Research Trip: Inishmore

Catherine Day, catherineeday Dublin, Ireland, author, novelist, writer
Inishmore Island, the Harbour

I think Inishmore was the island that sparked my love affair with islands. I’ve been three times now, and I can’t wait to go back. Of the many islands I’ve visited it remains the easiest to spend time on, for a number of reasons: there’s plenty to see and do and when you’re finished doing and seeing everything on Inishmore you can hop on a ferry from there to the other two Aran Islands and have three completely different island experiences.

It has plenty of amenities in comparison to the other islands I’ve been to, where I’ve had issues with restaurants closing early, shops being shut on a Sunday etc. On Inishmore there are lots of pubs, plenty of accommodation and pretty decent food. There are a number of craft shops and a decently stocked supermarket. Kilmurvey beach is lovely, as is the walk to the top of the Black Fort.

Catherine Day, catherineeday Dublin, Ireland, author, novelist, writer
Kilmurvey Beach

Inishmore has probably had the most influence on the shaping of my fictional island in my imagination, simply because I’ve been there so many times.

This time I came here with a singular focus: to find out as much as possible about the history of the island as I could from a bona fide islander. I booked a pony and trap tour, and embarked on the maiden voyage of Inishmore’s first, and only, female horse and trap tour-guide. She was young for a guide. Her name was Grainne, and she was incredibly knowledgeable, and told us stories about the island that were as funny as they were informative. As we clip-clopped around the island cars driven by proud island women tooted their horns at her. The Inishmore version of ‘you go, girl!’

Catherine Day, catherineeday Dublin, Ireland, author, novelist, writer

Grainne was born and raised on Inishmore, and after spending a number of years on the mainland completing a marketing degree and working in an office, she decided to return to her home place and become a tour-guide. She clearly loves the island she grew up on. She told me things about the island that fascinated me. She told me about local history, information about the culture and customs of the island, and the simple, informality of life here. Things that I wouldn’t have gotten from a perusal of WikiPedia, and much of which is likely to find itself in my novel.

Research: Trip to Galway City

Catherine Day, catherineeday Dublin, Ireland, author, novelist, writer

Galway City is only a half an hour’s drive from the ferry to Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. As the island of Inish Dubh is based on various islands that I’ve visited, I decided that like Inishmore, my island would be reasonably close to Galway City. Galway is the biggest city in the West of Ireland. I wanted to write scenes set in a busy, bustling place that would contrast well with the sleepy insularity of Inish Dubh. I’m enjoying blending fictional locations with real ones, and that’s what I’ll be doing for the scenes that are set in Galway.

Four separate scenes in my novel take place in Galway City. They take place: in a cafe, a pub, Quay Street and Salthill Prom respectively. Though I love Galway, and I’ve visited it many times, my memories of it aren’t the clearest. Galway is a gorgeous place, and a really fun city to visit.

A really fun city, if you know what I mean.

A little too fun, really.

As a consequence, trying to summon up anything useful through the cloudy soup of memories that I had to draw on wasn’t working out very well for me. So I decided that the best thing would be for me to take a trip to Galway and walk the city alone. And take it all in. Totally sober.

Before leaving for Galway, I did some research on what Galway City and  the Salthill Prom looked like in the 1970’s. I found an amazing Facebook page (Galway Memories) full of old photos of Galway from previous decades, and I looked at videos from the RTE archives. I planned to walk modern Galway, and mentally superimpose those old images onto what I was seeing.

Catherine Day, catherineeday Dublin, Ireland, author, novelist, writer

As soon as I arrived in Galway I drove to my hotel, dumped my car, checked in and immediately went out again and started exploring. Over two days I wandered the length and breadth of Salthill and Galway City. Breathing in the sea air of the Salthill Prom, examining cafe and pub fronts, strolling along the canal, drinking a coffee outside on Quay Street and generally soaking up the buzz of the city centre. I would stop every ten minutes or so to take photos and note down my impressions as went along.

It was incredible how vivid the scenes in my head became. Walking in the footsteps of my characters. They became more real to me than I could have ever imagined. My trip to Galway will definitely help me to add texture and realism to the scenes that I have set there. Given that I’m setting my book on a fictional island, it’s a welcome change to have the detail is right there, physically, for me to draw from.

