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Finding Inspiration from Folklore by Sandra Ireland

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The Unmaking of Ellie Rook by Sandra Ireland

By Sandra Ireland

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When people ask me the inevitable question, ‘Where did the idea for this book come from?’, there is never one simple answer. It’s a bit like tracing a river back to its source, stopping en route at several points along the way to unearth another bit of the puzzle. At the source, there is always a bubbling up of ideas. Some fizzle out, others are rejected for various reasons. What I look for is a certain synchronicity; a perfect storm of theme and reason, and only then can I begin to write.

I’ve chosen the word ‘reason’ deliberately. Anyone can come up with a story idea, but a reason isn’t quite the same as an idea, You need a really good reason to come up with around 70,000 words over the course of a year! I start by asking myself- what is it that I want to say? The answer to this question becomes the all-important ending. Once you discover the message you’re trying to get across, you then have the beginnings of a story arc. You just need to fill in the blanks!

So, what do I want to share with the world? It might be a grievance, an injustice or simply a truth that you think people should know. Acclaimed author Ursula Le Guin wrote, ‘Fiction starts with the truth’, and I totally agree with that. The closer we keep to the truth, the more authentic our writing will be. The story can be autobiographical in part (it’s fiction; readers won’t know!) or perhaps relate to the experiences of a family member or friend. It should be an issue or truth close to your heart, which will sustain you throughout the long writing process.

The theme is trickier. I see it as the vehicle which drives your truth forward. It should correspond with, or be a metaphor for, the question you started with; an imaginative way of working through your idea or truth.

Let me set this out in terms of The Unmaking of Ellie Rook. This is my third novel, and inevitably, after your second, you ask yourself, ‘What do I want to write next?’  I wanted to create a novel with a strong female lead, who eventually finds her strength and her voice. Even in 2019, there are very many women existing in relationships where the balance of power is skewed. I know from personal experience, and the experiences of others, that women will ‘put up and shut up’ for years rather than risk confrontation, upset their children or disappoint their parents. Women often stay in abusive relationships because they ‘feel sorry’ for their partners, or worry about how their partners will cope if they leave. It seems we are biologically programmed to put everyone else before ourselves, even when we become damaged in the process.

The Unmaking of Ellie Rook is fundamentally about power and the abuse of power, all wrapped up in what I hope is a compelling, page-turning story. The theme of strength is underpinned in the book by a strand of folklore, the legend of Finella, a historical figure who lived on the east coast of Scotland in the tenth century. It’s interesting to note (and I did!) that Finella killed a Scottish King, yet is only mentioned in passing in the chronicles of the time, unlike Macbeth, who was born about a century later. We all remember his name, but few people know about Finella.

Her story came to me from several sources around the same time. A friend pointed me in the direction of a YouTube video, a couple of adventurous guys filming themselves in the Den of Finella. Although not far from my home, it looked a rather treacherous place and I’d never heard of it, let alone visited it. I also stumbled across the work of acclaimed artist Sheila Macfarlane.

Sheila works from her boathouse studio in the windswept and beautiful village of  Tangleha, just north of St Cyrus. She too, had been inspired by Finella’s story and invited me to visit. She proceeded to tell me the tale. Finella was a noblewoman, a huntress, and what Sheila terms a ‘late Pict’: a strong and daring woman who killed a Scottish king in revenge for the murder of her son. The landscape around Sheila’s home is dotted with the hard evidence of Finella’s residency: place names, ruined towers and tree-studded mounds.

What fascinates me is the ending to her story. Having killed Kenneth II with a crossbow at Fettercairn, Finella leapt from the waterfall at what is now called the Den of Finella, near St Cyrus, to evade his troops. Did she drown or did she survive to fight another day? We’ll never know. That split-second decision stayed with me. That took true strength and agency.

Sheila has captured the strength, earthiness and dignity of this woman in two large   wood/linocuts stand almost 2590cm  high and 760cm  wide. During my visit I was lucky enough to view the two  life-size prints, one  of Finella  standing on a tree stump, and the other of her diving headfirst into the water. She is accompanied in the first image by a black feral cat. The detail is exquisite, portraying not just the female form but the power of bone, sinew and muscle beneath the skin.

I then visited the Den, the scene of Finella’s flight. The steepness of the gorge is breathtaking. The waterfall drops for a distance of some 65 feet into the thundering river. The steep rocky slopes are covered in thick woodland and it is a haven for orchids and other rare plants. To be pursued through such a landscape must have been terrifying. In some versions of the tale, Finella swings through the tops of the trees, earning her a reputation as a sorceress. My own opinion is that desperate times call for desperate measures!

All of these ideas and observations chimed with my reason for writing this story. Finella becomes the inspiration for Ellie Rook, my young protagonist. Ellie is the ‘kid from the scrapyard.’ She’s grown up in a dysfunctional family which her father, the self-styled King of the Scrappies, rules with a rod of iron. Her mother, Imelda, is a gentle soul, and takes the young Ellie for long walks through the woods, telling her the tale of Finella and the King of Scotland. The young girl can’t wait to escape and live her own life abroad, but when her mother disappears from Finella’s notorious waterfall, Ellie has to come back and re-examine her life from a different perspective, while searching for clues to her mother’s disappearance.

Finella becomes a touchstone for Ellie, she is the spirit of the woods, the anthesis of the cruel, testosterone-filled scrapyard. Her strength and power become something to aspire to in a world where the women’s needs have been ignored. The tagline ‘Sometimes you have to leave a place to see what’s really going on’, gives readers a clue as to what to expect!

(c) Sandra Ireland


About The Unmaking of Ellie Rook:

A single phone call from halfway across the world is all it takes to bring her home . . . ‘Ellie, something bad has happened.’

Desperate to escape her ‘kid from the scrapyard’ reputation, Ellie Rook has forged a new life for herself abroad, but tragedy strikes when her mother, Imelda, falls from a notorious waterfall. Here, according to local legend, the warrior queen Finella jumped to her death after killing a king. In the wake of her mother’s disappearance, Ellie is forced to confront some disturbing truths about the family she left behind and the woman she has become. Can a long-dead queen hold the key to Ellie’s survival? And how far will she go to right a wrong?

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About the author

Sandra Ireland was born in England but lived for many years in Éire before returning home to Scotland in the 1990s. She is the author of Beneath the Skin, a psychological thriller, which was shortlisted for a Saltire Society First Novel Award in 2017. Her second novel, Bone Deep, a modern Gothic tale of sibling rivalry, inspired by an old border ballad, was published in the UK by Polygon last July, and will hit the shelves in the US, Germany and India this year. She also writes poetry, often inspired by the seascapes of Scotland’s rugged east coast. Her poems have been widely published in anthologies, including New Writing Scotland, and Seagate III (Dundee). She won the Dorothy Dunbar Rose Bowl for Poetry, awarded by the Scottish Association of Writers, in 2017 and 2018. Sandra is Secretary of Angus Writers’ Circle and one third of the Chasing Time Team, which runs writing retreats in a gloriously gothic rural setting.


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