Thursday, July 02, 2015

Writing Historical Fiction - First Drafts, Editing, More Drafts, Crucial Dates.

Jean by John Moir, Rozelle House Galleries
I'm deep into a new novel about the life and times of Jean Armour, Robert Burns's wife, so my blog posts may be few and far between for the next few months although I'll post whenever I can. I'm at that stage where I've done masses of research - a whole year of it - and am now getting the first draft down and it's probably my least favourite part of the whole process. It's when I'm doing it that I always wonder why I chose this profession in the first place. ( Obsession, that's why. Can't not do it.)

I write my first drafts very quickly indeed, but they are awful. I almost never let anyone see them and if I do let somebody see short extracts, I do a certain amount of editing first. Getting to the end is the main aim of the first draft. I type very quickly, often with a complicated timeline beside me on my desk - not quite a plan, more of a skeleton, bones upon which the flesh of the novel must be hung -  and my aim is to tell the story, and let it assume the shape it wants to be. Let it tell me what it wants and needs to be. Let my characters speak.

My first draft is invariably shorter than the final draft because I skip over some bits or shorten them, knowing that if there are questions, the answers will become obvious later on. So a novel that may finish up at about 90,000 words will, in first draft, be more like 70,000 words. In fact it's in writing this first draft that I often find answers to questions, find out why some parts of the novel seem tricky, why something might have happened the way it did.

I'm deeply absorbed. The room can grow cold and dark and I don't notice it. I curse those recorded phone messages about eco friendly boilers or new kitchens, even though I don't answer the phone at all, I just leave the answering machine on. But it's still an interruption that pulls me out of the world of the book. The word count stacks up and I just forge on. Enjoying some of it but disliking quite a lot of the process whenever I become aware of it.

Editing though. Oh I love editing. That first draft is only the beginning. I'll finish it, leave it for a short while, no more than a week, go back to it and work my way through it, adding, extending, deepening all kinds of elements of it. This is a huge pleasure and I can't wait to tackle it. I can't let it alone. I work far into the night and sometimes get up and start early.

The book will now, almost certainly, be much too long. Maybe 10,000 words too long. Maybe more. So I leave it for another little while and then go over it again, pruning and polishing and tightening up and sometimes moving stuff around. Then I print it out. That's when I go through the whole thing with a fine tooth comb in the shape of a pen, and scribble all over it and sometimes even cut the pages up and paste them together elsewhere. That also tends to be when I see where things have gone wrong, and when I pick up lots of typos and infelicities.

Jean Burns's letter to Maria Riddell.

The next job is to type up all those corrections. In prospect I always think it will take forever, but in practice, it doesn't and I can usually do it within a day, two at the most.Then I'll read through it all over again making corrections here and there  - and at that point, it will be sent to my publisher if it's a traditional book and/or editor. If I'm self publishing, I'll set it aside for quite a long time. A couple of months. However it is, there will be a breathing space. And when I go back to it, I'll see everything else I got wrong.

For me, this is an intense process, but once I get going, I tackle each stage quite quickly with gaps in between. Oh, and I read lots of it out loud. Most of it, by the end of the project, but especially the dialogue.

One thing that has fascinated me about this particular novel has been the importance of dates. There is something really intriguing about sorting out a timeline for various people and events in a piece of historical fiction and then realising why some things happened the way they did - purely because of the order in which certain things happened, and the way in which two events occurring at the same time, or within a few months of each other, suddenly make complete sense of why something else might have happened the way it did. I don't want to give anything away at this point, because everything in the novel is still in a state of first draft flux, but this is exactly what has happened with Jean's story - the sudden realisation of something that might have happened in a particular way, just because of what else may well have been going on at the same time.

Of course I'm writing a novel and not an academic text, so to some extent I'm free to make things up. It's just that when the known facts (in some cases little known facts, but facts all the same) back up your wild speculations as an author, there's something deeply satisfying about it all.

If you want to see one or two I did earlier, have a look at The Physic Garden or The Curiosity Cabinet or The Amber Heart - all historical novels where the research and the meticulous working out of certain timelines was important in - to some extent at least - shaping both plot and characters.