Creativity Boosters for when The Well Runs Dry

When I started writing my first novel, I had ‘writing fever’. I didn’t have to try. It was like I’d turned a tap marked ‘creativity’, and ideas came gushing forth.

‘This is easy’ I thought ‘I can’t believe I didn’t do this years ago! I’ll have this novel written in no time’.

And then.

Ten days in, I had a bad day. I sat down at the desk, and there was no natural ‘flow’ of words from brain-to-fingertips-to-keyboard. I stayed at my desk, but it was as though a constrictor knot was strangling the life out of my writing. The more I tried to force words onto the page, the tighter the knot became. Eight hours later I hit my word count, but the writing was terrible. Uninspired, flat, lifeless. I was angry with myself, but mostly I was scared. I was full of fear that tomorrow would be another bad day. And there was no guarantee that it would be any better the day after. Or the day after that.

Luckily, the next day was a good day, and I’d learned that sometimes writer’s block is a very temporary thing. But I never forgot it. It dawned on me that as a writer I had no control over whether or not I had a good day, or a bad day. That there was no ‘creative tap’ that I could just turn on at will, and it terrified me. In every other job I have done, I was in charge of whether or not I would go in and do a good day’s work. There were certain things I couldn’t control, but even if I was in a bad mood, or tired, or a little sick, or just feeling low, I could still go into work and do my job. One thing I always had control over was my productivity, and whether my work was of a decent quality.

The realisation that writing didn’t work the same way shook me.

Writer’s block is a thing. Many writers have experienced it. I’m lucky that it hasn’t bedded down with me for too long at any stage. Yet. I’ve managed to find a few ways of getting things moving again if I get stuck, and so far they have all worked for me. I hope they always will.

Here are my top ten ways to get one’s groove back:

Find your calm

It can be very stressful when you hit the wall. Stress kills my writing stone dead. So if I hit the wall, stress feeds that feeling of powerlessness and puts the final nail in the coffin of my creativity.

In the past, I’ve found that refocusing and putting things in perspective are ways of combating this and finding a way to calm the panicked thoughts in my head. I like meditation or getting outside, going for a walk in the park.  When I was a child/teenager, knitting and drawing were things that worked for me. But there are loads of ways to find that sense of peace. Listening to music, reading, playing an instrument, dancing, painting, yoga, cooking/baking, visiting a museum/gallery, gardening, picking up a colouring book, spending time with your pet, being with nature, valium (not valium, I’m being facetious… try magnesium first). Pick your antidote.

Read

Read all kinds of things. Poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction. I find that it not only does reading get my creativity tap flowing, it motivates me. You’re holding the finished product of someone else’s hard work in your hands. You can do this!

Write every day

I found that my mini-blocks usually happened after I’d taken a weekend off. I find that taking even a full day off from writing can kill my flow. It is good to write every day. I mean, every day. Even if it’s just a little bit. Even if it isn’t your novel. In fact, sometimes writing a poem, blog-post or starting a short-story can be just the thing you need to reset. Whatever you do, it’s important to keep the engine ticking over.

Walk

I find walking better than other, more strenuous, forms of exercise because your focus isn’t on the movement itself or watching the clock and thinking ‘SWEET JESUS, WHEN WILL THIS TORMENT END?’. It is pure, unadulterated, thinking time with the extra benefit of bringing additional oxygen to the brain. Not only does it calm me, but it magically generates ideas and solutions. I’ve written about the magical effects of walking, here.

change your surroundings

I find that sometimes a change of scenery helps. I work in the same office day in, day out and it can feel a bit like a sarcophagus at times. Occasionally, I’ll work in a different room, or get out of the house and work in a cafe or the library. And there are people there, so it feels sociable. Sometimes, something more drastic is needed, and it’s good to get away on a mini-break or holiday, with your laptop/ word-processor/typewriter/pen and pad/quill and parchment/tablet, hammer and chisel for a couple of days.

Learn

As well as learning about your craft, open your mind to other forms of learning. Watch a documentary, learn a language (I recommend DuoLingo for this), pick up an instrument, learn to crochet. Learning opens up fresh neural-pathways in your brain, shakes up your thought-processes and give your head a kick up the backside.

