Writers are often asked where they get the inspiration for their work. When did they begin to write the story? How did they develop it until it became a publishable novel?
I don’t know how it is for other writers, but for me that question is not straightforward. Writing fiction is a strange weaving together of imagination and knowledge, memory and curiosity from which, with luck and perseverance, a story emerges. All I can do, to explain how I wrote In the Court’s Hands, is to tell my own story, and hope that it will be of some use to others.
I have always enjoyed mysteries, from the moment I opened my first very-own Enid Blyton Five Find Outers as an eight-year-old, and I’ve always written fiction.
I started my working life as a dental nurse, then took an eight-year career break during which I had four children. I went back to college when my youngest was two and became a journalist. I’ve been working for The Irish Times since 2005. I’ve had some short stories published or broadcast over the years, but my fiction has mostly been for my own pleasure.
Working for the paper, I covered many court cases; criminal, civil and family law. I also took a law degree at night over two years. I’ve always been fascinated by the courts; probably dating back to Crown Court, a lunchtime series on ITV that I watched with my mother in the early 1980s. That gap between justice and the law, between the story told by the defence and the prosecution and where the truth is, I found, and still find, intriguing.
I’ve also always enjoyed crime fiction – Patricia Highsmith, Colin Dexter, Benjamin Black, Robert Galbraith, Ann Cleeves.
A few years ago, I wrote a feature for The Irish Times called The Secret Life of a Stenographer. It examined the work of stenographers, most often women, who record every word that is said in court on a stenograph and produce a transcript for the barristers. The machine is not like a typewriter, with individual letters, it’s smaller and has fewer keys and the keys represent sounds, so the stenographer uses phonetics to write each word. As part of my research I visited Gwen Malone Stenography Services, a well-known business among court professionals in Dublin. I was fascinated by the nature of the work and by the relative invisibility of the stenographer, who is hardly noticed in court, but who hears everything.
Imagination being what it is, I began to wonder what would happen if a stenographer covering a court case, witnessed something outside the court room but connected to the case. How would she react? What might happen next? Who was she, this stenographer?
I began to write Beatrice Barrington’s story from there. I’m not a plotter and for all I knew I could have been writing a short story, but I wasn’t. Once I began to write, I found the story expanding, a bit like opening a door from a small room into a larger one. I wanted to find out what happened next, what was behind the next door, and the door after that, so I kept going until the story ended.
It wasn’t all there in the first draft, of course, and much revision was required, a process, for me, which I would liken to colouring in a picture, initially drawn in black and white. There were additional questions, too, that I discovered as I went along, that needed answering.
I’m not one of those writers who find that the characters they create begin to talk to them – mine don’t talk to me, I follow them around and write down what they think and say and do.
Sometimes, in the process of writing, I feel like chucking the whole story in the bin. I think that urge is experienced by many writers, aspiring and otherwise. For some, it becomes the barrier that prevents them from ever finishing their work. For me, while writing a first draft, it’s important to just keep going. Once I get to the end, there is plenty of time to go back and figure out what needs to be done and what should and should not go into the bin. Some of my favourite lines from In the Court’s Hands ended up there.
When it was as decent a story as I could make it, I sent three chapters and a synopsis to an agent and two publishers. I received a relatively swift response – two months later – from the agent. It said something along the lines of “you can write, but I’m not willing to take you on”. Then I heard from Poolbeg Press. They wanted to see the entire manuscript. A few weeks later, Paula Campbell offered me a contract and I accepted.
Then there was the editing, a back and forth over the course of a month, examining each chapter, tweaking and improving. I learnt a lot from that process. The proofing happened after that and then I had my novel in my hands. What a lovely feeling that was.
I’ve just completed the second book in the series and I’m planning for the third. If I could give one piece of advice to aspiring novelists it would be this: Persevere – with your first draft, with your re-drafting and with your contacts with publishers – perseverance is everything.
(c) Fiona Gartland
Fiona Gartland is a staff journalist with The Irish Times, working with the company for 13 years. She has written extensively in the legal area and covered high profile criminal trials at the Criminal Courts of Justice, as well as family and civil law cases.
She was shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story competition on half a dozen occasions and has been published in magazines and broadcast on RTÉ.
She lives in Dublin with her husband and four children.
About In the Court’s Hands:
“If it had rained on the 25th of April at least one woman would not have died. Not that I bear any responsibility for that. Nothing I didn’t intentionally caused anyone’s death.”
Stenographer Beatrice Barrington witnesses a meeting between the defendant in the criminal case she’s working on and a woman who later contacts a member of the jury. Before Beatrice can take any action, the juror is found dead. Still trying to deal with her difficult past, Beatrice is pulled into a world of deception, danger and blackmail. Helped by her friend, retired Detective Gabriel Ingram, she is in a race against time to find the truth behind the death of the jurywoman before the trial collapses and more people die. Then a stalker with a familiar face begins to watch her every move. Now, for her, it becomes a struggle to survive.
Will Beatrice identify the killer in time?
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