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The Vital Details by Sheena Wilkinson

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Sheena Wikinson

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I’ve always loved reading and writing historical fiction. Ever since I fell in love with the World War One poets in O Level English – thank you, Mrs Leathart and A Choice Of Poets, I’ve had a special interest in that war. I’ve explored it extensively in short fiction – my very first published story, ‘Amputees’ (2006) was about the aftermath of that war – but Name Upon Name (Little Island) is my first historical novel. I very much hope it won’t be my last.

Name Upon Name is set in 1916 Belfast. Fourteen-year-old Helen is caught between the two traditions of her family – urban Ulster Protestant on one side, rural Irish Catholic on the other. Both her older cousins are involved in the war, and Helen feels connected to events in France. There are constant reminders of it at her co-educational school, where she helps make up parcels for old boys at the Front, and joins in the mourning when former pupils are killed. It’s much harder for her to understand what happens in Dublin during Easter Week. Is this just another riot, as her father says – Eejits occupying post offices and biscuit factories – or, as Uncle Sean says, a great day… the birth of your nation.? And whose nation? Helen fears it isn’t hers.

Historical fiction always produces tension between wanting to bring the period alive for the reader, but not recreating it so systematically that it lapses into pastiche. The story must work as modern fiction, so it has to feel fresh, especially to a teen reader, who might baulk at anything that feels worthy or schooly. That danger can be compounded when your subject matter is obviously political. Getting the period details right is easy enough; I’ve written a lot about the 1910s, and I’m the sort of person who loves spending hours in a library, or even better a museum. So reader, when I say the red-and-cream tram comes round the corner, you can trust me that trams in Belfast in 1916 were red-and-cream.

sheena_wilkinson140x210Does that matter? If the book was set in 2015, would I even have mentioned the colour of the bus? (We don’t have trams in Belfast.) Probably not, and I hate the kind of historical writing that drips with detail just to show that the Writer Did Her Research. But then, in a book set today when I say bus, the reader just sees a bus. Whereas it’s easy to imagine the past as kind of black-and-white or sepia, so this kind of detail is occasionally justified. To literally add colour.

But the big challenge for me with Name Upon Name was about tone rather than details. Helen has to appeal to modern readers, but she has to do so as a convincing girl born in 1902, less than a year after the death of Queen Victoria. That means some of her attitudes will be alien to a modern reader – especially to a child or teenager. When her admired older cousin Michael shows a vulnerability which the modern reader will empathise with, Helen can’t respond as today’s fourteen-year-old might. Instead, she is horrified: To Helen’s shock, his dark eyes filled with tears. ‘Don’t!’ She pulled her hand away… He must still be inebriated. Boys – young men – well, they didn’t cry. He was supposed to be going to war…

I could have sanitised the past and given Helen ahistorically liberal attitudes. But it’s an insult to readers to pretend that people of a century ago were just like us but with longer skirts. That’s a cheap way to try to get readers to engage with history.

ww1 mag pic 10And here of course, we come up against another problem. Because who am I to say what people felt or thought a hundred years ago? This is where the research comes in that is much more important than knowing what colour the trams were. Not just reading secondary sources, though of course these are valuable, and not just going to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum to sit in one of said trams, fun though this was. But, where possible, primary sources – diaries, letters, magazines: whatever I could find. One of the most important works I consulted for Name Upon Name was a pile of school magazines, 1914-1919. I’d already used these as the explicit inspiration for my short story, ‘Each Slow Dusk’ (in The Great War: stories inspired by objects from The Great War, Walker 2014), and they proved an equally rich source of authentic 1916 attitudes, language and atmosphere, not least in giving an eye-witness account of events in Dublin, from a former pupil caught up in the fighting around Trinity. But again, I was less interested in who-did-what-where (there are plenty of excellent accounts of the Rising itself elsewhere) than in the way people felt about it – or at least, some people, in their own troubled northern city.

And when you’ve done all that – the characters should be more accessible to you, the writer, and hopefully the reader too. Writer Deirdre Sullivan has said of Name Upon Name: Helen is of her time in the best sense: her reactions aren’t those of a modern teenager, but her adolescence is every bit as keenly felt.”

red and white tramWhen Helen walks alone with a male classmate for the first time, she’s as aware of that as any modern teenager, but her feelings can’t be expressed in the same way. So it’s not OMG. Check me out walking down the street with George! It’s They walked together down the drive, Helen feeling self-conscious at walking with a boy she wasn’t related to. And when their talk comes round to Romeo And Juliet (because they are quite earnest), Helen blushed at having in a way compared herself to Juliet in front of a boy. Keenly felt, if sedately expressed.

That’s when the tram comes round the corner. You’ll remember that the tram was red and cream, of course. A splash of colour in a world it’s so easy to imagine as black-and-white.

And colour is part of tone, that tone which matters so much to getting the book ‘right’, but only a small part. If characters don’t convince as being of their time, then all the red-and-cream trams in the world won’t rescue them.

(c) Sheena Wilkinson

About Name Upon Name

Belfast in 1916. Fourteen-year-old Helen is shaped by her mixed background – rural, Catholic Irish values from mum Kathleen; urban, Protestant Ulster ones from dad James. Her parents are relaxed in their politics but others in the family circle are more extreme – Aunt Violet is a die-hard anti-Home Ruler, more British than the king, while Uncle Sean is staunchly nationalist.

These are the parents of Helen’s older cousins: Sandy, who joined the army straight from school and has already seen action in France, and Michael, who runs away from home to enlist. But before he leaves for France, Michael is deployed to Dublin to help quell the Rising, where he’s expected to open fire on his fellow Irishmen. Who and what are they fighting for?

The story of a young girl between the Easter Rising, the outbreak of World War 1 and a divided Ireland

Name Upon Name is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

About the author

Sheena Wilkinson is one of Ireland’s most acclaimed writers for young people, her novels having won many awards. Her most recent novels are Still Falling, which has been described (Books Ireland) as ‘complex, nuanced… outstanding’, and the just-released Name Upon Name, which is a northern perspective on the events of 1916. Sheena lives in County Down and is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow.

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