A Writer's Jigsaw

Thursday 14th March 2013 by Support

I heard the clatter of hooves while they were still far away. It was evening, and I was standing in my socks in the doorway of our small house in Ballina, near Killaloe. I had spent the day doing geological study in the hills of Tipperary. I looked up the village street in alarm when I realised that the hooves were coming, not just fast, but very fast. At that moment a cart burst into sight, pulled by a pony at full gallop. The driver, a girl, was standing upright, and leaning back on the reins. She was laughing; hair and skirt were blowing in the wind. In a second they were gone, and the clatter receded into the distance. I think it was then that I said to myself that one day I would write a story about that girl and that her name would be Katie.

I continued with my geology, studying the rocks on both sides of the river Shannon, climbing in and out of the massive slate quarries that open like dark jaws in the sides of the hills and wondering if they wouldn't make a great place for an adventure. On one occasion I thought I was in the middle of a real adventure myself. I saw what appeared to be a body under the broken slates in one of the quarries. It turned out to be an old scarecrow, stuffed with straw.

Time passed and I found myself sitting at a desk rather than walking the hills with my geological hammer. I decided that it would be great to write a story for young people, but what could I write about? My mind is a bit like a jigsaw anyway, so I turned it out on the table to have a look, and to see if I could find any ideas. A single piece caught my eye at once, a brief flash of memory; it was the head of a girl with her hair blowing in the wind. Of course, it was the girl on the cart, and her name was to be Katie. I had a character.

When I was just out of school I trained with a mountain rescue team in Scotland. It was there that I learned the value of a good map. If you're going to climb a mountain you need to know where you are. It is the people who don't know where they are that have to be carried down. I started poking through my jigsaw pieces again. What was that? An old wellington and patched trousers stuffed with straw. My mind raced back, remembering: a deep dark quarry -- a moment of fright. Forget about bodies and scarecrows, but surely this quarry was a place for an adventure. I knew every one of those quarries and had walked in every field. Here was my map, and I could already see Katie's farm in my mind.

So, I had a heroine -- Katie. I knew where the action would take place -- in the quarries near Killaloe. But when did it all happen? I told you that my mind is like a jigsaw. The next clue came from a surprising, and rather sad, source, from a memento that I have on my desk. It's a paperknife -- it's here now -- and it dates from the First World War. My father was just too young to go to fight in the trenches, but his cousin and best friend, Arthur, wasn't. Arthur volunteered and set off for France. We know that he came back on leave once, and I imagine it was then that he had this paperknife made. The handle is made out of an empty cartridge case. It has a mock silver bullet, and a blade shaped like a dagger. When Arthur's leave was over, he went back to the trenches and was killed. Looking at the knife, I started thinking of all the Irish men who went to fight in the trenches. So many were killed, but what about the others, the ones that were wounded or damaged in the mind? What if Katie's father had been one of these? What if he had shell shock, a condition that can afflict people who have had terrible war experiences? Perhaps Katie could help him recover, but what if, in her heart of hearts, she thinks he's mad?

But how would I know what it was like all those years ago?

When I was little, I lived on a farm in County Sligo. Because the Second World War was raging, there was no fuel for tractors and the farm work had to be done with horses. There was also no electricity in the house, so we used candles and oil lamps. In fact, because of the war, my childhood was quite like what it would have been at the time when Katie's father came back from the trenches. It was easy for me to imagine Katie sitting, doing her homework in a pool of light from an oil lamp in the kitchen, when Father's hand comes out of the dark and rests gently on her arm. I knew what it was like to cart hay in summer, and how a hay float worked. And there were other things I could remember too, like the pinging sound that milk makes when it is squirted into a pail by hand. We would sometimes kneel down beside the cow and Peter the cowman would squirt a jet of warm milk into our mouths. In fact most of it went down our necks. It was all terribly unhygienic!

I began to realise that stories are not just made of big things; little things too can be terribly important. The tick of a clock makes everything else seem silent; the sight of a mouse feeding by moonlight makes us fearful for its safety; the scrunch of nailed boots takes us back to the time when farmer's boots were nailed. So, by remembering my childhood, I had a store of small, but real, things to use.

I still had one big problem, however. I went to secondary school in England, and because of this found that I knew nothing about Irish history. What, for example, was happening in Ireland when Father would have been recovering from his shell shock? I now realised that if I was to get any further with my jigsaw, I would have to start turning over the pieces that were still upside down. I would have to do some research. I started to read about Irish history, from the time when Father, influenced by John Redmond, would have gone off to the war. I learned that these men didn't go to fight for king and country, but in the belief that they were fighting for the freedom of small nations like Belgium. I read about the uprising in 1916, and the War of Independence that followed. Then in 1922, the Treaty was signed, and our dreadful Civil War began. By this time I recognised that Katie was someone special. This war was a war that never should have happened -- with Irish fighting Irish. How would Katie cope with a divided family?

People have asked me why I made Katie take a neutral position, why did I leave it to a girl (albeit helped by Daffyd and Kieran) to attempt to stop the war? The reason for this is that I believe that girls of Katie's age are more mature than boys are. Patriotism and fighting for ideals are the stuff of adolescent boys. At Seamus's age, I would have drunk up his talk of traitors, and of dying for Ireland. Unfortunately, some men never grow out of adolescence, and Seamus's outburst at dinner is, almost word-for-word, from a Republican writer of the time. (see pages 37-38.)

There is a lovely word: serendipity. Not only does it sound nice, but it has a nice meaning too -- it means a happy accident. When writing, one knows that things are going well when one finds that happy accidents are beginning to happen. My period of serendipity began when I went down to Nenagh, Katie's nearest town, and was allowed to look through the precious back issues of the Nenagh Guardian. Sitting in an upstairs room, I found myself reading an account by a reporter, possibly writing in the very room I was in, describing the sound of gunfire in the street outside. I looked at the date: 1 July 1922. Here was all the action I needed -- trees cut down, trenches across the road, railway lines and telegraph wires cut, no news of any kind getting to the outside world. Soon I had a rich haul, including the rhyme to the farmer who had just had his chickens stolen. (see page 110.)

A final word about characters: Some are planned in detail, like Katie and Father, for example. Some just grow: Seamus was one, Dafydd another. To begin with, I just wanted Dafydd there so that I could have someone who wasn't Irish looking on, but then he began to take over the book, and I think he brought out the best in Katie. Then there was Breege, who suddenly appeared on washday without my realising it. It doesn't often happen, but when it does it is the finest feeling in the world -- when your characters take over and start writing their own stories for you. Call it serendipity.

Aubrey Flegg