You notice I stress that this is the way I do it. Not all writers are the same. This is only one way of tackling it. I have friends who write meticulous first drafts and hate editing. Beware of anyone who tells you this is how it must be done. The only real way to learn how to write - or to learn what suits you - is to wade in there and do it. Several times over.



Saturday, June 13, 2015

An Island that Inspired a Novel: Gigha and The Curiosity Cabinet

Beautiful cover art by Alison Bell

This is the time of year in Scotland, still more or less spring, but with summer fast approaching, that I invariably find myself thinking about the beautiful Isle of Gigha. We didn't visit last year, and I reckon that was the first time in many years that we didn't manage to go, even if only for a few days. Our son paddled in its turquoise seas when he was a little lad. We visited with friends (sometimes with a lot of friends!) and sometimes it was just the three of us and then just the two of us when Charlie grew up. I think all the young people who spent time there have happy memories of the place.

The island is bathed in golden light.
We are planning to try to get there later in the year, perhaps in September or October when the place is full of luscious brambles (blackberries if you're not reading this in Scotland!) and the whole island seems often to be bathed in golden light. But my favourite time of year there is still May with its oceans of primroses, violets and then bluebells, or June and early July when the place seems to be awash with wild flowers of all kinds, armies of foxgloves, buttery honeysuckle. As Manus, one of my characters in The Curiosity Cabinet says to Henrietta Dalrymple, when she asks him for plants and bulbs to make a garden, 'Henrietta, the whole island is a flower garden.' And of course it is.

The whole island is a flower garden.
Two of my novels have been inspired by Gigha: The Curiosity Cabinet and (rather more loosely, but still recognisable) Bird of Passage. Both stories are fictional, and so are all the characters, but the landscape is a different matter. And of course I've also written a big non-fiction book about Gigha, a gallop through the prehistory and history of the people of the island: God's Islanders. I can't quite leave it alone!


Ardminish Bay
My husband, artist Alan Lees, feels much the same - and he has painted it on more than one occasion: the picture on the left is Ardminish Bay with the boathouse restaurant in the background and yes - the sea really can be that colour. The air is so clean and there are days when the colours seem to be impossibly vivid.

The Curiosity Cabinet has been available worldwide as an eBook on Kindle for some years now and I've just uploaded it all over again - not with any real changes, but with a few tiny edits and with a sample chapter of Bird of Passage at the end.

I'm in two minds about these 'bonus chapters' myself because I know how frustrating it is to think that you have another chapter to go in a book and to suddenly find that it has ended, and what you thought was more of the novel is actually an extract from another book altogether! But I hope readers will forgive me, because it doesn't seem quite so bothersome in an eBook and besides, Bird of Passage is another novel set in a similar island landscape and I have a feeling that if you enjoy The Curiosity Cabinet you might well enjoy Bird of Passage too. It's a bigger, sadder and more disturbing novel altogether than the rather gentle tale that is The Curiosity Cabinet but the island landscape plays a big part.

I've also published both these novels to various other platforms including Apple, so you should be able to find them pretty much anywhere you want. The Curiosity Cabinet was published in paperback some years ago, but sold out and consequently went out of print quite quickly. Second hand copies do crop up for those who prefer paper, but I'm planning a Print on Demand version as soon as I can find the time to do it. I have a draft of a new novel to finish first!

Still, I'm hoping that paperback versions of  The Curiosity Cabinet and Bird of Passage too will be available before the end of the year.

Manus McNeill? 
The Curiosity Cabinet consists of two interwoven love stories, past and present. Nobody goes back in time - although the problems of the past may be continued and perhaps worked out in the present. It's also a story about the way in which small and rather magical islands such as this one can feel as though they hold the whole history of the place, layers of it, one on top of another. 'Thin places' where the boundaries between past and present seem to be somehow blurred.

So - if I've whetted your appetite a bit, here's a little extract from the present day story. After an absence of twenty five years, Alys has returned to the island where she used to come on holiday. And in her hotel, she has come across the 'curiosity cabinet' of the title - not really a curiosity cabinet at all, but an old, very valuable and very beautiful casket, embroidered with traditional raised work.

