petrol by the car.
But it was the body by the ferry that held the key to the double deaths, and it told a tale as old as mankind; 64-year-old Harry Doran, born Harold Kane, elder brother to the deceased in the car, was an exile from Norn Iron for forty years.
The appointment card in his pocket for colorectal cancer treatment suggested he would soon be a permanent exile if he hadn’t taken his own way out, and the door to door plods working the neighbourhood of Jimmy’s home had convinced Swanson there was no need to pull in anyone else, Catholic or otherwise.
Jimmy Kane never moved from his birthplace, reveling in his notoriety, even taking a job close to the home of his victim’s long-suffering parents, but Harry left the province after his brother’s conviction, returning only now when he had his own death sentence –
“But Sarge”, blurted Corr, following this line of reasoning only so far, “I can see he might have wanted to off his brother, family disgrace and all that, although that doesn’t happen too often around here, but this hand and glove business; is it something to do with the flegs?”*
“You’re on the right road”, interrupted Swanson. “My theory is that Harry burned his brother’s hand to show it was a revenge killing, the Red Hand of Ulster and all that; but as to the gloves, take a gander at the items found on Doran’s body.”
He handed a printed sheet to Corr, who scanned the list, none the wiser:
Appointment card for Oncology Department, Royal Marsden Hospital
Order of service card for funeral of Mrs. Roberta Doran, dated one week previously
Leather wallet, same brand as the gloves found on deceased, containing cash and a one-way ferry ticket to Belfast
A pocket bible, Old and New Testament
Three news articles cut from the Belfast Telegraph, various dates; the oldest one covering the 1974 retaliation murder of brothers Matthew and Mark Quinn, a later story about tension in the community after Jimmy Kane was employed close to his victim’s family, and an article on the history and myths surrounding the symbol of the Red Hand of Ulster.
Shakily underlined in felt tip pen on the third sheet of paper, worn smooth from being handled and folded many times, was the following passage:
Some myths tell of a time when Ulster was without a king so a boat race was held; the one whose hand first touched the shore of Ulster would win the crown. One contestant, seeing that he was losing the race, cut off his hand and threw it to shore, thus winning the race.
* Author’s note – “flegs” is how the people of Belfast pronounce the word ‘flag’, but is also used in discussions to encapsulate the opposing loyalist and republican viewpoints of the topic of flags, and when and where they are erected in Northern Ireland, a hotly debated topic that has erupted into violence in the past.
It’s nearly May, and as well as hopes for warmer (or at least consistent) weather, my thoughts have turned to murder mysteries and crime; May 1st – 7th is Mystery Week on Goodreads, and I’m taking part this year!
Goodreads have organised a raft of activities for mystery writers and readers between the 1st and 7th of May; use hashtag #MysteryWeek to search for new stories on social media, including the five sentence mystery feature; below is my offering, which you can also find listed on my Goodreads writing page; I’ve also answered an Ask the Author question on Goodreads that specifically relates to #Mystery week; links to all of these below the story!
In my five (very long) sentence story, my mind took fancy with the revenge motif, but some of the incidents in this story are based on a real life tragedy and also figure in my upcoming novel And the Buntings Flew, which constant readers will know is set in 1970’s Troubles-torn Northern Ireland.
THE HAND OF KANE
Barbs of rain flayed the skin from Napoleon’s Nose and lashed down Cave Hill towards the steel-grey lough and the harbour ring road, where the forensic team had finished off and the peelers were ducking beneath the tape that surrounded the burnt-out Vauxhall Vectra:
“Here’s what we have so far, from the VRN and ID in the vehicle” – the young RUC officer’s eyes were pasted to his notebook, not wanting to see again the pathetic contents being zipped into the body bag; one glimpse of the dead man’s right hand was enough, sloughed of skin, the muscle roasted and shrunk to reveal bones, while the rest of his body was cherry red, untouched by fire and intact, apart from a crushing bruise over the right temple;
“James Kane, 54 years old, North Belfast, cashier at the petrol station convenience store up the street, going by the lanyard round his neck”; he waved his arm along the road that loped around this outcrop from the shore, this dreary hinterland of distribution centres and the outer harbour ferry terminal.
