Two different writers, two different age groups, and two different publishers – but Ruth Frances Long and E.R. Murray are both writing urban fantasy books set in Dublin. A Hollow in the Hills by Ruth Frances Long (the sequel to the award winning A Crack in Everything) was published on Sept 7th and E.R. Murray’s The Book of Learning, the first in her Nine Lives Trilogy, was published on Sept 2nd 2015. So what’s the attraction with Dublin, why does it lend itself to fantasy, and what makes these authors tick?
In this article, both writers answer the same questions about their books, writing and rituals, to compare and contrast and see how much they really do have in common!
What attracts you to writing about Dublin?
E.R. Murray had just moved to Dublin when she started writing The Book of Learning. “As I discovered the city,” she says, “I realised it was the perfect backdrop for my book. The laneways and cobbled streets, the old buildings and arches, the lovely parks and museums – I could feel history and whispered stories around every corner.”
Ruth Frances Long, on the other hand, was born and bred in Dublin. “Dublin is an amazing place,” she says. “It’s so old. We forget just how old. It’s always changing. Every time I go in some street is closed, something new has popped up. And in all those windy little roads (echoes of old medieval Dublin) there always seems to be a new lane you never noticed before, something unusual in the architecture you never saw, or a stunning piece of grafitti that has suddenly appeared.”
As Murray’s characters have nine lives, we meet versions of Ebony Smart from different time periods. “I became entranced by Dublin and its past, and I sought out remnants of each time period I wanted to explore.”
Long thinks of Dublin as a place of stories. “Everyone has a story about Dublin, about the places, the people, the crazy random things that happen while you’re just walking around. And everything in Dublin has a story attached to it. When you start delving into the history it gets even better. Foley Street was once called World’s End Lane, for example. I mean, there’s a story just waiting to be written right there.”
Both writers see Dublin as a character in their books. Long tries to portray it as closely as she can to the Dublin she knows. “Everyone has their own version of Dublin. It’s portrayed in songs and books, in plays and films, but each and every portrayal is personal. It’s that sort of place. Romantic, grotty, unexpected, stomach churning and marvellous. What’s not to love?”
While writing, E.R. Murray lived in a Georgian building. “The more I immersed myself in my new home, the more the city became a character in its own right almost, and certain places became prominent in my book, including St Stephen’s Green, the National Library, the Botanic Gardens and the Natural History Museum.”
What does urban fantasy offer readers?
Although the story may be fantastical, Murray says the characters have to be believable, they have to be real – “I think urban fantasy offers readers the chance to explore emotions and concepts in a way that is unthreatening. For instance, although The Book of Learning is built around the idea of reincarnation, it is actually about 12 year old Ebony Smart dealing with grief and trying to figure out where she belongs in the world. Who hasn’t been through that?”
Long says “There’s a weird sense of disconnect in a city, at times. It can be impersonal and strange, even to someone who knows it well. We’re used to expecting the supernatural on a bleak moor, in an old forest or at ancient ruins. In Ireland much of our folklore comes from these sort of places.” Folklore, Long believes, is simply the stories people tell each other, that the information passed on by those stories comes from a deep and fundamental part of the human psyche, the storyteller as part of an oral tradition. She says that everyone has a story about Dublin (at least one). “We’re hardwired for stories. So even in an urban setting those stories need an out. I love speculating on what an ancient member of the Daoine Sídhe might make of modern day Dublin. Or better yet, a young Sídhe outcaste, who has lived all his life in the city like you and I, complete with modern technology and attitudes, might make of being flung out into the countryside (spoiler: Poor Jinx! He HATES it!).”
To both writers, urban fantasy offers us a new way to look at the familiar–whether that “familiar” is the city around us or the supernatural stories and figures we grew up with. It asks us to examine our concept of modern life, of ancient traditions and the “Other”. It also allows us to examine those new and unfamiliar emotions which are eternal and effect everyone. “ Urban fantasy” Murray tells us, “allows for a certain amount of distance. It also allows for dreaming. The imagination is such a powerful tool, and I think being in touch with your imagination leads to a richer life.”
What do you do when you’re stuck?
When Murray works on the initial draft, she writes without editing a thing so it always flows easily. “So far I’ve been lucky and haven’t got completely stuck, but when I’m trying to iron out a complex change (usually during structural edits) then I take brisk walks around the countryside where I live, or I do something repetitive like weeding the vegetable bed or chopping wood. I also like to go swimming. I have to be moving, but in a way that can allow me to switch off and let my brain ramble. The worst thing to do is to sit and try and force the solution in front of your computer screen. I’ve found that it never, ever works.”
Long goes back to basics, with pen and paper, if she’s not already writing longhand. “If that doesn’t work I doodle all down the side of the page so that some of my notebooks look like illuminated manuscripts.” Like Murray she goes for walks, especially in places she is using in her stories if possible. “Research helps too,” she says, “because I have that sort of mind.” Unlike Murray, if all else fails, Long will sit herself down and force herself to keep going. “Even if it’s rubbish I can always fix it later and in the end, if you want to write something, you need to write.”
What’s your best bit of writing advice?
When is comes to writing advice, their view is remarkably similar. Murray says you must never give up. “If you give up you have no chance whatsoever of getting published or completing a book.”
Long says write and keep writing. She likes to quote Nora Roberts – “you can’t fix a blank page”.
Murray warns “Don’t wait for inspiration to hit – write every day and make it a habit so it’s a natural part of your day and you miss if it doesn’t happen. And keep going. Perseverance is the only way to improve and to get that book deal.”
