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The Creative Process and Researching for Your Novel

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Without much ado, here's a few things I picked up on during the writing phase of my historical fiction novel 'A Land Without Wolves', which was published by Temple Dark Books in October 2021. For those thinking about pursuing the path I took, I wanted to outline the creative process and researching for your novel:

Firstly, I am not an historian by any stretch of the imagination. That said, I wasn't going to let myself off the hook that easily when I first sat down to write 'A Land Without Wolves', my grisly tale of highwaymen and road thieves, revolutionary Ireland and brutally-murdered Redcoats.

Striking a balance between telling what reviewers considered a rollicking good story peopled with compelling characters (fictional or otherwise), whilst still retaining some basic fidelity to the historical facts, was a constant struggle, but one that at least kept me on my toes.

Researching Ireland in the late 18th century - from the songs and poems of that era to the buildings and architecture; from the British Army and protocol, the socio-economic tensions in both urban and rural areas that ran between landowner and peasant, law-abider and outlaws, priest and confessor etc. that ultimately led to the noble failure that was the 1798 Rebellion, to poring over literary giants of the era including Swift, Defoe, Paine, Grattan, Fielding, Woolstonecraft, Burke etc, in order to gain an authentic flavour of the late-Enlightenment literary voice and mindset, as well as listening almost exclusively to the composers of the era (Haydn, Mozart and Bach were my muses of choice - check out my ALWW playlist - did not hamper the creative process, as I had initially feared. If anything, it enhanced it. Knowledge is power, as the fella says. While a lot of what I looked up did not ultimately find its way into the finished novel, I don't consider any of it wasted time or energy. Not with the goal I was pursuing.

Which isn't to say it was a walk in the park - far from it. The entire process proved to be an education, with all the rigour and late hours such a word connotes (and I say this as someone whose formal education ended at undergraduate level, over eight years ago). Yet this kind of education, entirely self-directed, undertaken to aid an ongoing project and not a grade or graduation or degree or doctorate in mind, and lacking the methodical stricture more formal modes of study require, stands to me today.

At the time of writing, I am working on a play set in 1490s Florence, with the expulsion of the Medici, the French invasion of Italy under Charles VIII and the fanatical grip placed on the city by Dominican preacher and fundamentalist Girolamo Savonarola as its backdrop (proof that I am perhaps more partial to tackling historical subjects - and societies on the brink of utter collapse - that I care to admit). In the vein of such plays as Shaw's 'Saint Joan', Robert Bolt's 'A Man for All Seasons', John Osbourne's 'Luther' and Peter Shaffer's classic 'Amadeus', it will deploy the historical backdrop to hopefully shine a light on such themes as religous fanaticism, brainwashing, cultish indoctrination and extreme political division resulting in corrosive forms of bipartisanship - themes, which, I'm confident in saying, remain as prevalent today as they did then.

As with 'Wolves' before it, this project requires extensive research into late 15th-century Italy and the religious and socio-political turmoil that threatened to engulf the very cradle of the Renaissance - thanks to my experience with 'Wolves', I feel much more confident in my abilities to investigate the era, with an eye toward enhancing the play on its way to completion.

But I digress. 'Wolves' was helped, not hindered, by my haphazard forays into weighty tomes on Irish history and eyewitness accounts to that tumultuous ending of the Enlightenment as it breathed its ragged last on Irish soil, in a hail of rifle-fire and bloodied ideals and the weight of Empire on its neck. By and by, chapter by chapter, edit by excruciating edit, my belief in whatever strange, bombastic, Gothic-Celtic-Proto-Western hybrid that was starting to take shape at my fingertips gathered and I felt it could really become something. Bring it on, indeed.

Secondly, when I decided that writing was what I was going to do with my life, come hell or high water, I did not set out to write historical fiction. While I've always had an interest in historical subjects, it remains a layman's interest at best - and I am quite happy to defer to the experts whenever appropriate.

Nonetheless, I don't consiously cleave to imposing shackles of the creative endeavour - writing historical fiction was out of my comfort zone, but then, I'm a man who likes a challenge. I've worked in a disaprate array of genres before, from poetry, to theatre, to film, to radio, as well as more conventional forms of prose fiction and even spoken word, so I thought, why not add another bullet to the chamber?

Now, from what I understand, genre fiction gets something of a bad rap in mainstream literary circles (baffling, given its commerical success - which arguably is also not mutually exclusive to artistic merit), but to me, experimenting with a new genre in some ways felt like exercising a new muscle, and gaining a strength hitherto undiscovered. My usual prose style, such as it is, is far less decorous and florid than that which graces the pages of 'Wolves'. This is largely due to both writing about an era that I have no emperical knowledge of - I had to piece everything together, detective-style, in order to portray it credibly:

And also due to the fact that I felt validated in unleashing my more bombastic side. That is, the story required a more elevated prose style than is normally my wont.

The great Irish author Joseph O' Connor (author of Star of the Sea, one of the finest historical fiction novels I have read, on a par with giants like Hilary Mantel, Anne Rice and Carlos Ruiz Zafon) stated that he delved into the classic 19th-centruy novels of Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters etc in order to properly give his novel an atmosphere contemporaneous to the Victorian era - with the result being the masterpiece that it is (in my view), but also a stylistic and thematic departure from his earlier work.

On a comparatively minor level, 'Wolves' represents a similar break for me. in writing it, I suddenly had license to expand my written aesthetic from the more pared-back and colloquial mode I usually write in. As a result, the process was far more enjoyable than I expected.

But I had to contend with the notion that I was perhaps limiting myself, not just in terms of style, but in both subject matter and thematic concerns as well.

As a writer from the 21st century, with an abiding love of language that has continuously fuelled and nourished my work, I concluded that language meant something very different in the late 18th century. For starters, literacy was the preserve of the ruling classes, while the majority of Irish crown subjects had their own literature, one that was largely oral as opposed to transcribed (though, paradoxically, many Irish people were in fact bilingual, speaking both their native Gaelic tongue and their adapted Hiberno-English (namely, English as spoken by Irish people) vernacular with relative ease - as colonised subjects often do) via folk songs and the uniquely oral tradition of storytelling. This, too, was a result of colonial expansionst practises in the 1600s (a good two centuries prior to when 'Wolves' is set) which saw the systematic erasure of the Gaelic bardic tradition and an entire millennia-spanning literary heritage with it. Imperialism really knows how to ruin a party, I say.

Therefore, writing a novel within such a milieu also meant, for accuracy's sake, injecting a healthy dose of the Gaelic language into the narrative - whether these were colloquial phrases or (and I am by no means a fluent Irish speaker). Mixing the thunderous grandiosity of 'proper' English with the rich, lyrically muscular dialect that is Hiberno-English is one of the joys of writing for me, and getting to do in 'Wolves' was, again, a joy I did not expect.

So what, dear reader, is the point of all this waffle, you may ask? Simply this: working on 'A Land Without Wolves' was a far more enjoyable experience than I had initially expected, for all the reasons listed above. I flatter myself that I emerged as a better writer for all the extra rigour it required; I certainly have more confidence in my stylistic abilties at the end than at the start. Whatever the future holds, I trust what I learned on this journey sees me through. Chances are, it will.

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