'Presently she takes her drink and finds the residents’ lounge again. It is still empty, so she moves about the room examining pictures. They are large oil paintings, grim death rather than still life: birds, their feathers tumbled and bloody, hunks of meat, overflowing platters of fruit and vegetables. There is the inevitable stag, on a heathery hill. There is a grimly handsome highlander, staring pensively into the distance. There are a few portraits of bald-headed, pot-bellied, self-satisfied old men, so dark as to be almost indistinguishable from each other.

And then she comes upon a display case of mahogany and glass. There are objects, neatly arranged on three shelves. But the casket is central. The casket has raised, heavily embroidered panels on a wooden base and little gilded feet. The scenes are biblical. A woman stands breast high amid the growing corn. She is Ruth. ‘Whither thou goest I will go … thy people shall be my people,’ thinks Alys, surprised by her own knowledge, remembering the words from some long-ago reading, a school service perhaps. She hasn’t been to church in years. There are birds and flowers too: long-necked swans and plump seagulls, honeysuckle, wild roses with their centres formed of tiny seed pearls, drooping foxgloves.

The embroidery has faded over time but only a little. The two front doors are open to reveal five drawers, two wide and three narrow, also embroidered with flowers and birds and beasts. There is a tall house in grey silk, with fragments of mica for windows.

She can still hear the child pattering about, giggling.

Other objects, presumably the contents of the cabinet, are spread out on the shelves above and below it. Here is a miniature shuttle, prettily inlaid with gold, and with a few discoloured threads still attached. Here is a needlelace collar, very fine and floral. Here is a tiny pincushion, a painted silk fan and a coral teether. On another shelf is a hand mirror, intricately decorated with semi-precious stones in the shape of flowers: forget-me-nots and pansies. Alongside these precious keepsakes, she is puzzled to see a little collection of pebbles and shells and swansdown. Finally there is a scrap of yellowed paper, with a few words of incomprehensible writing: a letter? A poem? Alys is enchanted by these things and suddenly possessed by the need to know more about them. 

Slowly but surely, Alys finds out more about them: who made the casket and why, who owned it and its contents, what became of it, and what is the connection with her childhood playmate, island fisherman, Donal. And perhaps most important of all, who was the mysterious chieftain of the island, Manus McNeill, who had some great treasure which he lost, and who took to himself a bride from the sea? 

But the islanders are people who can 'keep a secret for a thousand years' and it's only when you belong that you can understand the truth of that hidden past. 

























Monday, May 25, 2015

A Passion for Pinterest

Pretty much everything's on Pinterest.
I blogged about my passion for Pinterest for Authors Electric this month - and since it elicited quite a big response I thought it worth reblogging here. I just love Pinterest. But I think it’s one of those sites you either love to bits or don’t get at all. Whatever your passion in life, whether it's art or cookery or costume, you'll find something to enjoy.

It's an interesting fact that women use Pinterest more than men. I don't know if things have changed over the last few years - perhaps they have - but in 2012 it was skewed 70% / 30% in favour of women and anecdotally, I still find that my female friends 'get' it more than the men. Moreover, this fascinating little piece of analysis here suggests that 'women use it as a wish list while men use it as a shopping cart.'  If we can't have the thing or person or place - and demonstrably we can't - a little fantasy will do, whereas male users eye things up rather more covetously. It seems a fairly sweeping statement, but there may be a germ of truth in it. 

.Poldark, what else? I've included a heroine in the interests of balance. 

Equally beautiful Luke
No surprise then, that our 'wish lists' often include heroes. Especially if we're writers. But many readers seem to enjoy collecting heroes too and as writers, we forget that at our peril. Beautiful Aidan is repinned constantly. As is equally beautiful Luke Pasqualino from the Musketeers.

I am, however, using that word 'hero' fairly loosely in the sense of main protagonist or main character, but if you write 'grown up love stories' - as I often do - it certainly helps to have a hero that you, as the writer, can fall in love with too, however flawed, however troubled.

