April 4th, 2017
“My journey towards a Ph. D began today in UCD, room D225 (Mr James Ryan’s room) where I met with James and Lucy Collins, who might be my supervisor (I like her). Lucy encouraged me to start a journal, today, of my journey through my Ph. D and record everything in it. So here goes.”
I wrote that in my car after that meeting. You see Charlotte & Arthur, my debut novel, to be published by Merdog Books, out this October, began life as a doctoral project. Not, as it turned out, in UCD (honestly, I think it was the nightmare of trying to get parking on campus that eventually decided me against there), but in Maynooth where author of Flight (Tramp Press) and lecturer, Dr Oona Frawley, was my supervisor. So, there was another first meeting, another April, this time the 25th, 2018, I know this because it is recorded in the journal I started, thanks to Lucy. For the time I was under Oona’s supervision, her practical and kindly expressed advice and encouragement was the impetus I needed to keep believing in the project. The showing up for work and getting it done part was solely my responsibility. And that was not happening. I think I had thought that writing a book as a Ph.D. project would provide an instant structure and discipline to the process, and it would have if I had committed to it. I was floundering with the writing and agonising about what exactly I would do with this qualification, if I ever got it, Ph.D.’s are expensive affairs without any grant or scholarship aid, so you need to know where it is all leading. All I wanted from it was a written book. So, with the aid of sage guidance from Oona, and an inner voice that reassured it was the right thing to do, I opted out of the doctoral programme. A month later Covid came along, and on reflection I know that without what I gained from my experience with the Ph.D and the subsequent lockdown that the pandemic brought, I would not be launching this October. Let me explain.
I knew from reactions I got that the idea for my book was a good one, I was going to re-imagine Charlotte Brontë’s honeymoon in Ireland. I also knew that there had been little written about it, in either fictional or nonfictional form, so there was little competition out there. I believed, having completed an M.Litt., Demythologising Charlotte Brontë: An Exploration of the Genesis and Evolution of the Author, I had some knowledge of her life and works. And, regarding my ability to write, well, I had some stories published and had won the Penguin Ireland short story competition in 2015, I had a Masters in Creative Writing, and I had established the Kildare Writing Centre where I facilitated courses on the craft of writing, so surely, I should be capable of writing this book. But two essential ingredients were missing, and this is what the Ph.D experience and Covid gave me: a methodology and time. With all the craft know-how, the best ideas, the best intentions, without these two components your book will remain your dream.
You will probably know that when you are pursuing a doctoral degree in creative writing you have two things to do, write a book and write a thesis about the process of writing a book. It is this latter requirement that led to my methodology. I kept going with that journal begun in 2017. There are now five. While the entries may seem at times haphazard, a pattern emerged, and that became my methodology. I would record the date at the top of an entry, and the word count for the chapter I was on. Then I wrote a plan for that chapter that revolved around doing 5 things; (1) details about where the couple were on the journey (2) backstory about Charlotte or Arthur or both (3) contemporary references (maybe gleaned from the newspapers of the time) (4) a plot point that advances their evolving relationship (5) dialogue. This plan would then decide the research, which I tended to do first, and that research informed and often inspired the creative content. The notes tend to get messier and more abbreviated as the journals grow with snippets and facts and dates that only make sense to me!
July 2th. 2020
“Word count 651. Chapter fourteen. Research this morning. Page 50. On Alexander’s book -Charlotte’s drawing of Roe Head school, Mirfield (1831-32) in which the school looks a bit like Cuba house in its squareness. Page 166 Heron scissors belonging to Charlotte – she will see herons on the Shannon and can make reference to the scissors.”
At the end of the day’s work, I recorded the word count, and even if it was only in double digits, it was something and how I began to measure a day’s success. That became my daily routine, it took the fear out of sitting down, I knew that regardless of the mood I brought to the desk, there was always something I could be doing to advance the work. And I know I speak for all writers when I say, make no mistake, it is work. This is where lockdown helped. Being forced to abandon my courses with the Kildare Writing Centre, and not yet ready to venture into Zoomland, I had the entire day, every day, to devote to my own writing. Finally, I established a rhythm and routine. Turning up every day meant I didn’t have to waste time refamiliarising myself with my own book! You see, even though I was the broken record in my classes advising that you need to write every day to keep on top of it, I was my own worse student.
Therefore, if I could give any advice to emerging novelists from my experience, it is (a) journal daily about your project (b) devise a planned template for every chapter (c) show up for work every day (that includes the weekends).
There is another important secret to my success and that is the writing group I am part of, the Mill Writers. Without their constancy in my writing life in general and their attention to this project in particular, Charlotte Brontë would still be sitting on the edge of her bed, tapping her toes, while she waited for my pen to escort her down the stairs on her wedding day, June 29th, 1854.
(c) Pauline Clooney
Kildare Writing Centre Website: https://kildarewritingcentre.com/
About Charlotte and Arthur:
It is the morning of June 29th, 1854, here is the groom coming up the cobbles in Haworth, for his nuptial appointment with Charlotte Brontë. Only a handful of guests have been invited, and you, dear Reader, are one of them …
Charlotte Brontë, the celebrated author of Jane Eyre, has married her papa’s Curate, Irishman, Arthur Bells Nicholls. At thirty-eight years of age, and the unlikelihood of there ever being further proposals, Charlotte’s dread of the lonely life of the spinster has convinced her that this is a calculated risk she must take.
For the month of July, the couple’s itinerary brings them from the castles of Wales to the most popular tourist attractions in Victorian Ireland, spending some time along the way with Arthur’s family in Banagher, on the banks of the River Shannon. Set against the backdrop of the recent famine, their tour exposes the contrasting lives of the poor and the privileged of Irish society.
Charlotte & Arthur, invites the reader into the heart and mind of the revered author, and it allows that reader to walk beside her as she realises that to have Arthur as her husband was in her own words ‘…better than to earn either Wealth or Fame or Power.’
Pre-order your copy online here.