“Thon’s Jimmy Kane – your man did a twenty stretch for shooting those wee Quinn lads, Catholic brothers they were, in the 70s, yonder on the Jennymount estate,” his older companion and superior, Swanson, replied; “surprised he’s lasted this long outside – could be a Republican revenge hit – come on Corr, we’ve had another call, possible suicide down at the city port – still feel like a bite to eat?”
The port authority staff had taped a cordon on the dockside, where the body lay close to the ferry that was waiting to return across the North channel to Cairnryan:
“We didn’t see him here for a wee while down there, at the bottom of the rock wall”, explained a harassed port authority supervisor, wiping his forehead, sweaty despite the biting breeze scuttering over the water – the body lay, half in the grey water, snagged on the gabion walls that augmented the natural quayside – male, medium height, rail thin, age maybe mid-sixties, the trajectory was clear to all who saw his body; he’d leapt from the ferry, but not the one currently in dock; had they really not noticed him here for four hours, since the last ferry had docked – there was some connection between these two deaths, and when Corr called Swanson’s attention to the pair of well-worn leather gloves that lay on the ground just above the body, he knew there was more to this than the suicide of two auld fellas; he had a hunch that probed his hardened but not sclerotic sensibilities, and chilled him more than the wet salt wind that dove deep into the fissures of his craggy features.
Pathology was pending, but the reports would confirm what Swanson knew; Jimmy Kane was knocked out by a mighty blow to the head and left in his still-running car with a hose from the exhaust; he had suffered third-degree burns to his right hand, probably inflicted from the half-full canister of petrol by the car, but it was the body by the ferry that told a tale as old as mankind; 64-year-old Harry Doran, born Harold Kane, elder brother to the deceased in the car, and an exile from Norn Iron for forty years; the appointment card in his pocket for colorectal cancer treatment suggested he would soon be a permanent exile if he hadn’t taken his own way out; door to door in the neighbourhood of Jimmy’s home had convinced Swanson there was no need to pull in anyone else, Catholic or otherwise; Jimmy never moved from his birthplace, revelling in his notoriety, even taking a job close to the home of his victim’s long-suffering parents, but Harry left the province after his brother’s conviction, returning only now, when he had his own death sentence –
“But Sarge”, interrupted Corr, following this line of reasoning only so far, “I can see he might have wanted to off his brother, family disgrace and all that, although that doesn’t happen too often around here, but this hand and glove business; is it something to do with the flegs…” –
“You’re on the right road”, interrupted Swanson, “my theory is that Harry burned his brother’s hand to show it was a revenge killing, the Red Hand of Ulster and all that; but as to the gloves, take a gander at the items found on Doran’s body.”
He handed a printed sheet to Corr, who scanned the list, still none the wiser:
Appointment card for Oncology Department, Royal Marsden Hospital Order of service card for funeral of Mrs. Roberta Doran, dated one week previously Leather wallet, same brand as the gloves, containing cash and a one-way ferry ticket to Belfast A pocket bible Three news articles cut from the Belfast Telegraph; the 1974 retaliation murder of brothers Matthew and Mark Quinn, a later story about tension in the community after Jimmy Kane was employed close to his victim’s family, and a historical article on the myths surrounding the symbol of the Red Hand of Ulster; shakily underlined in red felt tip was the following passage – “Some myths tell of a time when Ulster was without a king so a boat race was held; the one whose hand first touched the shore of Ulster would win the crown – one contestant, seeing that he was losing the race, cut off his hand and threw it to shore, thus winning the race.”
I’ve just returned from a three-day break to Northern Ireland; the trip was definitely a mix of pleasure and writing research – the first thing I did after checking in at the wonderful Europa Hotel (the most bombed hotel in Europe) was to head for the Belfast Central Library Newspaper archive.
And The Buntings Flew, the novel I’m half way through writing, is based in 1970s Northern Ireland, specifically, Belfast and those of you who have read my blog posts will know that it’s at least partly autobiographical, with a generous pinch of artistic licence.