“Everyone’s first draft it terrible,” says Long. “Be kind to yourself, but be stern as well. You know when you’re just goofing off and when there is a real problem. Be honest about that. And keep writing.”
Do you plot and plan your book – is this important for you to get started?
Murray doesn’t plot or plan at all. “I have an idea of the characters and a sense of the tone of the book. I’ll also know the setting – but that’s it.” She writes completely organically, without editing a thing. “I write a 50,000 word draft in a month – based on the NanoWrimo model – and I enjoy the intensity of letting the words churn out. It gives me the clay I need to sculpt, and it’s also fun to have such freedom. You use completely different brain muscles when editing, so I like to enjoy some freedom first.”
Similarly, Long doesn’t plot beforehand. “I tend to have a general idea where it starts and where it is ultimately going, along with a few pitstops along the way, but otherwise the journey is more of less like getting a Magical Mystery Tour Bus (the 46A for any Dubliners). Some books give me more indication of where we’re going that others. Some give me nothing at all.”
Murray leaves very little of her initial draft –“ I call it a draft zero” – in the finished manuscript, “but it’s a process I enjoy.”
Long has a new project she is starting to look at which may need to be planned out in greater detail and confesses that she is finding the thought of that quite daunting. “Then again,” she says, “who knows what will happen when I actually sit down to write it.”
Murray calls writing a flexible beast and says that techniques can always change in the future. “I thought it might with Book 2 of the Nine Lives Trilogy seeing as I already had the world in place, the central characters and a plot to build on, but it turned out that I still wrote the initial draft organically.”
Long believes the main thing with any plan you make as a writer is to know when to abandon that plan and go where the story takes you. “I’ve had characters all set up to do one thing when they turn around and go ‘No, actually, we’re going to go in the opposite direction and do something completely different’. And they did. Murder and mayhem ensued, but so did a much better story because your subconscious writing mind, embodied in those rebellious characters, always knows best. If you’re getting bored as a writer, no reader is going to enjoy what you produce. Embrace the chaos, I say.”
Both writers work loosely within their worlds, writing as fluidly as possible to begin with and going back later to hone the story, characters and details. “Beginning, end, some general idea of how… that’s all you really need, “ says Long. “Of course, every writer is different. So is every story.”
How well do you know your characters before you start writing?
Murray finds that it’s different with different characters. “Some might pop up as I’m writing but I always know my protagonist. I don’t do character sketches or profiles or anything like that, but I bounce them around in my brain until I get an acute sense of their emotions and personality and then I know I’m ready to start writing. For instance, I knew Ebony was going to be stubborn and a little rebellious, and I knew that because she loved the countryside, she would have to find a way to draw on her past experiences to adapt to city life.”
Long gets to know them prior to writing, but not on paper. “I spend a lot of time with them running amok in my head before I start writing, does that count? Without sounding like a crazy person? My characters are very real and distinct to me. I think about them a lot long before I ever put pen to paper. So I do tend to know them well, I just don’t write things down about them. Although I know them well, they still constantly surprise me anyway. I often feel they’re largely autonomous and I’m just following along behind, usually clinging on for dear life.”
What age group do you write for and why?
Murray’s The Book of Learning is for middle grade, so 8-12 year olds, but she also has a young adult (teen) novel coming out in March called Caramel Hearts. “My short stories have always been for adults, though I have written a young adult short story for an anthology that’s coming out next year. I don’t write for a particular age group as such, but each story idea automatically lends itself to a certain age group, and I usually know for certain what that age group is once I immerse myself in the writing. Each audience has something different to offer, but I love the enthusiasm and abandon of middle grade readers.”
Long writes mainly for 12+, teens and adults. “Teens are amazing. They are an incredibly tough crowd to write for. They’re clever and know their minds but at the same time they can be underrated and underappreciated. They don’t put up with being condescended to, or told what to think. They’re at this incredible time in their lives where they are finding out who they really are and that is so exciting. I love books that are hopeful and look to the future and I think that’s a key element in writing for teens for me. The idea that one person can make a difference, that becoming who you are meant to be, and learning about the world around you is so important that it trumps everything else. Teens are often the underdog and they’re finding their way through to independence. Plus I’m still 16 in my head.”
Why multiple books and not just a stand alone?
“When I started writing,” says Murray, “I instantly knew that Ebony’s story was much bigger than just one book. I knew that the first book had to be about her finding her way in this new city and new life, accepting her reincarnation abilities and solving the curse. But then the story had to evolve; I wanted to know more and I knew the reader would too.” She was absolutely right because the first question book reviewers ask is – “when is the next one out?” Murray says she always knew what would happen at the end of book two and at the end of the final book, but the bits in between were hazy. “Book two is almost written, and it’s been interesting to see where it has led me.”
Long says she just can’t leave well enough alone. A Crack in Everything was originally written as a stand alone. “But then the characters and the world just were not finished with me and A Hollow in the Hills happened. And they still aren’t finished, which is why I’m working on Book 3.” She likes each story in a series to be complete in itself without too many loose ends. “I hate when you get near the end of a book and realise there is no way everything can tie up, and sure enough the story just stops. I’m happy for there to be a cliff hanger leading into the next story, but the story itself should be complete.”
The final question – describe your book in five words.
Murray on The Book of Learning – “Magical adventures, many lessons learned! “
Long on A Crack in Everything and A Hollow in the Hills – “Scary fairies, dirty old town”
(c) Ruth Frances Long and ER Murray
The ESFS Award winning A Crack in Everything and its sequel A Hollow in the Hills, by Ruth Frances Long, both set in the magical world of faeries, angels and demons called Dubh Linn, are available in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!