Anthony J Quinn is a writer and journalist. His debut novel Disappeared was shortlisted for a Strand Literary Award in the United States. It was also listed by Kirkus Reviews as one of the top ten thrillers of 2012. Disappeared went on to be selected by the Daily Mail and The Times as one of the best novels of the year (2014), and nominated for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the year. His short stories have twice been shortlisted for a Hennessy/New Irish Writing award. He lives in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, with his wife, Clare, and their four children.
I write this after a busy few weeks in the residency at NI Libraries with a break of a few days now looming, giving me a chance to reflect on what I've experienced so far. My dictionary tells me that residency comes from the Latin residere, meaning 'to sit down or settle', which in a way is the opposite of what I have done in the post, travelling across the province to ten libraries in fourteen days, and meeting dozens of avid readers and budding writers. Sitting down and settling is my normal mode as a writer, and I've been delighted to be able to use the residency as an escape from sitting, from the blank pages of my notebooks and the flickering screen of my computer. It's been a whirl of travelling, speaking engagements, teaching and listening, replacing the seemingly endless mental whirl of a writer trying to make his publishing deadlines. I'm grateful to have met so many inspiring groups and individuals and to have been able to immerse myself in the world of readers, who are so well catered for by NI Libraries.
Part of me is also looking forward to returning to the inner clutter of my fictional worlds. At the moment, I'm working on the next Inspector Celcius Daly novel, as well as an historical thriller involving WB Yeats, the sequel to The Blood Dimmed Tide, (available to borrow from NI LIbraries) which was published in 2014. I can already feel my characters clamouring for my attention.
Participants in the creative writing workshops have often asked me about researching historical novels and the possible pitfalls that writers experience trying to recreate a bygone time in convincing detail. So here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.
I'm very much a believer in writing first and researching later. The danger of writing historical fiction is that as a writer you run the risk of disappearing down a wormhole into another era, never making it back with a clear-cut, compelling tale to relate. I've been obsessed with WB Yeats and the Sligo setting for years, and in writing The Blood Dimmed Tide and Blind Arrows (a spy novel featuring Michael Collins during the War of Independence) the temptation was to succumb to excess and include a rich tapestry of historical minutia.
However, writing historical fiction, especially a mystery story, should be like steering a boat with a leak in high seas. Many loved items have to be chucked overboard with every page you write. Amusing anecdotes and fascinating details that don't animate your principal characters and move the plot along have to be discarded with impunity.
For this reason, I resorted to thumbing through Yeats' biographies only when there was a gap in the plot that desperately needed filling, or a scene that required fleshing out with something concrete. That sense of urgency which comes with keeping the literary boat from capsizing at all costs is a protection against procrastination and getting lost in the past.
Another great challenge in writing The Blood Dimmed Tide was remaining faithful to the historical record of Yeats and his life-long muse Maud Gonne. I was uneasy with the idea that I was possibly doing them a great disservice by entangling them in a plot involving occult societies, spies, smugglers and corrupt policemen.
However, Yeats has been much derided for his 'creepy' obsession with the supernatural, and his interest in the magical powers that might be acquired through esoteric knowledge has alarmed many literary critics over the years. It eased my conscience to think that I was at least portraying this side of his character sympathetically. This was what I promised WB Yeats at the start of writing The Blood Dimmed Tide. Whether or not I delivered is another matter.
I hope I am saved by the fact that many of Yeats' friends found him unknowable. Irish writer Sean O'Faolain famously said of him: "There was no Yeats. I watched him invent himself." In that sense, he is impossible to capture within the covers of a biography, which is a great problem for his biographers, but a golden opportunity for a novelist.
Yeats will always remain an enigma. He was one of a group of extraordinary and mesmerising figures that made London at the turn of the century an emporium of exotic cults and psychic societies. He was the closest thing we have to a supernatural sleuth, always seeking answers, always probing the evidence before him, always odd and unpredictable in his behaviour - which I hope makes him the perfect hero for a mystery story, especially one that involves ghosts, spies, smugglers and corrupt policemen.
Click here to visit the Libraries NI online Catalogue and reserve copies of Anthony Quinn's novels
Hard to believe that I’ve visited nine libraries in the past two weeks and met dozens of emerging writers from the sleet-driven mountain views of Dungiven Library, to the inspirational blue backdrop of Belfast Lough at Carrickfergus Library. I’ve had a fantastically enrichening experience hosting readings, creative writing seminars and workshops and now I’m about to embark on an intensive series of one-to-one manuscript clinics. A big thanks to Kirsty McClelland from NI Libraries for all her help and support, and her gentle and insightful questioning at some of the readings. And the best of luck to the budding writers I’ve met across the province. Hopefully, we’ll all be hearing more from you, very soon.
