The oldest axiom in writing is this: write about what you know.
I’m no different to anyone else . So my first book, finished when I was twenty-nine, was about a late-twenties Irishman who thought, talked and acted in ways suspiciously similar to me. My next book had a much wider range of characters, themes and narratives – but mostly still took place in Ireland.
Oddly enough, my first published fiction was set outside my home country. Even Flow is a thriller set in New York, and The Polka Dot Girl is set in an entirely fictional city called Hera.
Otherwise, though, I think everything I’ve written has been firmly located in Ireland. I guess, for starters, it’s easier to write about your own country. You don’t have to research facts, you already know them. Minor details that flesh out the work flood into your head: names, towns, TV shows, local sports, the education system, the junk food people eat, the beer they drink, how they greet one another, slang. You’re not worried that the book will come across as manufactured or implausible or just off somehow.
And dialogue comes more naturally for me when the characters are Irish. I simply imagine how people I know would express themselves; this makes the conversational flow more natural, and thus the characters and story more believable and authentic. (Even if the fictional universe is fantastical, you still want a core of authenticity.)
There’s probably some germ of cultural nationalism at work here too. I’ve long discarded any political nationalism, but I still feel it’s important, in an increasingly homogenised world, to protect and promote one’s native culture – or at least record it and capture it.
Anyway. All of this brings us to SHIVER THE WHOLE NIGHT THROUGH. My YA paranormal mystery (with a li’l drop of romance) set in a small Irish town, somewhere along the wild Atlantic coast. The unnamed town doesn’t exist, but it’s based on real places; it’s an imaginative assemblage of actual towns and countryside and mountain ranges that I’d know, places I’ve visited. (And the Atlantic is real.)
I took them and reshaped them and fashioned them anew. And fictional as it is, the setting is distinctly and centrally Irish – which was very important in the creation of this book. For one thing, part of the inspiration behind Shiver was the Irish literary tradition of Gothic horror. We were prime architects in the creation of this genre: Bram Stoker, Sheridan le Fanu, Charles Maturin…the list goes on. (I’ll claim Anne Rice too.)
In Shiver, I wanted to tap into those things that make Gothic horror such a rich, enthralling read: dread, menace, gloominess, wild and sublime nature, crumbling buildings, death, guilt, horror…the great doomed Romance of it all. Ireland felt like the proper fit for Shiver.
And although there are supernatural elements to Shiver, I wanted it to feel very, very, very authentic, almost physically and painfully so, and to do that properly, I had to set it somewhere I was intimately familiar with.
That’s why Shiver is full of characters with first names like Sláine, Aidan, Podsy, Sioda and Ronan, and surnames like McAuley, O’Keeffe, McGlynn and Rattigan. (Aidan, funnily enough, has the non-Irish family name Flood. I’m awkward like that.)
That’s why the language in Shiver is Hiberno-English, because this how people speak in Ireland. That doesn’t mean it’s all “fiddle-de-dee God bless us and save us to be sure to be sure”; but Hiberno-English is as distinctive as that spoken in London or Glasgow or Alabama or India. It’s a melange of standard English, modified Irish (Gaelic) words, imported sentence constructions, a peculiarly Irish way of talking in riddles and oblique circumlocution, and a whole lot more besides. (And yes, some American slang and pop-culture references.)
The book also uses lots of actual Gaelic words like sliabh, amadán, ráiméis and púca, or phrases like “Tús maith, leath na hoibre” (a good start is half the battle). This isn’t showing off; these words would be used, more-or-less commonly, in everyday speech here. (I put a guide to pronunciation of Irish words at the start of the book; we also toyed with a glossary of the local slang terms used, but finally decided that people would infer the meaning from context. Feck, scobie, shift, didey, yoke, give you your speak…impress your friends and use them all!)
Of course there’s more to a culture than language, so Shiver contains a plethora of references to things like Irish music and musicians, writers, food, drink, mythology and more. Obviously Aidan and the others also talk about non-Irish things; but again, it was important to root the story within these Irish elements.
On a deeper level, three things were crucial in making Shiver what it became: the Irish landscape, history and mythology/religion. The physical surroundings are so important to this book, they’re virtually a character in their own right: the mountains, the Atlantic, the shabby little town, and of course, the woods. The story also draws greatly on two ghosts of the troubled past: the Great Famine, and the pre-Christian gods and devils of ancient Celtic Ireland.
People seem to like them anyway, these Irish aspects of Shiver. I think it succeeds in being distinctively Irish, but universal enough so it’s accessible to readers from anywhere. The themes (bullying, revenge, love, the desperation and triumphs of adolescence) are common to all humanity; it’s just that, in this case, these specific people’s specific experiences happened in a specific country.
Whatever faults Shiver may have – oh, it’s bound to have one or two – the book’s Irishness, I believe, is a great strength. I’m happy about that. Not from some boneheaded militant nationalism but because, again, it’s important for all of us, everywhere, to preserve the magical richness and multiplicity of human societies and cultures.
Anyway, sin sin. Slán leat (that means “The end, goodbye.”) and I hope you enjoy SHIVER THE WHOLE NIGHT THROUGH.