Perhaps in some sense Pinterest has evolved into a safe space where women can indulge their fantasies, whether they come in the shape of chocolate cakes to die for (perhaps literally) or fit young men ditto. Is that an uncomfortable thought? Men sometimes find it so. The women of my acquaintance, not so much. But of course it's much, much more than that.

Chocolate cakes to die for.
Visually, it’s a feast. Displacement activity central. Millions of images, ideas, foods and recipes of course, costume, people, places, interiors, exteriors, links to websites – you name it you’ll find it on Pinterest. The idea is that you set up virtual boards, name them and post pictures on them. I can already hear some of you saying 'what's the point?' But does there have to be a point? Pinterest is for casual browsing as much as anything else. It's serendipitous. You find out about things you never knew existed. Like the Dragon's Blood Trees of Socotra.  I’ve got twenty three boards at the moment: pottery, textiles, ice hockey, my own doll’s house ... some are purely for fun. Some are incredibly useful for a writer. And some are a mixture of both. You can search on the site itself and whatever your project, you’re almost certain to find something useful. Or you can upload pictures of your own and help to inspire other people in turn. I should add that you don't have to 'look after' these boards in any way. They are there, like albums, for you to browse if you want to. Or track back through links to read more: recipes, costume history, gardening hints.

This only works, because you can borrow images from people and they can borrow from you, and pin your pictures to their boards. Again, if you don’t like this idea, you'd be wise to steer clear. But you’ll often find fascinating boards in this way because other people’s obsessions may well coincide with your own.

Something from one of my 'secret' boards.
You can also have ‘secret’ boards that nobody else can see. This facility is very useful for a writer who might want to amass all kinds of images, but not necessarily for public consumption. Not immediately, anyway. Later, of course, a secret Pinterest board can be made public and can become a promotional tool. It may be helpful for communicating with a cover artist, but – once the project is up and running – readers may also find a Pinterest board more engaging, more inspirational than a dry and occasionally daunting list of ‘questions for reading groups.’ 

 You can find one for The Amber Heart here,  for Orange Blossom Love here and a small but interesting board for Bird of Passage. I’ve also made a huge board for Jean Armour, my current project, This is the first where I've consciously and consistently used Pinterest as a research tool and a place for storing lots of miscellaneous images whose relevance may not be immediately obvious to anyone except me. It's positively stuffed with images: costume, old pictures, jewellery, furniture, people and places - but for the moment, it's 'secret' and nobody else will get to see it until I’m ready.
A little bit of inspiration for The Amber Heart

Why is it all so compulsive? 

I’m not sure. But whenever I start on a new writing project, I like to surround myself with all kinds of visual images and prompts, sources of inspiration, books, maps, pictures and I think this is the online equivalent of a series of ‘mood boards.’ 

You either like that – or you don’t. And if you don’t then Pinterest probably isn’t for you. Many artists and craftspeople find it invaluable. Gardeners too. And interior designers. If you’re into baking, there are pages and pages of mouthwatering images and recipes. And obviously it’s a great research resource for costume in particular where you can find collections of vivid images from a multitude of times and places, often with helpful notes and links back to extraordinarily useful blogs and websites. Where else could I have found out exactly what a 'lutestring silk' gown might look like?

Happily, once you start to look for and gather images, the site will respond by showing you lots more. When I logged on just now, it was to find a mouthwatering collection of beautifully preserved antique dresses, because that’s what I’d been looking at earlier. I could have used Google but it would have taken a whole lot longer and thrown up less interesting and targeted results. 

It's research,  Jim, but not as we know it. 













Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Physic Garden on a Kindle Daily Deal - Another Grown Up Love Story.


Today, that's 20th May, the Physic Garden is on Amazon on a Kindle Daily Deal, for one day only, so if you haven't read it and you're fond of historical fiction, you can give it a go for 99p. It was the Sunday Times's pick of historical fiction last spring and their reviewer liked it very much.

The physic garden of the title is the old medicinal herb garden of the mediaeval college of Glasgow University, back when it was in the centre of town, quite close to the cathedral. I never realised, when I named the book, how many people would read that word as psychic. But there's nothing spooky about it, although I'm not averse to writing about the paranormal! Just not in this novel.

