“How d’you do it?”
Whether one is just starting, howsoever tentatively, to write fiction or has been at the craft for some time – even a very long time – the question is a difficult one to answer. Having been at it for not quite six years – my third novel in a projected series of four or five has just recently been released – I have given some remarkably inane responses (including, “I can’t say,” “I honestly don’t know” or “I’ve not really thought about it much – I just write”.), I’ve decided the question deserves a more intelligent response.
What one needs to remember and, indeed, what makes this interesting is that we – writers of fiction – are a curiosity for many, if not most of the people who read our work – we seem to perhaps possess some form of magic, by which we tell stories – and the “how” is fascinating to many.
In this era of virtually unlimited access to all forms of information, it is rather easy to forget that writing is an art. For example, beyond certain basics in my particular field of historical fiction, what one writes must be appropriate for the time period and the setting. This includes snippets such as clothing and how things such as food preparation, eating, sleeping, riding horses and the like were done (perhaps most critically how people spoke). It does not seem that there is really one totally “correct” way to write – with sincere apologies to the many excellent MFA programs available to fledgling writers.
Hilary Mantel writes in the present tense – she rarely uses Cromwell’s name, he is always “He”.
William Faulkner actually scrawled exhaustive plot outlines of A Fable – the 1954 novel on which he laboured for ten years and which earned him both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award – on the walls of the study at his home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi.
The iconic biographer (of Robert Moses and President Lyndon Johnson) Robert Caro actually outlines his entire book before beginning to write – once, the outline was “complete” he expanded it into chapter plot lines, Only then did he begin writing.
I believe it is fair to say that there may be as many ‘right ways to write’ as there are authors
Ah, but I digress: In writing each of Beyond Derrynane, Two Journeys Home and Bittersweet Tapestry (all subtitled A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe), I have had a very – and I emphasise very – rough storyline, largely based on actual events in the lives of some of the semi-fictional characters, as well as in the lives of actual historical figures. Indeed, at least as to the former, I have written elsewhere, that it has been the “tantalisingly few facts that are actually known of Eileen’s and the other O’Connells’ lives that have provided the basic threads around which the tale itself is woven, into which strategic additions of numerous fictional and historical personalities and events have, I hope, seamlessly intertwined”.
Quite frankly, though some might find it at least in some aspects “restrictive” this simplifies the “world-building” aspect of writing historical writing . . . whilst the brilliant George R.R. Martin is free of such limitations – free to create an entire world, an entire period in time – in A Song of Fire and Ice he also had to concoct not only all of his characters but the locations and story-lines.
Before commencing to write, perhaps even prior to thinking about doing so, one needs to possess what has been called “a body of knowledge” about, in the case of historical fiction, the period, the historical figures and events which will meld with the make-believe characters and their stories – the larger and more in depth the knowledge is, the easier will be the writing, leading to a higher quality work.
I have been fortunate in that I have been a relatively serious student of the history of Eighteenth Century Europe, especially that of Ireland and France, for much of my life; one significant aspect of this being a continuing scholarly as well as personal interest in my extended family, many distant, and long-ago members of which, especially the characters of whom I write, I feel I have come to know intimately. Some of the tales which I grew up hearing, and later reading about, were the genesis for parts of both Beyond Derrynane and Two Journeys Home. This is even more so the case with regard to much of the Irish history fictionalised in Bittersweet Tapestry
Know – really know your characters, think about them, obsess about them, fantasise about them – if you continue to do so, they will, as a good friend who is also a brilliant published author, recently said of mine – “keep pulling you forward – that’s the mark of a real writer.”
I once heard or perhaps read (sadly, I cannot recall the origin of this) – that some Irish writers “dance with the English language” in the sense that they revel in writing as one does with the certain amount of self-abandon that dancing requires. On my better days, which appear on the better segments of the one thousand-plus pages so far written in Derrynane, I feel I have been able to do this. “Dancing” results in richer, more authentic dialogue; more vivid, greater detailed descriptions of people and places and conveys a deeper level of the emotions of anger, fear – and love – which are so much a part of the genre.
I would suggest that one who dares to dance with the language will write more beautifully, certainly more colourfully.
All of this said, when one is ready it is perhaps best to simply “write on” – to see where the writer’s imagination, her demons and higher angels, her characters take her.
The journey is an exciting and memorable one indeed!
About Bittersweet Tapestry:
A decade has passed since a sixteen-year-old Eileen O’Connell first departed her family’s sanctuary at remote Derrynane on the Kerry coast to become the wife of one of the wealthiest men in Ireland and the mistress of John O’Connor’s Ballyhar – only to have her elderly husband die within months of the marriage.Unhappily returned to Derrynane, within a year, under the auspices of their uncle, a general in the armies of Maria Theresa, Eileen and her sister, Abigail set off for Vienna and a life neither could have ever imagined – one at the dizzying heights of the Hapsburg empire and court, where Abigail ultimately became principal lady-in-waiting to the Empress herself, whilst Eileen for nine years served as governess to the Empress’s youngest daughter – during which time Maria Antonia, whom Eileen still calls ‘my wee little archduchess’, has become Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France, though she continues to refer to her beloved governess as “Mama”.
As Bittersweet Tapestry begins, in the high Summer of 1770, having escorted the future Queen of France from Vienna to her new life, Eileen and her husband, Captain Arthur O’Leary of the Hungarian Hussars, along with their little boy and Eileen’s treasured friend (and former servant) Anna Pfeffer are establishing themselves in Ireland.Their ties to Catholic Europe remain close; in addition to Abigail and her O’Sullivan family and General O’Connell and his in Vienna, brother Daniel is an officer in the Irish Brigade of the armies of Louis XV, whilst their youngest brother, Hugh, is studying at École Militaire in Paris, his path to a commission in the Dillons’ Regiment of the Brigade. His gentle Austrian friendship with Maria Antonia having inevitably waned, Hugh’s relationship with the strikingly-beautiful young widowed Princess Marie Thérèse Louise of Savoy is blossoming.Though happily ensconced at Rathleigh House, the O’Leary family estate in County Cork, being prominent amongst those families which are the remnants of the old Gaelic order in the area, Eileen and Art find that the dark cloud of the Protestant Ascendancy hovers heavily, at times threateningly, over them.
Bittersweet Tapestry is a tale of stark contrasts – between Hugh’s life of increasing prominence amidst the glitter and intrigue of the French court and Art and Eileen’s in English-occupied Ireland – especially as the latter progresses into a dark, violent and bloody tale . . . ultimately involving an epic tragedy, which, along with the events leading up to it and those occurring in its dramatic wake, will permanently impact the O’Learys – and their far-flung circle of family and friends in Ireland across Europe.
With his uniquely-descriptive prose, Kevin O’Connell again deftly weaves threads of historical fact and fancy to create a colourful fabric affording unique insights into the courts of eighteenth-century Catholic Europe as well as English-ruled Ireland. As the epic unfolds amongst the O’Learys, the O’Connells, their friends and enemies, the tumultuously-dangerous worlds in which they dwell will continue to gradually – but inexorably – become even more so.Bittersweet Tapestry joins O’Connell’s well-received Beyond Derrynane and Two Journeys Home as The Derrynane Saga continues – an enthralling epic, presenting a sweeping chronicle, set against the larger drama of Europe in the early stages of significant – and, in the case of France – violent change
Order your copy online here.