Patricia O’Reilly has carved out a successful career in both the fiction and non-fiction worlds. From books on the craft of writing to novels exploring the lives of famous figures from history. Sarah Downey learned about Patricia’s intensive research process and her love of the past.
Like most writers, Patricia’s passion for literature began early in life with her love of reading. “From the time I stumbled over “The cat sat on the mat” with my Mother before I went to school, I have loved the written word. When I discovered that adults wrote books, I was determined I would be such an adult.” And this determination would pay off with Patricia later working as a journalist, writing radio plays and documentaries before becoming a novelist.
Patricia finds the inspiration for her writing all around her, “I’m influenced by everything- from what I hear and see – overheard conversations, ads to posters, new stories, features, fiction and non-fiction.” She continues to be an avid reader and this keeps her imagination alive. “Each season I devour the latest crop of contemporary fiction, particularly those titles nominated for and winners of various awards.”
So where do the different ideas for her books come from? “My ideas are mostly rooted in experience/fact. My latest non-fiction Writing for Success was written as an aid and to provide answers to questions asked in my workshops; my most recent fiction is A Type of Beauty, the story of Kathleen Newton (1854-1882) was inspired by a painting I saw as a child.”
For her latest novel Patricia took the decision to self-publish after finding it difficult to secure publication with a mainstream publisher. “Up to A Type of Beauty, each of my books was published without problem – the non-fictions acquiring publishers on a pitch, contents page and the sample chapter and the fictions being picked up after completion.: She points out, “I do have eight publishers for nine books!” After a number of near publishing misses with A Type of Beauty, she decided to self-publish and “loved every scary, demanding moment of it.”
Patricia manages the tough task of blending historical fact with fiction, creatively filling in gaps in knowledge. “I’ve written two works of historical fiction- the first, Time & Destiny about Irish designer Eileen Gray. The second is A Type of Beauty, about Kate Kelly, French artist Jacques Tissot’s mistress and muse. In both cases I tried to be historically accurate but was aware that as I was writing bio-fiction or fact-led historical fiction- the operative word being fiction, the story could not end up research-led, and so I did create some fictional characters and take creative liberties- in the interests of adding to the story.”
Patricia likes to start her novels by writing a draft and then fleshing out the story later with her research. “The longest and the most time I’ve spent on research was for A Type of Beauty– I got information from the National Archives in London- I was even given a researcher, and also went to northern India where I walked in Kate’s footsteps. I find it difficult to write about a location without experiencing it for myself.”
Patricia immerses herself in the era she’s writing about by reading the newspapers and pamphlets from the time, as well as searching the internet for information. “For Time & Destiny, I spent time in Enniscorthy where I went to Brownswood, Eileen Gray’s childhood home, and in Paris I visited her her apartment on Bonaparte and her iconic E1027 in the south of France.” But Patricia often ends up leaving much of the research she accrues out of the books. “Isn’t it said to write five hundred words we need five thousand words of research? But it’s never wasted – I use the material for PowerPoint talks and newspaper and magazine features such as in History Ireland and Image magazine.”
Patricia has recreated real-life characters in her novels, bringing figures from history to life on the books’ pages.”My characters start life by evolving in my head, frequently they appear in my dreams and when they acquire a certain amount of substance, I use story-boarding and the tag method to develop them further. I try to have them clearly defined and to keep them acting within character throughout the writing of the story.”
Does Patricia prefer writing historical fiction or non-fiction? “As I’m working on a new novel, I’m favouring fiction. Probably from my feature writing days, I know to create a credible story and I know that I need to get right into whatever subject I’m covering. The result is that I am always entrenched in whatever project I’m working on.”
“The writing process for fiction and non-fiction is completely different. For fiction I find the most efficient way to write once I have my main characters and storyline, is to let the creative juices flow and then at some stage -and the writer always knows- to put a structure on creativity. This involves further developing the storyline, firming up characters , choosing colourful locations and appropriate cameos. When that’s all in place the theme of the story emerges.”
Patricia is currently working on another book “a historical novel, based on fact….the idea came to me in that amazingly creative period between sleep and wakefulness. I’m about halfway through the first draft and am relishing every slow moment of the story.”
I look forward to being transported back in time once more and getting a glimpse into another wonderful by-gone era.