When students studied botany back in the very early 1800s, they needed plant specimens and the physic garden was supposed to supply them. But at that time, the garden was suffering from industrial pollution from the nearby type foundry, and was dying. The lecturer in Botany, Dr Thomas Brown, asks William Lang to go out into the surrounding countryside to gather herbs for him and the two men strike up an unlikely friendship. It is on one of these expeditions that William meets weaver's daughter and bee keeper Jenny Caddas, and falls in love with her.

But there's a lot more to it than that. The story is told by William, in old age, looking back on the events of his youth. And we quickly become aware that something bad has happened. What that something is, you'll need to read the novel to find out. This is a book about a terrible betrayal, but also about a city on the cusp of the industrial revolution - a book about medical developments, about the early days of surgery, and how we treat women and their bodies. It's also a story about the painful getting of wisdom.

It's not as racy as some of my novels - Ice Dancing, for instance or Orange Blossom Love - nor as gentle as The Curiosity Cabinet. Nor does it have the big. bold, tragic central story of Bird of Passage (my current favourite!) or The Amber Heart although it's just as heartbreaking. I never seem to be able to write twice in a similar vein although I think the style is all me. But these days, when I'm asked what kind of things I write, I find myself saying 'Grown up love stories' - and that's what this is: literary fiction for sure, the voice a little dry and ironic, because of who is telling it - but essentially a love story. Who loves whom, though - well, that's the interesting part.

There's a Pinterest board too, where you can find out some more about the visual inspiration behind the novel.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Orange Blossom Love - Holiday Reading (and an apology!)

I've spent at least some of the last month or so (in between working away at the Jean Armour novel) revising a novel called Orange Blossom Love in a fairly drastic way. When I first began the project a couple of years ago, I thought it was going to be a trilogy of novels - a Canary Island trilogy in fact. There were two books, Orange Blossom Love and a sequel called Bitter Oranges. With the possibility of a third. But the more I thought about it, the more the idea niggled away at the back of my mind that this really wasn't a trilogy. It was a single big book, a fairly mammoth beach read.

Anyway, a little while ago I unpublished the sequel - fortunately, it has only ever been an eBook and only ever been on Amazon's Kindle store - and set about the task of joining the dots to make this into a single long novel. Which is what it now is, and - I hope - all the better for it.

It needed an edit in any case. There were things about it that I needed to tidy up and that's what I've done. But there was also a bit more polishing and pruning to be done, even though I had done masses of polishing and pruning already. I now hope and believe that it's a much better and more satisfying novel, mostly because it doesn't break off at a crucial point but carries the reader on to a satisfactory resolution.

My humble apology is to anyone who bought both books - but to be honest, neither of them was expensive and the single long version isn't so very different that you would notice much as a casual reader. And it hadn't sold that many copies, which I suspect is also because it didn't 'feel' like a series.

It's a big, very sexy, sunny, vacation read. It's about a holiday romance that turns into something a lot more permanent and what follows after - the challenges and joys of a cross cultural marriage. It's set on Tenerife, and La Gomera and - some of it anyway - in Glasgow. If you're contemplating a holiday in the sun this year - or even if you're planning on going somewhere a bit damper - you could do worse than download it onto your eReader. At about 160,000 words, it will keep you going for a while. The good news is that it's also available on Apple, and various other platforms as well as from Amazon.  This is problem the most romantic novel I've ever written, or am every likely to write!

Meanwhile, if you'd like to see some of the images, landscapes - and heroes - that inspired the novel, have a look at my Pinterest Board: Orange Blossom Love Inspirations.

On La Gomera

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Poldark, Aidan Turner and Seeing Your Characters.

broodingly handsome ...
I reckon there's a whole PhD thesis - or several - to be written about the obsession of so many women of all ages with the BBC's recent excellent adaptation of Poldark and the performance of broodingly handsome Irish actor Aidan Turner as the eponymous hero.

Me too.

But I've been a bit phased by how many men seem to have been genuinely upset by the lighthearted lasciviousness of so many of their female social media buddies. You kind of want to pat them on the head and say 'there, there, you do realise it isn't real, don't you?' What happened to the joys of fantasy? I mean my lovely husband doesn't mind at all, perhaps because he has a bit of a thing for Geena Davis. And why not? Although I have to admit, I wouldn't mind if I never had to watch The Long Kiss Goodnight one more time!

