Delerium Africanus

This is a piece I wrote some time back about the research process, and how it works for me. It will be familiar to some of you, but new to others. It gives a glimpse into the fun side of writing.

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It all started with a simple scene of seeing Jamie flying his plane (a Gypsy Moth given to him by his grandfather) over a herd of elephants. Now it’s progressed to an entire side story that takes place in his past in the highlands of Kenya, with bits occuring in Uganda. In short I have become obsessed with Africa. My house is strewn with books on everything from gorillas to boy soldiers, to how one actually zombifies a person (no, I’m not kidding). I can’t seem to stop myself.

I thought this might be interesting, because two of the most frequent questions I get as a writer are a)where do you get your ideas?’ and b)don’t you hate doing the research? The ideas, I swear, come from some other realm, and the muses flit back and forth between this one and that. Sometimes they are kind and present the ideas fully formed so that I know how they fit in the story and how it furthers the plot. Other times they just chuck them at my head and say, ‘you figure it out’ and flit off, sprinkling muse dust in their wake. This Africa thing is the latter sort. And as for the research, unfortunately I think I love it a little too much. I could spend years pouring through books in every library from here to Timbuktu…if only I could find someone to finance such lovely madness, I’d probably never get another book written, I’d just gad from country to country, signing up for library cards and sitting in dusty rooms sneezing and reading, reading and sneezing, quite happily.

Research is a monster, because one book inevitably points out ten more that you need to consult and of course those ten very hospitably do the same, until you can’t see the floor on your side of the bed, because it’s knee deep in books on how to dye your own African headwraps and cook a wildebeest when you’re lost in the Kalahari, not to mention how to fly a plane that was built in the ’30s.

You find yourself starting sentences, whilst speaking to your husband, with “when we go to Africa…” to which he wrinkles up his forehead and says, “I thought we were going to Russia.” (your Russian obsession was at least three months ago, why is he still bringing it up?)  You ponder such things as, ‘should we stay at Treetops the way the movie stars did, or rough it in the bushes with the lions and tigers and bears…’ you shake your head sternly, there are no bears in Africa. You brew yourself Rooiboos tea and call it ‘bush tea’ and think to yourself that a brightly coloured sarong would be much more flattering to your ‘traditionally built’ self than these damn jeans.

You think maybe you should have been an aid worker in the Congo, think maybe you should do this after the children are grown and gone, you picture yourself in bright smocks teaching childbirth classes- though you have no training in this area but do have a friend who perhaps you can coerce into said African trip with you, who will actually do the real work, while you talk to George Clooney and Brad Pitt about the progress being made at the clinic. You picture yourself being featured on Anderson Cooper’s 360- what you talk about is a bit fuzzy, but Anderson clearly adores you by the end of said fuzzy interview (it is this interview that causes George and Brad to come visit your clinic). But then you think about things like hot baths, how much you hate mosquitoes and what if you ended up somewhere that didn’t stock large amounts of Diet Coke? You admit to yourself in a moment of sad clarity that you are not likely aid worker material but feel that at least you have the ability to be honest about who you are- which leads to a feeling of smugness that you know isn’t warranted.

You wonder why your parents couldn’t have given you a good Swahili name, like so many other hippy parents of the times. Afterall if they had named you Samira, surely you would be a far more exotic woman, able to tempt George Clooney and Brad Pitt with a mere look tossed over your tie-dyed shoulder, it’s just your sad little Western name that’s been holding you back all these years. Then you realize that Samira is a little too close to the name of that creepy little girl in ‘The Ring’ and you’ve managed not to think about ‘The Ring’ in months, so damn it, why are you thinking about it now when it was almost purged from your memory, except for nights when your husband is away and you picture said creepy girl crawling out of the tv in your downstairs family room…

See how my thinking goes? It’s lucky I get any writing done at all. 🙂

The upshot of all this will likely amount to about twenty pages in the finished novel, but now you have some idea what doesn’t make it onto those pages. Aren’t you glad?

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In the end none of the African bits made their way into Flights of Angels but they may pop up in the next book, who knows where that one will take me…

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How this all started…

My first blog post.  Such pressure. I feel that I ought to have something witty or profound to say. Alas, the muse seems to be rather quiet on this snowy January day. So here it is- I’m a writer of three Irish historical novels, I’m an avid reader, as all good writers must be, and I’m lucky enough to have readers of my own novels scattered all over this planet of ours. 

The books- Exit Unicorns, Mermaid in a Bowl of Tears and the shortly to be released Flights of Angels– are about the Irish Troubles (though in Flights of Angels we’re taking a trip to Russia for half the book). Irish history has always been a passion of mine, and long ago someone said to me ‘The Irish (as they rolled their eyes) do they even know what it is they are fighting about?’ Well, yes they did, the history is one that goes back eight hundred years. I wanted to tell that story, the one that explained just why there was such a thing as the ‘Irish Troubles’. So my books are the ‘other’ side of history, the one that they don’t teach in history class, the one about the people who actually lived through those times, and didn’t just observe from a distance. Telling this story through the lens of fictional characters seemed the natural thing to do.

There are so many elements that make up a storyteller, the things in your past that you didn’t realize were influencing you, directing your interests, and that you were storing away for a future time when you would spin those various experiences into a tapestry of words. For me first it was my family, I’m only three generations away from Belfast. Or as a lovely Irish lady once told me when I said my great-grandparents had left Ireland in 1915- ‘oh, darlin’ that’s only yesterday here.’

When I was small I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother- we put out cream for the fairies at night, and she often told me blood-curdling tales that I loved, even though they haunted my small self in the dark. I believed in fairies then (Irish fairies, btw, are not of the sweet and sparkly sort) and I still do now, just in a slightly different manner. I don’t live in fear of them lifting me from my bed anymore, leastwise. 🙂  But the influence of them is there in my work, as I feel you can’t write about Ireland and not have an element of mysticism in your work (at least I can’t).  If you’ve been to Ireland- you know, there’s just a bit of magic in the air.

Long ago I read the book Trinity by Leon Uris. It changed everything for me. I was thirteen at the time and I remember reading that last page, closing the book with a sense of profound loss and just knowing that this is what I wanted to do, tell stories that made people think, cry, laugh and create characters that would live for others as vividly as they lived for me. People that readers would consider personal friends and that they would wonder about long after the last page was turned.

One of my readers, referring to the characters in my books, once said ‘I swear these people lived somewhere, some time, and they’ve chosen you to take down their story.’  I feel that way too, that I don’t so much create as  just get out of the way and let them tell their story.  But I am very glad they chose me to take their dictation. 🙂

Writing is like breathing for me, I simply have to do it. I would do it even if I never made a dime off it, because it keeps me sane and it makes me happy. That I get to share it with so many people is a gift.

Oh and the title of the blog- one of my main characters- Lord James Kirkpatrick (often referred to as His Lordship by my readers) owns a distillery. The angel’s ether, also known as the angel’s portion is the alcohol that cooks off during the whiskey distilling process.  It’s how I think of writing sometimes, the stuff that cooks off during the creative process and slips away is the angel’s ether.