My research at the newspaper archive bore some fruit, but this success was tinged with sadness and uncertainty; the Troubles left very few families untouched, and I now have to contemplate and investigate the new information I uncovered.
Despite any unease I felt while reading through the microfiches from 1975 and 76, they did offer, for a writer, a wonderful window on the past. I was particularly interested in the world news, and closer to home, the adverts; in 1975 the Northern Ireland government had members warning that if the UK voted to join the EEC (Common Market, and we did), that it would grow from a trade agreement to a federation of European states with a loss of UK sovereignty, which was a very topical read!
Some of the job adverts would be illegal today; some jobs called for “men”, “Christians”, and the jobs that females could apply for often called for “girls!” Such was life in the 1970s.On the plus side, a three-course meal with entertainment could be had from as little as £1.20 per head at a selection of Belfast hotels and restaurants!
I’ll be posting some more about some of the information I found in the archive library, but for now, I just wanted to post some pictures from our trip of the wonderful places to visit in Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland (we confined ourselves to County Antrim on this trip.)
I’m also pleased to relate that I brought back lots of Thompsons Tea and vegetable roll, both Northern Irish treasures that I wrote about in my article lauding the Foods of Ulster!
This is just a quick night post to proudly announce that one of my flash fiction stories has been published by Richard Hearn at Paragraph Planet, a brilliant creative writing site that has published one 75-word story every day since 2008. I’m very pleased to have my story featured as the 27th March entry!
Please check the site out, it has an archive of all 1,600 plus stories published, as well as author interviews and bios.
I recently read a great article in the Guardian Food in Books series by blogger Kate at The Little Library Cafe; – you can read the latest article here.
Kate writes about the food that features in some of her favourite books, and she often recreates recipes for foods as described in such classics as To Kill A Mockingbird, The Fellowship of The Ring, and Vanity Fair.
I love this idea, and it got me thinking about the food that’s featured in the novel I am writing, And The Buntings Flew, which is set in 1970s Belfast.The food of Northern Ireland was and still is very traditional, and may seem limited (not much pasta or rice was in evidence, and salads were sorry affairs), but Irish meat, dairy produce and vegetables are of world class quality, and food was often bought fresh from the butchers and grocers, when shopping was a little-and-often affair before the widescale introduction of supermarkets.
Below I’ve listed eight of the Northern Irish food and drinks you can read about in And The Buntings Flew, and if you find yourself in Ulster, please do try as many as you can!
Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have their own popular tea brands, one of which is Thompson’s “Punjana”. In the 1970s, the period in Which And The BuntingsFlew is set, loose leaf tea was the norm; I still think it’s more flavourful, although spitting out errant tea leaves is one of its drawbacks. One of my memories of my late father is of his never being more than a few feet from either a mug, cup, teapot, flask or bottle of strong white tea.
The BBC asked if the Ulster Fry was the best-cooked breakfast in the UK, and the answer to that is surely a resounding yes! What’s so special about a wee fry you ask? For me it’s the addition of the Potato and Soda breads, adding a range of glorious flavours and textures that toast simply can’t match. Vegetable roll is also a winning addition to the cooked breakfast, as are the wonderful Irish sausages, which usually have a higher meat content than their mainland counterparts; put them all together and you have a taste extravaganza and a meal that sets you up for the rest of the day!
A cheap, simple but wonderful dish celebrating the potato and made even better with flavourful Irish butter; potatoes mashed with butter and milk, with the addition of chopped spring onions, or scallions as they’re known in Northern Ireland. The scallions give the mash a real tangy kick.
Dulse (Palmaria Palmata)is a strongly flavoured, salty seaweed that grows on the northern coasts of the Atlantic, including Northern Ireland. Dulse is harvested at low tide by hand during the summertime and then dried.Dulse can be found for sale in little plastic bags at markets, fairs and bars; we always bought a few bags on day trips to Ballycastle, where it is also sold at the Ould Lammas Fairin August. It is something of an acquired taste!
Another potato dish, this reminds me of Sunday evening teatimes and was often in evidence if there wasn’t much in for dinner. The main ingredient is leftover mashed potatoes mixed with plain flour, a pinch of salt and a knob of butter or a drop of buttermilk if available. Potato bread is dry fried in a pan or griddle, is quick and easy to make and is absolutely delicious. A true Ulster Fry must include both Potato bread and soda bread, at least in my family!
