How a storm churned up a writer’s solution

Last August I was struggling with an inner dilemma that not-too-surprisingly corresponded with the arrival of an outer storm, Hurricane Dorian, that we had to deal with here in Florida.

While Dorian dallied, confused the forecasters, and battered the Bahamas, my husband and I struggled with indecision. Should we hunker down at home, or should we evacuate? We live on a barrier island that is susceptible to flooding, loss of electricity and significant wind damage in high storm conditions. Evacuation might seem like an obvious choice.

But the forecasters tend to over-state, and it takes a great deal of effort to evacuate a home even for a few days. The to-do list is three pages long: pack valuables, clothing, food and pets, money; store outside furniture and secure the house; find a decent dog-friendly hotel, inform relatives, etc. My reluctance to leave was high, but for safety’s sake we headed west. Thankfully, Dorian passed causing very little damage to our island.

Likewise, my inner storm—after much twisting and turning—resolved without too much injury.

Years ago, I set a goal for myself to complete a series of novels that illuminate the history of 17th century Ireland. I’m three books into that goal, covering the years 1634 to 1658. But there’s a gap in there that haunts me, starting with a great Irish rebellion of 1641—a brave stand against the English that started as a bloodless coup and ended in brutality, execution and massacre.

This was a complex and bloody era, without a doubt. It falls in the middle of the early modern period in history, 1534 – 1691—a time known for five major wars between the Irish and English, allegedly resulting in atrocities—rapes, murders, infant killings, massacres, starvation, genocide, and more—terrible acts of cruelty I have no wish to envision or describe. I’ve studied much about the rebellion, including the depositions taken afterward describing crimes so cold and horrendous one must question the existence of God.

 

 

Remembering first and foremost that the victors write the history, I know what was recorded as fact during that time was quite often inflated to make more useful propaganda. The English wanted to invade Ireland, and the rebellion simply gave the English Parliament—gorged with power after executing the king’s top advisor—a means by which they might justify and ignite hatred of the Irish and recruit men and support for the military invasion.

Somewhere within or perhaps between those same histories and depositions lies the truth. Modern historians are digging deeper for an honest evaluation of these incidents. Through their work I’ll find a vein of accuracy and follow it with some trepidation, knowing it could verify much of the atrocity. While some authors revel in the opportunity to shock and alarm readers with this dark realm of human history, it’s not my thing. The story, passion and purpose must always come first. I may be in the minority on this, but I still believe the author’s job is to get the reader to feel and care, not to give them deranged nightmares.

The truth must be told, I agree, often and honestly and in terms vivid enough that it will be remembered. As with the holocaust, such inhumanity must be imprinted at a global level. Memory, such that it is, provides the only insurance we have against such things happening again.

But explicit blood and gore of an incident isn’t necessary to understand unacceptable violence. Morbid detail elevates the violence to a spectacle that usurps the reader’s attention and separates him or her from the emotion driving the act. What are the causes? What’s the effect? How does it propel the story?

And there’s my inner dilemma: how do I write the truth honorably and effectively but not too graphically? The answer comes in the form of scale, the camera-lens ability to zoom in and out at will. Cruelties of man against man can be woven as truthfully as possible into a tapestry backdrop for a profound experience on an individual level.

Now then, what’s the individual experience that will serve, and whose eyes will reveal it?

As the storm raged, my research became both documentation and treasure hunt. I stumbled upon a singular event that has now become the foundation for the novel’s structure: a castle siege involving all the right bits of conflict to tell the full story in microcosm.

Within the castle are the English Protestants, holding out against those wild and savage Irish. Outside the castle walls are the Catholic native Irish, whose castle and lands were stolen by the greedy, invading English. Within that setup lies a love story: forbidden love in war time, the struggle to maintain tradition and lifestyle amid a sea of hatred, the spirit to restore and renew what was lost, and the eternal fight to survive.

There is quite a bit of violence involved, too, but observing it through the limited perspective of the characters makes it more manageable.

In this period, siege was a fairly common warfare strategy, and economical for those who lacked cannons and other artillery and could live off the enemy’s captured livestock. Some famous sieges in Ireland include the Siege of Smerwick, 1580; Siege of Kinsale, 1601; Siege of Drogheda, 1649; Siege of Derry, 1689; Siege of Athlone, 1690; and the Siege of Limerick, 1691.

 

SEIGE & BATTLE OF KINSALE, 1601 (PACATA HIBERNIA 1633)

A siege has similarities to a hurricane. Sometimes you must board up the windows against the enemy, and hope you have enough food, water and candles to see you through until the storm does its damage or passes by.

In a 17th century siege, there might not have been time to secure supplies. The external forces might make a surprise attack. If repelled by the castle forces, they wouldn’t necessarily try to break down the walls—especially not if their goal was to preserve and hold the castle. Instead they would take the sheep and cattle, corn, hay, and other stores they could find outside the castle, so that those within the castle could not feed themselves or their livestock within the castle. From the outside they might easily contaminate the castle’s water supply as well.

The siege could last much longer than a few days. The inhabitants could hold out for weeks or months, hoping for help to arrive. The longest siege in world history lasted 21 years! But in most cases, without military relief, the only choice was to surrender the castle to the siege force, or die by starvation and disease. Things tended to end badly. One inescapable atrocity of the time was that even those who peacefully surrendered were sometimes, as they say, put to the sword.

2 thoughts on “How a storm churned up a writer’s solution

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s