Choosing a place in time

Part 3 in the series: How I found the snow path to Dingle

pirate ship1670As noted in my last post, my research was leading me to believe I had a book on my hands, or at least I hoped so. I had already finished my first novel but it was lengthy and meandering, and though dear to my heart because it was written as a tribute to my father, I knew it was not marketable as it was and could not see a clear way to fix it. I had already started attending writers’ conferences to learn, and found them both helpful and destructive.

In particular, I loved the Surrey International Writers Conference in British Columbia, where I met Diana Gabaldon (I’ve attended several times), and the Historical Novel Society where I met Margaret George, among others. I did not care for the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in Seattle, where the speakers’ attitudes seemed to be “we’re published, you’re not and never will be.” When I sat down for lunch and realized everyone at my table had the same impression, I knew I’d never go back to that one. The Algonkian Writers Confererence at Half Moon Bay was limited to 15 people who had achieved a certain level of proficiency. I found it intimate, individualized, bonding, positive and instructive.

Among the things I learned was that as a new writer, you need to keep your word count down, because publishers are less likely to make an expensive investment in a new writer, and thick books are costly to print. The recommendation was between 120,000 and 150,000 words. It is tricky with historical fiction, because there is more to explain and describe, but it can be done. (As an example, Sharavogue comes in at just over 117,000 words and the printed book is 292 pages.)

I also learned, as we all know already, you must hook the reader with your first line, your first paragraph, your first page. There are certainly books I’ve read that did not hit this mark, but I think unless you have a friend in the publishing industry or something else up your sleeve, it’s something to strive for. Think of an agent or editor sitting at a desk surrounded by stacks of manuscripts. He or she will be looking for a reason to eliminate some. Don’t give them one. I rewrote my openings countless times. (How do you know when it is done? As another author said recently, you just have to write from the heart and hope for the best.)

At these conferences, editors and agents often speak on panels or you can learn what they are looking for during 10-minute one-on-one sessions booked in advance. I remember hearing one agent say enough already with the Tudor period. I saw that comment repeated on another agent’s website. So in part that’s the reason I decided to look for a time different than Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn or Elizabeth I. I decided to choose a time not often covered in books (the road less traveled, if you will); a time very important in Irish history that spoke to my own Irish heritage. And, one of my goals would be to help illuminate this new time period, because I believed readers of historical fiction wanted, just as I do, to learn about history as they read a good story. From Diana Gabaldon, while falling in love with Jamie I also learned about the battle at Culloden and the Scottish rebellion against English rule.

Of course, the danger in choosing a different time period is the agents and editors also don’t know it, so they don’t know how to sell it. I deeply admire Hilary Mantel who, with her brilliant books Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, found a way to approach the Tudor period from a completely different viewpoint: that of the infamous Thomas Cromwell.

I chose Oliver Cromwell, distantly related in the next century whose name still stirs hate among the Irish and admiration among some English, but definitely controversy among all. And I did choose this period, the Irish rebellion of 1641 through Cromwell’s march of 1649, but it also chose me. Once I focused, books and articles came to me that I had not really searched for, and then because of those I was drawn to other resources that I sought relentlessly for months. Pieces began to come together like I big, messy jigsaw puzzle.

All good stories must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Fairly early on, I knew the beginning of my book, and then I knew how it would have to end. I really had no idea what would happen in the middle. It took years of research and discovery, but slowly the middle began to take shape and fill in. On that day when I realized the two ends would actually meet, the elation was magnificent!

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Cruelty in the wild west of Ireland

Part 2 in the series: How I found the snow path to Dingle

At the end of my last post, I began the adventure to discover the meaning of the phrase in my head, “the snow path to Dingle” which ultimately led to the book Sharavogue. Where else could my research begin, but Dingle? Many tourists to Ireland venture out on this far-west peninsula, but if you have never been there it is an amazing mix of sugar-white beaches, dark clumpy bogs, castle ruins, rocky mountain passes, harbor towns with fishing boats bobbing on the water, lush green pastures, lively pubs and gourmet restaurants tucked amid colorful village shops and businesses. Most would never guess the horrors that once took place there.

I started my research on the Internet, but this was several years ago and the web was not the robust information resource that it is today. Still, one of the first things I found was the story of the Seige of Smerwick. According to one source:

Smerwick was originally a Viking settlement and its name originates from the Norse words ‘smoer’ and ‘wick’ meaning ‘butter harbour’. Although denoted as Smerwick on charts the area is now officially known by the Irish name ‘Ard na Caithne’, meaning ‘height of the arbutus’ or strawberry tree.