One of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked by participants is how on earth did I manage to juggle working and writing a debut novel, and after five novels am I now considering giving up the boring day job.
It’s true that burning the candle at both ends to knock out 80,000 words while slaving away at menial work is an obligatory requirement for many debut authors before they go on to dedicating their careers to writing full-time. Yet somehow I can't envisage ever giving up my bread and butter job, principally because it is such a great source of inspiration. There is an undeniable overlap between the stories I write as a part-time reporter and those that make up my Celcius Daly crime novels, which are contemporaneous and share the same stage as my reporting - the borderlands of County Tyrone. Every night as I stare at the blank page, I sift through my experiences at work, and gather the seeds and plot threads of stories.
The truth is newspapers only ever provide an oblique view of the truth, and many stories never make it onto the page. In DISAPPEARED, my debut, I wanted to pay homage to the untold stories of this country, many of which haven't found their way into the print or online media. It struck me how these stories were inextricably intertwined - the experiences of ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary situation.
Writing fiction at night meant I could be less constrained but still close to the heart of a society emerging from a long and bitter conflict. Crime novelists walk a line reporters can't - they're able to risk getting it wrong. They can also daydream over a story and, better still, step down from the proverbial gallery and get involved in the movement and moods of the tale. With that there's a guilty sense of trespass, which can be pleasurable as well as conscience-pricking. As a writer you ease these feelings by convincing yourself you are given a compassionate voice to the silenced. My reporter's job keeps me at the closest thing there is to a front line in Northern Ireland these days.
That guilty feeling was also present in writing THE BLOOD DIMMED TIDE, my historical mystery novel, which features the Irish poet WB Yeats and his life-long muse Maud Gonne. I worried that I might be doing one of Ireland's most famous literary couples a great disservice in entangling them in a plot involving, ghosts, spies, smugglers and corrupt policemen. Yeats, his life and his work, have been obsessions of mine since early adolescence, and the story about his fascination with spirits and his strange relationship with his wife Georgie was irresistible. It surprised me that no one in literature, drama or film has given his life a fictional treatment or tried to transpose his supernatural investigations into a mystery tale.
When I sat down to write THE BLOOD DIMMED TIDE, I relished the escape from the darkness of the Troubles and the border setting of my Celcius Daly novels. It was a relief to swap those treacherous bogs, gruesome thorn thickets and broken cottages for the silver strands of Sligo's wild Atlantic coastline. I also looked forward to the chance of spending many hours in the company of one of Ireland's literary greats, a mystic, poet, and politician, as well as a supernatural sleuth and adept at occult rituals. There is a fairytale dimension to Yeats' life that makes him great fictional material. In many respects he was a very innocent, aloof man, who entered some very dark territories indeed, not only in terms of politics but also in his role in the magical societies that sprang up in London at the turn of the century, and his skirmishes with satanic characters such as Aleister Crowley.
Writing the book also gave me the opportunity to work out my own feelings towards ghosts and the hold that the past has over the living. I hope that the reader is able to travel with Yeats into the dark caverns of THE BLOOD DIMMED TIDE and come back with a few pearls of wisdom themselves.
As NI Libraries Writer in Residence, I’m here to help emerging writers find their voice and vision, and negotiate their way through the minefield of publishing. Fortunately, there’s still time to join in the creative writing workshops, which are scheduled this week in Lisburn, Finaghy, and Ormeau Road libraries. Maybe you haven’t written since school, or you’re going back to that novel you hid in a drawer and tried to forget about. Perhaps you see the world as a series of stories or scenes from a film but have never had the confidence to write. Or maybe you’ve been writing on your own for a while and could use some helpful advice and honest feedback. Whatever the reason, check the timetable of events
Or, if you’re polishing up a final draft to impress an agent then you might consider sending your work to the manuscript clinics, which will be held next week in Ballymena, Belfast Central and Enniskillen libraries.
So far I’ve enjoyed meeting some lovely and quite brilliant writing and reading groups in Dungiven, Strabane, Cookstown, Lurgan, Warrenpoint, Carrickfergus and Dungannon libraries. I’ve been impressed by the depth of knowledge and talent within the workshops and seminars. As well as answering questions that get to the heart of writing and its challenges, participants have been keen to hear about the nitty-gritty of a writer’s life, the day to day realities of fulfilling publishing contracts and promoting one’s books. So I’ve decided to jot down a few notes to disperse any myths that might exist about how writers spend their day, while the rest of the world are busy in their office jobs or cleaning sewers.
I'd love to say that my writer's life is one long, glorious retreat in a log-cabin in the woods, punctuated by a dizzying round of cocktail parties and book launches, but the reality is much more prosaic. My average day is extremely hectic. As well as helping to look after our four young children, I work part of the week as a journalist.