Soda bread was created in the 19th century when locals used baking soda and buttermilk for raising agents as a substitute for yeast. Soda bread is divinely soft and fluffy, and is served either fried or sliced with butter (my preference) on its own or as part of an Ulster Fry.
I have happy memories of munching bagfuls of crunchy bright Yellowman on days out to the seaside, but I haven’t seen it outside Northern Ireland; it is similar in texture to the bags of honeycomb you can still buy at fairs and markets, but chewier, with a hard, rock-like “rind”.
The name “vegetable roll” is a total misnomer for this sausage-like roll of fatty meat (often beef brisket and rib trimmings) seasoned with onion, carrot and celery. Vegetable roll can be served in an Ulster Fry or on its own with potatoes or champ, or with mashed carrot and swede. My wonderful late aunt always brought home a batch whenever she returned to East Belfast.
I’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried any or all of the above Northern Irish food favourites, or if you feature any of them in your writing?
(With grateful thanks to the following websites and blogs)
Wikipedia defines Norn Iron as “an informal and affectionate local nickname used… to refer to Northern Ireland, derived from the pronunciation of the words “Northern Ireland” in an exaggerated Ulster accent (particularly one from the greater Belfast area). The phrase is seen as a lighthearted way to refer to Northern Ireland, based as it is on regional pronunciation.”
The Northern Irish accent is distinctive, some say unique, and is unmistakable; as such it poses a challenge to writers who need to write Northern Irish dialogue. A similar issue faces writers of broad Scots dialogue. I read Trainspotting in 1994, and was transfixed by the stories, but I was also impressed with Irvine Welsh’s use of Scottish vernacular and phonetic spelling to convey the sounds of the words as they would have been spoken by the characters.
From the inception of my novel And The Buntings Flew, which is based largely in Belfast, I planned to include as much local dialect, both street vernacular and the peculiarities of Ulster-English dialect in my story; I want to reflect the way the people who inspired the book spoke, and still speak. I also want to make the story accessible to all; I have a couple of friends who didn’t finish Trainspotting because they struggled with the language used, whch is a great pity. So I’ve decided to use the key phrases and words I recall from my own childhood in Northern Ireland, and those ones that I hear most frequently whenever I return. Hopefully I’ve captured an authentic slice of Northern Irish dialogue without overusing words that many readers may be unfamiliar with.
My use of “Norn Iron” is therefore in no way exhaustive! If you’re interested in finding out about more Norn iron words, In Your Pocket has a great introduction, with lots of very colourful and expressive phrases! 🙂
Having said that, I’d love to hear from you if you can suggest any more common words and phrases I may have overlooked. All of the phrases below are used somewhere in And The Buntings Flew; I hope you enjoy them and don’t have to refer back to this glossary too much!
Norn Iron Word/Phrase
Are you getting?
Are you being helped/served?
Away in the head
Am not (e.g. Amnt I? – Am I not?
Mouth (from beak)
Bout Ye/What About Ye
How are you? Greeting
Catch yourself on!
Agreed, absolutely, OK, or great, perfect
Fried breakfast (Ulster Fry)
Is that you?
Are you finished/ready?
Shopping (usually for groceries)
Ice cream cone
A lot, very
See you? Heres me!
Thats what you think/say, but heres my opinion
See (this thing/person/situation)
An exclamation of annoyance/frustration, calling attention to something
So it is/do it does!
Yes it is/yes it does
The day/The night/The morra
The dogs on the street know
Something which is common knowledge
Wait till I tell you
I must tell you this
Quite often in a sentence where not grammaticality required, e.g. ‘shut you your bake!
I try to ensure I always have the means of making a note close to hand; Evernote on my phone and tablet, a notebook and pen in my bag, a voice record option on my phone. Post-it note pads everywhere. You never know when a great idea will spring to mind! But sometimes circumstances prevent me noting a potentially blockbusting idea or plot twist, such as driving to and from work along the M25. Luckily I have had a passenger sharing many of my commutes recently; my beloved son. We were talking the other day about my novel’s progress and some of my ideas to address a plot gap I have arrived at (picture my brain sat in a ten junction M25 traffic jam!)
