The five Ws have ruled my life.
Who; What; Where; When and Why – the most important word of all. In all my years as a working journalist those five words have been king. The big five are the cornerstone for any good piece of journalism. The five Ws have guided me through the difficult stories; the fluffy feel good easy stories; the controversial stories; the lead stories; the colour stories and the odd exclusive. But it was the five Ws which had to get the boot, when I sat down to write my debut novel The Ballroom Café.
They did not fall off the page quietly either, but popped up demanding to be included. Jumping in to my head, they had to be chased away until eventually they retreated, leaving me free to write The Ballroom Café.
Working as a journalist during the day and writing late at night and early morning, it was almost as if I had to become a different person, before I let my fingers dance across the keyboard. Any student of journalism will tell you the five Ws – preferably neatly tucked in to the first paragraph- is the way to go.
Anyone writing a novel will tell you Who and What are important; you may never get as far as Why, preferring to leave it to the readers to decide for themselves.And yet Why is forever looming in the background, raising all sorts of questions, teasing the writer through the chapters.
Many journalists become writers and there are great novels out there penned by excellent journalists. So how do you separate the day job from the day and night job. I think any journalist/novelist will agree that it is not so much the writing, but the change in mind and heart that is the key difference between the two.
As a writer you have to enter an imaginative world, where mulling over a sentence for a day and a night is alright; where deadlines only exist in your agent’s head and long descriptive passages are normal practice.
The journalist is usually only interested in here and now; the bald facts and fulfilling the next deadline. The journalist thinks in sound bites, paragraphs, small word counts, simple explanations of complex matters as deadlines bear down.When you “hammer out a story” as they used to say in the old days, it is with a certainty and determined push to make the page.
As a writer, you mull over the lines; the words; the commas; read; reread; make tea and toast; write and rewrite. The worst insult as a writer is to be told you write too much like a journalist. Translation: no depth.The best praise as a journalist is to be told you definitely hack it.
So how do you combine the two?
The easy answer is to say I don’t know. I can tell you it is not easy, but it can be done with the same dogged determination that makes your knuckle down to over 1,500 words a day on the novel. For me, the world of journalism, where the writing and the deadlines are fast and the gratification almost immediate when the piece is published on line within minutes or in the next day’s paper is a wonderful break from the tough, slow writing and rewriting a novel demands.
The world of The Ballroom Café where the characters drink from china cups in the little café situated in a crumbling old mansion is often a respite from the heavy toll of bad news which comes across my desk. Researching the wonderful vintage costume brooches of Albert Weiss, New York for The Ballroom Cafe has been an absolute pleasure. What a luxury it is for the writer who has the power and control to include or exclude and follow up on interesting asides; you can’t do much of that in a straight news story, when you are talking about the banking collapse or the Moriarty Tribunal.
Fact and fiction; they don’t compete, but can happily co-exist. My work as a journalist informs my writing, Central to The Ballroom Café is the forced illegal adoption of Irish children from orphanages the US. I first came across this as a journalist, but writing the novel has made me research the subject in depth. Newspaper men and women move so quickly from one story to the next, there is not the time to stop and stare, never mind take time out to research. It is the one luxury the novel has given me. Being able to do justice to all those stories of heartbreak around illegal forced adoption and wrap in a story where The Ballroom Cafe serves leaf tea, cake and a good dollop of gossip has been both a luxury and a privilege.
Being able to spend time writing finding the right words and working to a far off deadline has been a delight.
I love journalism and I love writing. For me there could not be a greater combination. Instead of competing against each other, they compliment each other.
As an aside there is one clear advantage agents tell me for those who learned their trade in the school of hard knocks that is journalism . Writers who were journalists in an earlier life are more philosophical when the rejections come flooding in or maybe we just pretend we are.(c) Ann O’Loughlin
About The Ballroom Café
Sisters Ella and Roberta O’Callaghan haven’t spoken for decades, torn apart by a dark family secret from their past. They both still live in the family’s crumbling Irish mansion, communicating only through the terse and bitter notes they leave for each other in the hallway. But when their way of life is suddenly threatened by bankruptcy, Ella tries to save their home by opening a café in the ballroom much to Roberta’s disgust.
As the café begin to thrive, the sisters are drawn into a new battle when Debbie, an American woman searching for her birth mother, starts working at the Ballroom Café. Debbie has little time left but as she sets out to discover who she really is and what happened to her mother, she is met by silence and lies at the local convent. Determined to discover the truth, she begins to uncover an adoption scandal that will rock both the community and the warring sisters.
Powerful and poignant, The Ballroom Café is a moving story of love lost and found.