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Fiction: the primeval simulation programme

Writing.ie | Member Blog


Sheila Turner Johnston

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Maker of Footprints is set in the north of Ireland, which is a wonderful place to play out the dilemmas, loves and tragedies of ordinary people. For far too long we have been a place apart, a place black with bad memories. It is time to show that we are a people with pride in ourselves, our achievements and our potential; not defined by our past and always known by it – even in fiction – but known by what we make of our present and what we offer to our future.

I believe fiction has a significant role to play in this. Stories have a history almost as old as mankind itself. Think of the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Tain, Beowulf, the parables of Jesus and the fables of Aesop.

Fiction is a matchless way of chasing the truth. It is the primeval simulation programme, needing no computer and software to run. By telling stories we can tease out wisdom and truth through the lives of others, through their experiences and how they deal with the hand that fate deals them.

In Maker of Footprints I have tried to explore the themes of selfishness, of a desire for personal freedom which exists in tension with the need for safety in the moral conventions in which our upbringing may enclose us. As Jenna Warwick discovers as her story unfolds along with that of Paul Shepherd, there is much to be lost if we categorise ourselves too narrowly. As Jenna says at one point:

“I don’t think any of us knows who we are or what we can do. There’s a part of us that can’t speak until something speaks to it. Wakes it up and speaks its language.”

Writing this story had its highs and lows. When I felt I had portrayed something in exactly the way I wanted to portray it – that was a high. When I felt I was writing rubbish – and that was most of the time – it plunged me into a depression. But that’s the nature of the writing game.

There was no low however, to compare with the night I lost a whole chapter because, unknown to me, my computer was failing to save my file. I’m paranoid about backing up my work and at about 2.30 one morning I finished a chapter (I work in chapters) after struggling for hours to get it just right. I closed it to copy it to my pen drive before going to bed. It disappeared, vanished. I did all I could to find it, searched my hard drive etc. It wasn’t there. I knew that if I went to sleep, all my wonderful phrases would disappear for ever. So I stayed up all the rest of that night and rewrote it. I recalled all but 200 words out of about 3,500. It was Chapter 14. About an hour before we should have been getting up, I crawled into bed and burst into tears on my husband’s shoulder. He was most sympathetic. I think most husbands suffer from wet shoulders from time to time!

My elder son asked me some time ago if I had any ambitions. I said that I felt, after years of writing in various genres, that I would like to write a novel. He said to me simply “Well, then you should.”

So I did.

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