What’s the Story? Where They Lie by Claire Coughlan

Writing.ie | Magazine | Crime | Interviews
Where They Lie by Claire Coughlan

By Claire Coughlan

Author Claire Coughlan on writing about a journalist for her debut crime thriller, Where They Lie.

Many years ago, while I was doing the MA course in Creative Writing at UCD, I decided I wanted to write about a journalist. I was working as a freelance features writer at the time and thought the world of journalism would be the perfect setting for a fictional story of some kind. As part of the course, I studied a module called Archive of the Imagination with the renowned writer (in both the English and Irish languages) Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. We read fairytales, myths and legends and examined the archetypes which lay therein. There were no new stories under the sun, we realised. It was up to us to make something new. I read a folktale called ‘The Man Who Had No Story’ which had been archived by the UCD folklore department and translated into English from Irish in the oral tradition in the mid-late 20th Century. I used the title as a creative jumping off point and made it about a woman who had no story, a journalist on a deadline, which was a situation I was very familiar with at the time. The module ended and I became busy with other things, so I put the piece to one side, but the desire to write about a journalist didn’t go away.

Years later, I read a paper on illegal abortion in mid-20th Century Ireland. I was struck by the secrecy, the shame, and the fact that almost everyone seemed to be complicit in the way that no-one seemed to know, yet everyone did. The character of the ‘notorious’ Gloria Fitzpatrick, a backstreet abortionist and former midwife who spends her final days in an asylum for the criminally insane, due to causing the death of a woman as a result of an illegal procedure, arrived in my imagination one day and didn’t leave. I began writing fragments from Gloria’s point of view, which amounted to snippets from her interior life. I thought I was writing literary fiction, but these fragments from Gloria’s perspective didn’t quite gel together. The early feedback was that the work was too “quiet” – a dreaded publishing term for nothing much is actually happening.

Around this time, I began working as a freelance editor for Inkwell Writers, which is affiliated with writing.ie, a fantastic editorial service for aspiring authors to get an extra set of eyes on their work. Looking objectively at what was and wasn’t working in other people’s writing made me approach my own differently. I also looked at what I loved reading, which was crime fiction. In crime, the characters, plot and pace are everything. So, why shouldn’t I apply it to my own fiction? I realised that if the Gloria novel were to work, it needed to be more about what she did, rather than what she thought. I read a lot of books about screenwriting at the time, which helped with plotting, and realised that Gloria worked more as an antagonist. But the story needed a protagonist to drive it. And that’s when the journalist character from my MA course came back to life. But when to set it?

My question was answered when I read a collection of journalism by the late novelist Maeve Binchy, Maeve’s Times. Binchy had been the first women’s pages editor at The Irish Times in the late 1960s, and continued writing for the paper until the 2000s, a time of great change in Ireland, especially for women. A woman’s place in the workplace, and in the home; abortion and contraception rights were prescient topics, in as much as they are now.

I decided on 1968 as the period for the ‘present’ day sequences. But who was my journalist? Enter Nicoletta Sarto, a conflicted, driven young woman, from an Italian-Irish background, eager for promotion, who gets tangled up in Dublin’s illegal abortion underworld when a call comes through to the newsroom on Christmas Eve and she happens to answer the phone. A woman’s skeleton has been found in a seaside garden and has already been positively identified by an engraved wedding ring as Julia Bridges, an actress who went missing in 1943. Gloria Fitzpatrick was widely believed to have been responsible for her death. Now was the time for Nicoletta to ‘meet’ Gloria. The two characters came together, and this time, we had lift off. As Stephen King says in On Writing, good ideas occur when “two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new.”

By this time, I was working as a books journalist for a UK trade publication, as well as an Irish newspaper. This work brought me in contact with many literary agents and publishers and ultimately connected me with my agents Sheila Crowley and Sabhbh Curran at Curtis Brown, as well as my publisher Katherine Armstrong at Simon & Schuster UK. I signed a two book deal with S&S in 2022 and I’m currently working on the follow-up to Where They Lie. One of the things I love about my journalist-as-detective in 1968 is that there is little to none of the technology we take for granted now. No Google searches, or WhatsApp messages. Everything Nicoletta finds out, all the knowledge she accumulates, is by walking the streets of Dublin talking to people, the old-fashioned way. Finally, my female journalist has a story.

(c) Claire Coughlan

Author photo (c) Kevin Kheffache

About Where They Lie by Claire Coughlan:

Where They Lie by Claire Coughlan

Some stories demand to be told. They keep coming back, echoing down through the decades, until they find a teller . . .

Dublin, 1943
Actress Julia Bridges disappears.
The last sighting of her is entering the house of Gloria Fitzpatrick, who is later put on trial for the murder of another woman whose abortion she facilitated.
But it’s never proved that Gloria had a hand in Julia’s death – and Julia’s body has never been found.
Gloria, however, is sentenced to life in an institution for the criminally insane, until her apparent suicide a few years later, and the truth of what happened to Julia Bridges dies with her.

Dublin, 1968
Nicoletta Sarto is an ambitious junior reporter for the Irish Sentinel when the bones of Julia Bridges are discovered in the garden of a house on the outskirts of Dublin.
Drawn into investigating the 25-year-old mystery of Julia’s disappearance and her link to the notorious Gloria Fitzpatrick, the story takes Nicoletta into the tangled underworld of the illegal abortion industry, stirring up long-buried secrets from her own past.

Where They Lie by Claire Coughlan is out now, published by Simon & Schuster. Order your copy online here.

About the author

Claire Coughlan worked as a journalist in Ireland for many years. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UCD and lives in Co Kildare with her husband and daughter. Where They Lie is her first novel.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from writing.ie delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books