This is for my husband!
But I digress.We were talking about the divine Aidan, weren't we?

I could claim, of course, that I was watching it purely for research purposes, because I'm currently working on a novel set in the late eighteenth century and the BBC are exceedingly good on costumes. Well, I did claim that for a while and to some extent it's true. Watching Ross Poldark galloping along those beautiful Cornish cliffs isn't a bad sort of preparation for writing about Scottish poet Robert Burns, also dark, also - allegedly - extremely attractive, galloping along the Galloway cliffs. He did, as well. He rode some 200 miles every week when he was working as an exciseman, although for a lot of that time the weather must have been appalling, so he would have looked a little more like a drowned rat than Poldark, but still ...

Lots of people were saying - with absolute truth - what a good Heathcliff this actor would make. Lots of people were also saying to me what a very good Finn in my novel Bird of Passage, this actor would make. With even more truth, I reckon. But of course Bird of Passage is, among much else, a kind of homage to Wuthering Heights, so it would make sense.

Many of us go through a stage of envisaging actors playing the parts of our characters in our novels and stories. You've only to hang out on Facebook for a while with a few other writers to find out that lots of people do it and I bet even those who don't admit to it are occasionally tempted! We all dream about the film or television option, don't we?

I tend to do this even more, I think, because I have a background as a playwright and quite often a theatre director will say to you, 'Did you have a particular actor in mind' - and equally often you do, whether it's a male or female character. It isn't always possible to secure a particular actor, but you find yourself watching actors, the way they move, the way they handle a particular role, the energy they bring with them, and envisaging them in a part. I sometimes surround myself with photographs of various actors when I'm writing. They're for me, not the readers at that stage. I probably wouldn't describe them in too fine a detail in the actual work though, since each reader brings her own imagination to the book. And that's the way it should be.

But I have to see characters to write about them, and sometimes I'll admit to seeing them played by a particular actor in some hypothetical but much wished for dramatisation.

Turner is Irish, which helps. Finn is Irish too, a Dubliner. He spends his adolescent summers in Scotland, harvesting tatties on an island farm, but his accent would be right. He's a dark and seriously damaged individual - physically strong, mentally vulnerable - and I suspect he would have those kind of good looks that men sometimes grow into: a sullen and silent child who can unexpectedly blossom into a deeply attractive man.

There were times, watching Poldark, when I wanted to write the screenplay for Bird of Passage so much that it hurt! Not least because Eleanor Tomlinson who plays Demelza, would be perfect for my lovely red headed Kirsty in the novel. I've liked her as an actor - and remembered her - ever since I saw her in an excellent film called Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging.

I always think of Bird of Passage - a bit sadly, I'll admit - as the novel that 'got away'. But of course it didn't. It's out there on all eBook platforms now: Amazon, Apple and most other places and in a little while I hope to have it out in paperback as well. So you can find it and read it. But I haven't the foggiest notion why the traditional publishing world rejected it out of hand. It is, when all's said and done, a big story. (Not in the sense of a good story, that's not my call, but in the sense that a whole lot of things happen!) And many readers are enthusiastic about it. Not only do they take the trouble to tell me how much they like it - it seems to stay with them. I love this because these characters have stayed in my head too: poor, unhappy, abused Finn, his gentle friend Francis and sweet, strong, loving Kirsty.

Still, the book is out there now and available and not lurking unseen on my PC where it sat for several frustrating years while a couple of agents asked me if I couldn't come up with 'something just a bit more commercial'.

I still think it would make a film or a Scottish/Irish television co-production. So if you're reading this and looking for a new project, let me know. I have some interesting ideas about casting!










Monday, April 20, 2015

Bird of Passage: Writing About Difficult Things

Inmates of an Industrial School 
I'm reblogging this from a recent post for Authors Electric. It seems worthwhile extending the discussion a bit. 