It's healthier for the mind to be busy, to juggle different responsibilities and tasks, and a packed schedule keeps the writing faculties sharp and the darker anxieties of self-doubt and fear of failure at bay. Writer's block is a luxury I can't afford.
I work in short, concentrated bursts usually first thing in the morning, or last thing at night - the bookends of my day. My target is one page a day, and, fortified by gallons of tea, I usually exceed that by one or two hundred words. On the days I feel sluggish, the gallons of tea become rivers. I write every day - even Christmas Day.
Spending three hours or so in your own company on a daily basis changes you, for the better, I think. The act of writing becomes almost a form of meditation and self-reflection. I always write the first draft with a pen, and my stories takes shape organically, which means I make it up as I go along with no pre-planning. When I sit down to type it all up, it's like trying to navigate my way back through the labyrinth, only this time I'm showing the reader the way. You try to make the path as clear-cut and tight as possible, ignoring all the digressions and blind alleys you took in the first draft.
Throughout my working day, I keep in touch with my agent and publishers (I'm in the fortunate position of having three, two in London and the other in New York). When I'm on the computer, I try to impose severe restrictions with regards to using social media. Shakespeare and Dickens managed to accomplish so much because they didn't have hundreds of friends and followers vying for attention from their inkwells. Other than that, I'm always turning over plot ideas and characters in my mind, even while I'm sleeping. Writing stories is more an obsession than a profession, one that needs to be hand-cuffed and kept under control, which is why I'm glad my family life is so busy. My worst fear is that I will wake some day and be told that I have to stop making up stories.
Photograph by Sean Harkin
“The black hedges around his father’s farm were heavy with the foaming branches of whitethorn blossom. Daly stared at them with a profoundly unsatisfactory sense of time hurrying by. It was March already. His eyes were distracted by the surges of brilliant white flowers lit up in the morning sun. The narrow fields around his father’s farm seemed to swell and shimmer, reconfigured into softer, more mystical dimensions.” Extract from Disappeared (Head of Zeus) 2014.
Although I am a crime writer, my real interest lies in immersing my readers in the Northern Irish landscape, the geography of the country and its weather, as well as the inner landscapes of the people who inhabit it.
The Tyrone landscape I know and love has its own geography of moods, an interweave of darkness and light, which I find constantly mesmerizing. I would like to inspire participants in the creative writing workshops to realise that the landscape they inhabit, be it rural or urban, is much more than geography. It's a part of our collective identity. It's also a window into the soul of our country and our troubled history.
The writing workshops will focus on developing setting and character in short stories and novels, while the seminars will focus on the craft of crime writing, examining how to create suspense and an intriguing plot with a strong narrative thrust.
In addition there will be three manuscript seminars, in which unpublished writers will have the opportunity to submit a short sample of work, in advance, which I will read and discuss with them in a one on one meeting during the clinic.
As a little taster of what we will be covering in the workshops, here are some top tips for creating interesting characters, which we will combine with creative writing exercises in the actual workshops to help sharpen your writing skills.
Readers engage with your story through characters so you must make sure that even in a crime novel or thriller, your characters, including the minor ones, have some sort of emotional depth and complexity. Avoid at all costs one-dimensional villains.
Your characters should have a history - a back-story which has shaped and moulded them. Build up your characters’ backgrounds extensively – you don’t have to share all the details with your readers but knowing your characters intimately will help you make them more convincing.
One of the most effective ways of adding depth your characters is to give them memories. Memories bring the past to the present of your story and add layers of complexity to your characters. However, keep your memories short, vivid and relevant to what is happening in the story. Long slabs of memory can be fatal to the forward momentum of your narrative so keep flashbacks short and specific.
Consider creating a timeline of your character’s life to keep you from confusing the reader and yourself. Even though your book may not be about their childhood or adolescence, knowing when their key life experiences occurred is very helpful.
As well as embodying a character by describing their facial characteristics, size, gait, and habits, consider using the objects that surround them to flesh out their character. Eg. What are the bits and pieces that your character deems important enough to carry round in a bag or in their pockets? Describe them in detail. Or describe their favourite possessions, the furniture in their house, their car, their desk at work, their fridge and its contents, and their wardrobe. Perhaps there is a possession that the character hates and cannot get rid of?
The writing workshops will take place in Dungannon Library from 10am to 1pm on Saturday March 12, Lisburn Library from 2pm to 5pm on Monday March 14, Finaghy Library from 10am to 1pm on March 15, and Ormeau Road Library from 1pm to 3pm on March 16. The crime fiction seminars will be held in Warrenpoint Library from 6.30pm to 7.30pm on Wednesday 9, and Carrickfergus Library from 4pm to 5pm on March 10, while the manuscript clinics will take place in Ballymena Library on March 19, Belfast Central Library on March 21 and Enniskillen Library on March 22.