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The Trouble with The Troubles.

I’m taking part in Absolute Write’s March blog tour and, in honour of the Day of Green, the blogs are about all things Irish. They’re really terrific and well worth a look at – the list of blogs are down below.

Anyway, I thought I’d do a little serious one, since I’m a dour, serious Northerner.* What I wanted to talk about is writing about Northern Ireland (NI) in my books.

A little history, perhaps, for those new to my witterings. I have a sexy Space Opera coming out this month, which makes blogging about Ulster seem, perhaps, a little odd. (My sexy space pilots all sound and look like Liam Neeson, though.**) But like many young writers (I’m not really that young, but it sounds good, yes?) I have a few other goodies I’m looking for homes for, and two of those happen to be set in NI.

Lots of books are set in NI (although not much sci fi). Anyone looking a good crime read could do a lot worse than looking at some of the Belfast Noir stuff coming out by the likes of Adrian McKinty. And Colin Bateman always raises a smile – anyone who can write the line ‘Up your hole with a big jam roll’*** in just the right place will always get a laugh from me. Further back, for a YA perspective on the Troubles, it’s hard to look past Joan Linguard’s fabulous Twelfth of July series.

That last line sets something of my dilemma. A perspective on the Troubles. It’s the catch-all in books about NI, that the Troubles are there and impacting on the story. And that was something I didn’t want to do. I wanted NI to be more than the Troubles, to be a place where a story could be set without the constant references and looking back.

So I wrote my first NI-based book with that agenda in mind (note to self, never write with an agenda). The aliens invaded Belfast. We had a common foe and were united against it. Except that the agent who took me on for it immediately asked where the Troubles were in the book, because that’s what people would expect in a book set in NI.

Since then, the book’s had a couple of rewrites and now, firmly, the references to the Troubles are in there. The antagonist is an ex-paramilitary, the Peace Wall has been ruined by an alien smart-bomb, the murals have been repainted – we’re fighting for Earth now. The divisions are shown, the continued line between the religions. The themes don’t dominate, but they’re there and – you know what? (I’ll whisper this next bit.) The agent was correct. To show NI needs the Troubles. Right?

Um, well almost. The next book I wrote in NI is a fairy-changeling-with-shades-of-Rebecca-story, if you can picture that. It doesn’t reference the Troubles at all. It calls upon older myths, the sense of place, the bleak fairy landscape that doesn’t hint at pretty elves but the older, deeper myths. The landscape of John Hewitt, the poet of the Glens, of dark portals that lead to somewhere deeper and darker. There are fairy nests in sultry gardens, sea caves inhabited by the Shee.

It’s no surprise that Game of Thrones is filmed in some of the places I used – they carry the sense of a hidden tale, one that’s grim around the edges no matter how gaudy the image projected may be.

The Troubles aren’t needed for this book. They’re not impacting on the lives of my New Adults, born so long after they ended. And that, perhaps, is the point of this blog. (Frankly, I’m never sure. I have planning blogs better on my must-improve-list.) Should a point in history be the defining point of a land? If our stories can transcend the obvious, can they can become their own defining point?

I think in some ways they can. It’s one of the reasons I write genre fiction – to move definition beyond our own world and out into something that can mirror and shape our thoughts. It’s what the dear, great, so-sadly-late Terry Pratchett was good at. I’ve learned more about my thoughts on Ulster by writing about aliens than I did listening to any amount of news programmes. I’ve learned to feel the land in writing about it. I’ve learned that what defines a place isn’t always the obvious – although sometimes it might be – but what moves the story, and the writer, at that particular time, should be central. And that’s exactly how it should be.

*may not be strictly true
** only in my dreams
***must be said in a Belfast accent

Layla Lawlor


Blair B. Burke said…
I like the serious! Not that I know much about Ulster, but your reasoning seems pretty sound to me. A defining event in the past can be a powerful reference in a current/future story, and helps give a place special meaning. But not every story needs that. Use what works, don't shoehorn in something only because it's expected, let the story dictate the devices. I agree.
Joanne Zebedee said…
Thank you! I think it makes writing sense. But it's worth thinking through when writing somewhere history is so raw and close. I enjoyed doing the chain. :)
Joanne Zebedee said…
Where else? :) ;) Troublesome place...
W.R. Gingell said…
Really enjoyed this one :) Though I would have called it slyly humorous rather than serious :D
Joanne Zebedee said…
Thank you - yes, caught out. :)
Amanda Duncil said…
The Troubles made me think of the the Horsemen of the Apocalypse or some such. Goes to show how versed I am in history! Anyway your "troubles" sure do pose a dilemma, but I'm glad you worked it out and the subtle reference worked in your story's favor!
Joanne Zebedee said…
Yeah, it's surprised me - for such a big part of our history, we're not as notorious as we thought!

I need to comment on all your blogs - computer played me up earlier!
Layla Lawlor said…
Nnnnnn, yes. That's tricky, isn't it, that push-pull between history and modernity, what "everyone knows" and what the modern world actually is -- the risk of being locked into having one particular defining feature as the definition of a place and time, I guess, when the reality is actually so much more complex. I like to think that one of the strengths of fiction is that it can transcend the stereotypes and touch on deeper truths (or just tell a good rollicking story in which the ~important political things~ don't matter), but ... yeah. Marketing. :P

I grew up in the 80s/90s, so the Troubles - though we didn't call it that over here - was very much in the news in the US, to the point where it was sort of The Defining Northern Ireland Thing, and it's sometimes a little startling to realize it was almost 20 years ago, and there's a whole generation, slightly younger than me, for whom that's The Distant Past.

Oh, also, I loved this bit:

It calls upon older myths, the sense of place, the bleak fairy landscape that doesn’t hint at pretty elves but the older, deeper myths. The landscape of John Hewitt, the poet of the Glens, of dark portals that lead to somewhere deeper and darker. There are fairy nests in sultry gardens, sea caves inhabited by the Shee.

I just loved the evocativeness of this. :D Such a very excellent sense of place -- dark and deep and rich.

I want to read your books, by the way. :D I've read very little fiction set in Ulster (quite possibly ... none) and I think these sound great! The recs are appreciated, also.
Joanne Zebedee said…
Oh, wow, thank you for that. :) i really hope to find a home for the Ulster stuff - I love my space opera, which is out in two weeks (eeeee), but it is very different.

And thank you for yiur thoughtful comments. I am intending to get to the end of this big, busy week and curl up to read and comment on everyone else's. :)

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