Listen

It’s easy to become consumed by your novel. Writing a book is an intense and draining process, and unlike the vast majority of professions, it is mostly solitary. Being around others can spark things off. Seek out all kinds of interesting people. Especially, people that are different from you. Humans are my biggest inspiration. They are each so incredibly interesting in their own unique way. Writing groups are a great way of combining work with socialising. Learn more about the benefits of writing groups here.

Be Curious and Alive

Modern life can be a deadening thing. There’s a lot of anxiety-inducing negativity swirling about on social media, and that bleeds into everyday life. It can make the world seem like a bleak and uninspiring place. This is not the mindset a writer should have.

The world might be a dangerous place, it might be a tragic place, or a wondrous place, or a joyful place. But it has to excite you as a writer. Seek out experiences, sensations and emotions. Be mindful of your emotional responses. Ask questions of them. Explore what delights you, horrifies you, scares you, disgusts you, saddens you. Ask yourself ‘why?’

Why do I feel that way about that work of art or that piece of music? Why does that particular scene in that movie make me shudder?

I’ve written a post all about the benefits of mindfulness here

Over to you: Have you ever experienced writers’ block? If so, how did you handle it? How did you shift it?

Competitions: NYC Midnight, Short Story Competition, Round 2

I’m delighted to have been ranked 3rd in my heat in the second round of this competition, and am one of the top eighty in the competition, which started with over 3,000 entrants. Again, the feedback was good and very helpful, and I may actually adapt this into a screenplay of some kind. I found the genre was less appealing this time around. I find comedy hard to write, but I absolutely love funny writing. I’m not a big fan of action/adventure novels.

Genre: Action/Adventure

Character: A prison guard

Subject: Melting

The three elements of the assignment actually made sense together, which should have made things easy-peasy. Strangely, this had its own challenges. On seeing the elements of the assignment my mind was flooded with visions of imprisoned superheroes with special melting powers. Though ideas came easily to me at the start, I started and binned various versions of this story before finally accepting that the superhero I had conjured up was a totally lame-o. I just didn’t care about her at all. I actually love to watch the occasional superhero movie, but I found that writing my own superhero left me cold. For some reason, I prefer to write ‘human’ heroes. Perhaps it’s because I can relate to them. In the end, despite having three days to write the story, the idea only came to me a few hours ahead of the deadline. I submitted it just in the nick of time.  The story about a female sniper who is kidnapped, and faces an impossible choice: her son or her country.

Here is an excerpt from the middle of my story.

SHOOTIN’ GOOD

I hear footsteps coming down the corridor. The lock turns in the heavy steel door. The guard comes in, with a semi-automatic in his hand. He sits on an upturned crate, and takes an orange from his pocket. He begins to peel it. His fingernails sinking into its skin, juice running over his fingers. He slurps at it and I watch him. Mesmerised by the dripping juice. Wanting to stick my face under it.

‘You want some?’ he asks with a smirk. I say nothing. I won’t beg like a dog. He throws me a couple of pieces, and it hits the dusty clay floor. I look at it for a moment. Considering leaving it there until he leaves, but I can’t wait. I pick it up, wipe it against my shirt and stuff it into my mouth.

‘You’re thirsty. You’re hungry. Don’t worry, you will have whatever you need… when you make the right choice. You will even see Bobby again’. And I flinch. He nods at my arm. Bobby’s name in ink, and his date of birth. I thought it would be useful in identifying my body if I wound up dead, and I felt like it was a way to show my son how much I love him, before I left him for two years. Unthinking, I had etched my weak spot onto my body for my enemies to see.

‘We have snipers. Good ones. What we want is to use you, to kill one of your own…you pick the target, and put a bullet in his head… simple. Effective. Totally demoralising. Don’t worry. We will make sure they know we forced you to do it. We want them to know that. We want them to know how weak their soldiers are under pressure. You will go home. You’ll be a pariah, but you’ll see your son. In case you’re wondering what the alternative is… this is what happened to the last soldier we captured. Have you ever seen a human face melt?’.