I’ve always been intrigued by stories set in Ireland. My favourite writers include Maeve Binchy, Michael McLaverty, Kerry Hardie, Jennifer Johnston and Irish Murdoch. So, when I came from Canada to live in Northern Ireland more than two decades ago, I was in heaven. I was absolutely delighted to be here.
I was also fascinated and perplexed by my new home. I thought I knew it as I had visited several times before I moved here, but I still had a lot to learn. From the time I arrived the place filled my mind and I wanted to set my stories here, not in my native land or anywhere else. But I needed to make sense of the place before I could do so--and that wasn’t an easy task.
Northern Ireland is complex culturally and politically and it can be difficult to get it right. Also, many people’s ideas of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, are steeped in stereotypes: the jovial drunk, the pretty Irish colleen, the mother who dotes on her sons, the simple farmer. I wanted to get past that, see what’s really here and write about it convincingly.
Firstly, I needed to live here long enough to really get to know the place--to get beneath the surface and understand it. The holiday brochure image isn’t the real place. I absorbed what I needed to know by meeting people and joining in activities in my community. Local people were willing to introduce me to my new neighbours and new community but I had to temper what they told me with my own judgement. Few people see themselves completely accurately so I weighed up what I heard.
Secondly, I had to get to grips with local speech so my characters would sound real. I soon found that it’s not easy to replicate a dialect that isn’t your own. I listened carefully to conversations around me (a great excuse to eavesdrop!) and incorporated the rhythm of speech and some of the local expressions into my stories to give the flavour of how the Irish speak English.
When I finally wrote my first stories set in my new home I was still hesitant to put my words on paper. I had to overcome my fear of how local people would react to my portrayal of them. Had I got it right? Did it sound like them? Would they like my view of their world? I will never write about Ireland in the same way as a native does as I will never see it from exactly the same perspective, no matter how long I live here. But I think it’s important to trust my own view and the insights I’ve gained. As an outsider, or ‘blow-in’ as we’re known here, looking in, I offer a fresh perspective and this can be very powerful. My stories deal with themes that are universal and my characters might experience their trials anywhere in the world but I’ve decided that they will do it in Ireland. Readers can decide if I’ve got it right.
Have you ever written about a world you know little about? How did you approach it?
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