A Plot Breakthrough
I’m nearly half way through writing And The Buntings Flew. I know how the story will end, and the main characters are all either in the draft or captured on my timeline and characters spreadsheet. But I had a thorny issue; I need to join two major strands of my story, and this will need to involve some fairly young characters. I am also keen to include some Irish folklore in my story but in a natural, realistic manner, as befits the tone of the story and what happens to some of the main characters.
Minor spoilers ahead; my main character is a young girl living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s during “The Troubles” who (maybe!) identifies a terrorist who attacked a member of her family; she subsequently struggles to share her secret with the adults in her life. She is sent away for a short while to stay with friends, and this is the point at which events accelerate to a thrilling climax! I planned for this character (Purdey) to witness the aftermath of another violent event, and I wanted a suitable foreshadowing.
Playing with friends in a reputedly haunted house was one idea I had, based on a “real” house near my own childhood home (elements of the novel are based on my own childhood). In discussing this with my son, we veered off on a tangent to discuss Irish myths and folklore; phone in hand he was able to Google as we spoke and I told him of the Irish spirit, the Banshee. The idea of the children believing the house was haunted appealed to me, and had been mentally penciled in previously, but I only had a vague idea of the Banshee’s characteristics; we discovered that not only is she meant to be the spirit of a murdered woman who cries and wails to warn of an imminent, nearby death, the Banshee was also believed to be particularly attached to people with (Irish) surnames that have an “O” or “Mc” prefix.
This is where the synchronicity/coincidence occurred, as it has often done before when writing; the characters I have planned to be the victims of a shooting are two young brothers, whose surname begins with “Mc”. Another fact I wasn’t consciously aware of was that a possible explanation for the origin of the Banshee is the eerie, pronounced screech of the Barn Owl, common in Ireland as it hunts by night. Birds feature very prominently in And The Buntings Flew, both in terms of the plot and thematically; here was an Irish supernatural Folklore figure that might also have a prosaic, real life explanation; the screech of a bird! It fitted beautifully into the story and is an elegant segue to the next sequence of events in the story.
Feeding the Unconscious, Creative Mind
More synchronicity was in the air when I read The Creative Penn’s Joanna Penn discussing her creative writing process, in which she describes coincidence and synchronicity as almost magic or supernatural elements that commonly occur in the creative process of writing.
I think there are many reasons for this phenomenon, many of which centre around our individual and collective unconscious; Joanna Penn discusses the idea of the Jungian Archetypes(which I will visit in a future post!) but equally important I believe are the elements at work on the run up to these coincidences making their way to your conscious attention. By this I mean the process of planning and immersing oneself in a creative work; for me that consists of capturing the initial idea, making copious notes, as and when ideas spring to mind, researching just as hard as I did for my MBA dissertation, and devoting to the idea of my story a single-minded vision and attention, even when not actively writing. Travelling and visiting locations where I can carry out primary or secondary research (the location itself or resources such as museums, churches, news archives etc) are all elements in priming the unconscious to offer up these scraps of information that then seem to “magically” work for your creative endeavour.
Creative Feedback Loops
I originally had an equation as the title of this post:
This was an attempt to summarise my creative process for writing fiction; but there are other ways of stimulating the collective unconscious to offer up synchronicities, even if you aren’t able to do much external research or travel. Blogging helps me practice the art of writing, and posts such as these are a feedback loop; thinking and writing about elements of the story prompts me to read and research more, leading to more ideas and prompts, in a “virtuous circle” or creativity!
I am also enjoying my recent initiation to Twitter; I enjoy finding relevant quotes or information about my story or the writing process, and reading the thoughts and views of others; used judiciously (and not allowing it to devour all my time!), Twitter is proving another useful creative tool, as is the Pinterest board I created for And The Buntings Flew(thanks for another great idea Joanna Penn! 🙂 )
Have you had similar coincidental/synchronicitous breakthroughs with your story? I’d love to hear from you with your experience!