SmerwickfortPlanIt is a sweet name that helps to obscure a bitter past. In 1580, 600 Italian and Spanish troops landed here, funded by the Pope to aid a rebellion against English forces in Ireland. The garrison became isolated on a narrow tip of the peninsula, with English artillery on the land side and naval forces on the sea. Earl Gray laid seige to the garrison and their defenses crumbled after three days. Gray rejected their request for terms, insisted on unconditional surrender, then sent his bands in to execute the 600, sparing only those of higher rank. The soldiers were beheaded, their bodies flung into the sea and their heads buried in a field. The ranking offers were offered life if they renounced their Catholic faith, and if they did not their legs and arms were broken in three places, they were left to suffer for a day, and then hanged.

This story was horrible and unforgettable to me, though I was not sure I wanted to write about it. In the end I gave it only a passing mention because I chose to write of a not less brutal time about 80 years later. What this story did was ignite my passion for research into the dramatic history of Ireland. And I learned how magic and exciting research can be.

One of the best things I did was become a “friend” of the University of Washington Library, which means I paid a small fee for access to books and documents. I learned that the library doesn’t “stock” everything, but populates its shelves with things as professors and research assistants request documents and publications for their research projects. Then they are available to the lay person. I learned not to be disappointed if the book that I wanted was not sitting in the stacks where it was supposed to be, because I would inevitably find even more interesting things waiting for me that I had not found in the catalog. Just to pick up those books and thumb through them brought magical surprises that led me in specific directions.

One day I stumbled across a book that had interviews with Irish people describing the devastation left in the wake of Oliver Cromwell’s march in 1649 and 1650, and one man’s description of the horrible omen the he was certain foretold Cromwell’s coming: It was a full yellow moon encircled by blood and cleaved in two.

I was fascinated. I had found a time that I needed to know much more about. I was hooked.

How I found the snow path to Dingle

KillarneyART162687I feel it is a great honor when readers share with me that they read my book, Sharavogue, and then describe the parts that affected them most. In a few cases it has actually sent a chill up my spine because, well, it is every writer’s dream that her writing will be enjoyed and will actually touch someone. In that sense, it is really a dream come true.

People ask all sorts of questions, but several have told me they’d be interested in learning about my writing process. I’m flattered, and a little embarrassed. I’ve been less than methodical in my research, so probably not a good model. But, everyone has their story, right? So in honor of my new friend Joan Butler, today I’m starting a series of posts about just that. I’m expecting it to be about 10 or 12 posts, and will gladly take questions from readers to cover a specific topic.

This being first in the series, I’m starting at the beginning — how I got started writing this book in the first place. So hold on to your jammies, here goes. We’re going back. Way back:

I’d wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. Alone in my bedroom, maybe 10 years old, I wrote little stories about dogs and squirrels and gave them to my mother to read (top secret, of course, because if my sisters had known about them they’d have teased me relentlessly). And Mother in Heaven forgive me, once I even had a story about a swan on a lake. (I know, it’s been done…) My poor mother had to come listen to it accompanied by me on my ukelele (I thought the instrument was cute and had to have it, but never actually learned how to play it…). My father always called me “the dreamer.” Little did he know.

In grade school and then college I continued my dreams. I dabbled in English, and then Education, until my roommate finally convinced me: If you want to write, study journalism! I did and have never regretted it, but in a way it distracted me from those stories. And my career drifted even further, from journalism to corporate communications, until I believed my stories were gone for good.

The last time I saw my father alive was in the fall of 1996. By then I was married and living in Seattle. I was visiting him in Florida. He took me to lunch and asked, “When are you going to start writing again?” I don’t think he knew about the squirrel stories, but had always been proud of the newspaper ones. I shrugged and said I didn’t know if I could write anymore. My writing was all bureaucratic now.

He said, quite simply, “You’ll write when you’re ready.”

We lost him in March of the following year. It was almost exactly a year after his death that I was awakened from a deep sleep, as sure as if someone had shaken me, and a phrase was in my head: A snow path to Dingle. A snow path to Dingle — a phrase so strong and nonsensical, it had to come from somewhere, for some reason, and it refused to leave. Hardly having any choice, I resolved to do some research to discover its meaning.

And, because I already loved historical fiction, and had twice visited Dingle in the west of Ireland to explore our family’s Irish heritage, I felt I had a basic foundation and a clear place to start. And so I was off…on a real adventure.