Characters have a way of sneaking in to my head and setting up home.
First a germ of an idea takes root, constantly agitating making me wonder could I pull a story from here. But it is when the characters start talking that the fingers can do the walking across the keyboard.
Some writers use story boards, plaster walls with notes or fill notebooks full of interesting phrases and ideas to use at an appropriate time. Some writers sketch a picture of their characters with words. They even know before they write the first line of chapter one their main characters, the traits, foibles and eccentricities that will make them stand out. They also know the storyline and all the minor characters who weave their way through the pages of the book. Some writers are extra lucky; they even know the ending.
How I wish it was like that for me. But it is not. The story; the characters and the twists and turns; all of it rattles inside my head, competing for my attention, only revealing themselves as we move along, getting the first words down.
If the idea is going to work, the characters lead the way designing their own destinies, only giving me the satisfaction that when they are shouting the most and bossing me senseless, do I get my best writing done.
It was like that all the way through The Ballroom Café. First Ella O’Callaghan appeared; that stubborn, gentle, proud woman who loved her home Roscarbury Hall, Rathsorney, Co Wicklow and would do anything to stop the bank repossessing it. When she walked with a jizz on her, I felt the straight intensity in her back and when she felt an overwhelming sadness as she stopped at the grave of her husband and child; I felt the weight of the personal tragedy sitting so heavily on her shoulders.
Ella and her sister Roberta had not spoken in decades. They only communicated through short, sharp and often harsh notes, but a mountain of hurt was behind the terse, silent communication. It was up to me to help unfold the past and show what had destroyed this once loving sisterly love. Roberta, who carried big handbags and swigged sherry most of the day needled her way in to my head through her caustic observations about her sister and the notes she slapped down on the hall table. But it was also clear that raw pain and hurt had made her this way. When Ella starts a café in the upstairs ballroom to bring in some desperately needed cash, Roberta is furious.
In to this café one days walks American, Debbie Kading. Hiding her own secrets she spoke to me in a quieter but equally forceful way, making me delve in to why she so desperately needed to trace her roots. She is looking for answers, but is met by a wall of silence at the local convent.
There is a main issue running through The Ballroom Café; the illegal and forced adoption of the babies of unmarried mothers from Ireland to the US. Not only are Debbie, Ella and Roberta forced to look in to their own hearts, but the whole country must face Ireland’s shameful past as the adoption scandal is uncovered.
But back to those characters…there are quite a few different ladies who gather at The Ballroom Café most days to chat and gossip over tea served in china cups. Muriel Hearty who runs the local post office is the loudest in the café throwing out her gossip. She was also one of the loudest in my head trying to grab her place in the limelight.
But it was in the rewriting after the first draft that all the characters began shouting some more. Ella needed a respite from the sadness and pain and introduced me to her vast collection of vintage Weiss brooches, she kept in silver boxes on her dressing table. Throughout the book she finds solace and refuge by unwrapping a brooch in this beautiful collection handed down from her own mother.
Roberta began to show her vulnerable side and Muriel Hearty completely lost the run of herself and had to be reined in. New characters asked to join and St Consuelo in the convent along with Sister Assumpta took on stronger roles making me see things from their perspective.
These characters became a second family to me and I was more than a little sad when I had to let go by writing those two words ‘The End’. It was like seeing your child off at the school gate on the first day at school; you know in your heart things will never be the same again. Several editing sessions later, the characters were happy and not shouting anymore, but satisfied their story had been told.
Anyway, a whole new group has started to squat in my head and I best rush off, because the characters in my second novel are kicking up a storm.
(c) Ann O’Loughlin