I’ve just revised my novel Bird of Passage – published to Kindle some years ago - before releasing it to various other publishing platforms via Draft 2 Digital – no real changes, just a little bit of much needed editing and reformatting here and there. This was one of my earliest eBook publications and I’ve been aware that it needed attention for some time. I have plans for a paperback later in the year when an engrossing new project allows.

I revamped the blurb as well. And that’s what gave me pause for thought and the idea for this post. The background to Bird of Passage involves an issue or indeed a set of issues that are difficult to write about, problematic, sickening and to some extent neglected or even supressed. My second major professional stage play was a piece of ‘issue based’ drama so I know all about the problems and pitfalls. I’ve even run workshops on it for the Traverse in Edinburgh. But Bird of Passage is – and feels – very different.

Women working in one of the Magdalene Laundries.
A lot has been written about the notorious Magdalene Laundries but not so much about the Industrial Schools to which youngsters were ‘committed’ by the Irish state over a long period of time and – it has to be said – long after the UK had decided that treating vulnerable children in this way was a Bad Thing. The schools were run by religious organisations, and there was a capitation payment: a sum of money for each child removed from an ‘unsatisfactory’ parent or guardian and incarcerated.

You have to understand that although these were treated as young criminals that isn’t what most of them were. These were vulnerable children. Sometimes they were the sons and daughters of the women sent to those Magdalene Laundries on the flimsiest of accusations. They might be orphans. Or seen to be ‘out of control’ (which could cover a multitude of small crimes). Or just plain poor. Single parents and their offspring seem to have been fair game.

Once they hit sixteen, of course, the payments stopped, so they were effectively shown the door. But even then they were not exactly free. Thoroughly institutionalised, they would be sent to work on farms for low pay, under the impression that they must stay where they were sent. In some cases, the police were alleged to have conspired in this belief, returning escapees to the forced labour they were trying to escape. Eventually they would realise that they were free to go.

Industrial schools continued in Ireland until the 1970s.

But where?

These were often profoundly damaged individuals. The extreme physical abuse was at least as appalling as the sexual abuse but really it was all part of a regime of unrelenting cruelty and almost unbelievable sadism. One of the survivors has pointed out that it was the absolute randomness of the physical cruelty that was so horrific. There was seldom any connection between the beatings and any known misdemeanour. All of this is documented in various accounts as the survivors, even now, struggle to be heard and struggle for redress - although as I say, it's not widely publicised.

Some of them, unsurprisingly, turned to alcohol to drown out the pain. Some survived and made a good life for themselves against all the odds. Some – with few skills, because the ‘schools’ provided little in the way of real education – came over here and worked as unskilled labourers until they grew too old and too troubled to function properly.

Little boys seem to have been most harshly treated.
In Bird of Passage, Finn and his friend Francis are boys placed in the Industrial School system in 1960s Ireland. In the way of characters – well, the characters I write about – Finn and Francis took shape and form as I wrote. I didn’t set out to ‘make’ them victims of a regime of appalling cruelty so much as discover the truth about them. It seemed like a process of interrogation. Why were they as they were? Eventually they told me.

I read a number of accounts of the experiences of boys and girls in these 'schools' that were more like prisons and was moved to tears by them. I hope some of that horror and pity found its way into the novel. Of course, the novel is about much more (and also much less) than that. It’s a love story of a kind. It’s a story of obsession and damage and the destructive power of passion.

But the background is so appalling that I find it hard to write about it in any kind of promotion for the novel. It’s as though the fact that it is 'interesting' in the sense that these things should be known and discussed and brought out into the light of day feels somehow shameful. I’m invariably seized with a feeling akin to embarrassment. Within the novel – that’s one thing. It seemed all right and even desirable to write about it there. The characters felt real, and I felt the most profound sympathy for them as I wrote about them. Finn's story moves me - as I hope it moves the reader.

It’s when it comes to writing about the story that I shy away from saying too much. Perhaps it isn’t my story to tell. But then, there’s a part of me that knows these stories must and should be told. And sometimes writers have to try to speak for those who don’t always have a voice.

Difficult things. Impossible things, really. I wonder what other writers and readers think about this. 


Cover by Alison Bell