Mark McShane’s Neutral Shores | Resources | Better Non-Fiction Guides | Researching Non-Fiction

Mark McShane

Dundalk born Mark McShane’s debut Neutral Shores, Ireland and the Battle of the Atlantic,  was penned mainly at sea, where he was serving as chief officer on liquefied natural gas tankers managed by Shell for Nigeria LNG.Mark has been at sea for over twenty years and has just taken command of his first ship. Neutral Shores, Ireland and the Battle of the Atlantic, tells the largely untold story of how many merchant navy ships during the war were attacked and sunk, and their surviving crews left adrift on the hostile Atlantic Ocean in a desperate struggle for survival.

From the bridge of his ship somewhere in the Middle East, Mark said, “From September 1939 until the last days of the war in 1945 Ireland was host to a constant flow of casualties from the Battle of the Atlantic. Ireland’s unique location situated near the vital shipping lanes of the Western Approaches placed the country in the immediate conflict zone once the war at sea began,”

“For the fortunate ones sanctuary was found along Ireland’s rugged Atlantic shores, where the local people took these men from the sea into their homes and cared for them without any consideration of their nationality or allegiances to any of the belligerent nations.”

Mark told “When I decided to set out and write a book, I initially did not dwell too much on what particular writing style I would adopt, how I would structure the book and chapter format. My first consideration was whether there was sufficient archival material available on my subject matter. This seemed a logical step to take and it was almost a year since the research began that I attempted my first draft chapters. These were crude beginnings but within them contained most of the core qualities that I wanted to convey. These early efforts at writing enabled me to structure my chapters better and impose upon each the descriptive attributes that naturally developed into my own particular style.

With so much archive material to work with, I always felt that the stories I was writing about were already told. All I was doing was putting it in a format that combined several disjointed threads, linking these as required with background context, then elaborating on personalities and their accounts, to produce a finished product that was historically accurate and descriptively captivating and thrilling.

Depending on their location and the organisation that has ownership of the records, access to the archives can be an issue. Private libraries and organisations will most likely be viewing by appointment only. National archives are open to the public and are an invaluable source of information. Thankfully most public archives have online catalogues that you can easily search, enabling you to do a great deal of preparation work. This can be important if visiting a particular archive that involves travelling significant distance, time spent at the archives becomes a precious commodity and an efficient use of time will maximise your efforts. A quick note on visiting archives, they all have strict rules for those visiting so please read up on these before you attend.

Keeping your research notes in a format that you can effectively reference is another important point to remember. This is especially true when you accumulate large quantities of data, or if you have too many notebooks and bundles of scrap paper piling up on the desk. I wasted considerable time trying to find information that was lost in hand written notes or on some copied file not properly annotated at the time of reading. Another valuable lesson learned.

Beware of getting side tracked from your original research, I found this to be a problem and on several occasions when visiting The National Archives at Kew. I would start reading and copying files that were out of the scope for my intended visit. While it each digression was of interest and I enjoyed the tangential topic, it nonetheless took my focus off the original project. If you are working to a strict timetable this will lead to inevitable delays no matter how interesting the digression seemed at the time.

Probably the best starter tool for finding material the subject matter is from the bibliographies and reference sections from other books that broadly cover your subject.

Language barriers, old styles of foreign language, technical writing, be prepared to seek help, balance this against how important the material is to your project.

I always had a keen interest in maritime history before I considered trying to write anything myself. There are several authors that have made a particular impression on me, their style of writing and attention to detail gave me a datum that I wanted my work to have a similar quality. For my subject matter I was keen to tell the stories that hadn’t been told about Irish maritime history. While this sounds an obvious choice, but for the beginner it can appear that every subject in your field of interest has already been covered. This is where the long days of research in the libraries and archives really pay dividend. I started with a general theme and no specific subject matter. My process was to build up a general outline of historical maritime events that occurred around Ireland during the Second World War. Eventually as more data was gathered I found trends of similar stories, and significant events that were omitted or erroneous from many published books. From this process I decided on my specific subject matter.

The editing process is very interesting for the first time author. I was more excited about this phase of the process than any other as it would see the book transition into its final form. More importantly it was an invaluable learning tool, if you decide to continue writing after the first outing. The editor will ask challenging questions about your work, entries are deleted and words re-arranged at a frantic pace sometimes. There may be times when you think it is no longer your work, but take a step back, read over the edited version again and you’ll see your rough diamond has been polished up very nicely.”

About the author

(c) Mark McShane July 2012

Neutral Shores, Ireland and the Battle of the Atlantic’ is published by Mercier Press and is available in paperback and ebook.

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