Both of my novels, The Herbalist and Her Kind(available for pre-order here!) were based on legal trials from another century. The Herbalist was inspired by the case of Don Robert Rodriguez de Vere in 1940's Athy, and Her Kind explores Kilkenny's infamous sorcery trial - the case of Dame Alice Kytler.
My interest in hidden stories, in excavating silenced voices has led me to write books are often seen as historical, or more recently as bio-fiction. Like most writers, I just write what fascinates me, and am sometimes surprised at the labels attached to the finished book. This is just one of the subjects discussed on The Book Show tonight.
The show is hosted by novelist and poet, Nuala O Connor. The guests are Paul Lynch, Andrew Miller and myself. We'll be discussing historical fiction, language, research and whether historical fiction has an image problem! Listen in, at 7pm or catch the podcast later.
The Wrens were a community of women who lived brutal lives on the plains of the Curragh in the 19th Century. They worked as prostitutes, and earned their name from the hollowed out nests under the furze in which they sheltered. The Wrens of Kildare have long intrigued novelists, poets, historians and artists, including Maria Luddy, Rose Doyle, Martin Malone, and Ann Egan. A first hand account was published in Dickens newspaper, The Pall Mall Gazette in 1867 and remains a fascinating document. Today, I'm talking to award winning writer, Orla McAlinden who was inspired by this community of women to write her exciting debut novel, The Flight of the Wren.
The Curragh Wrens lived a fascinating and brutal
life, did you feel a spark, a strong desire to write about them, from the
second you learned of their existence, or was it something that developed over
I knew very little about the Curragh wrens for the first ten
years that I lived in Kildare, despite living within a brisk half hour walk of
the Curragh. I knew of their existence but little more. However, the turning
point in my relationship with the story came during the bicentenary of the official
founding of Newbridge Town. Newbridge 200
was celebrated in 2012 with a plethora of art, history, walks and music. I
found myself walking through the She-barracks
(the old brothel district) with local historians; poring over old drawings and
photos that showed a military installation fit to rival Collins Barracks in
Dublin; and learning to discern traces of the past in the architecture, the
street names and the shop-fronts and signage. Co-incidentally, 2012 was also the year in which I first
started writing, after the death of my father. Prior to his death, I had been
an avid reader, but never had put words on a page before. The writing, which
had begun as a secret catharsis, soon turned into first a hobby, then an
almost-obsession. I instinctively knew that I wasn’t ready, had
not yet the skills, to attempt the story of the Wrens. It took two years before
I felt able to start fleshing out their tale.
Jane McNamee Sings of the Wrens of the Curragh...
How important was sense of place in writing the
story of Sally Mahon - do you think living so close to the area, gave you an
essential sense of connection? Is place important to you in general as a
writer? A sense of place is everything to me. My first book, a short
story collection called The Accidental
Wife, is set in a fictional village outside Omagh in Co Tyrone. Although
the village, and the farm at Drumnagort, do not exist, I see them clearly in my
mind’s eye. Those characters cannot walk through the world as they do, or use
the magnificent language they use, unless they come from the very real landscape
of rural Ulster. Likewise with The Flight
of the Wren, the landscape of Kildare and particularly the Curragh,
permeates every page of the Irish sections of the book. I have stood in the
howling wind which rushes off the Dublin mountains, sweeps unhindered across
the Curragh Plain and slams into Newbridge. I have heard the thundering hooves
of a dozen horses at full tilt across the short cropped grass of the Curragh,
as Sally Mahon in 1849 would have heard the Cavalry. My Tasmanian chapters are
all set indoors. I have never been to Tasmania, and rather than risk
inauthenticity, I brought my Australian characters inside, into the domestic environment.
I am interested in how you began The Flight of the
Wrens. Did Sally's voice come to you with ease as you began to write the story?
Or was it something that evolved as the story developed? How was she to work
with as a character, did she surprise you at any point?
People are sick to death of hearing how I started writing The Flight of the Wren, probably because
the story seems too neat to be true. The bones of the novel, the general narrative
arc, and the social milieux of the characters fell into my brain in the local
history section of Hodges Figgis bookshop. I picked up a small non-fiction book
by Catherine Fleming entitled The
Transportation of Women from Kildare to Van Diemens Land, and the novel was
firmly fixed in my brain by the time I had paid for the book and walked back to
the car park. I knew I finally had my route into the exploration of the Wrens
of the Curragh.
I found Sally’s true voice very late in the process. The entire
book was rewritten at least five times in numerous voices and points of view.
For a long time my preferred voice was of the twelve year old Sally, extremely naïve
and trusting, relating baldly the facts of her existence. I also tried a
universal, omniscient POV, second person, third person. Sally did not find her
authentic voice until the final rewrite, when I thrust her forward in time by
almost 70 years, and let her tell her story with the full strength, wisdom and
clear-sight of the crone, rather than the maiden.
I adored Sally and she surprised me at every turn. I don’t
plot, and although I knew before I started writing that she would survive her
journey and triumph, I had absolutely no idea how. At the end of each writing
session of the first draft, I would sit back and say, wow… I did not see that
Your book explores the famine as well as the Curragh
Wrens. Have you any tips for emerging writers who may be interested in
exploring an aspect of social history or a real event from their own lives?
The most important advice I could suggest to any emerging
writer is to read. Read voraciously in your time-period and locality. For those
writers approaching historical fiction, the local library networks are amazing,
covering genealogy, land-leases, censuses, contemporary photographs etc. Get
stuck in. But, very importantly, remember that a novel is not a text book. As
long as you know everything, your reader doesn’t have to. Use your research lightly.
What's next for you in terms of writing?
I’m lucky in one sense. Because it was such a monumental and
time consuming effort to find a publisher for The Flight of the Wren (4 years and 70 rejections), I already have
my next book written and ready to go, so I am not under the enormous pressure that
other writers often find themselves; promoting one book, while trying to write
another. Full of Grace is another
short story collection, which re-introduces us to some of the characters from
the award-winning stories in The
Accidental Wife, and new characters have arrived in the village, or come to
my attention for the first time. I wouldn’t call it a sequel, more a companion
to The Accidental Wife. Full of Grace
will be published next Spring by Mentor Press.
Thanks so much for the interview Orla, for more about The Flight of the Wren and Orla's work check out her Blog.
Nuala O Connor is guest-presentingThe Book Show on RTE Radio 1 next Sunday 21st at 7pm. I'm delighted to be joining her and writer Paul Lynch to chat about historical fiction, research, and my novel, Her Kind, which was inspired by the Kytler Sorcery Trial of 1324. Andrew Miller will join Nuala on the line from Bath.
During the show, I'll read a short excerpt from Her Kind. It will give a sneak preview of the novel, which will be published next April by Penguin Random House. Its exciting to have the novel finished - it was over four years in the writing, not quite the time span I expected when I began back 2014! Next week, I'll be interviewing writer Orla MacLinden on the blog, and after that, I'll be taking a rest from social media ( especially Facebook which cannibalizes writers!) - so this winter, I hope to work on a new novel without (too many) distractions. Till then, happy writing :)
on such a compelling novel Nuala, its such a beautifully written story, and a fantastic read – I devoured it in one
Thanks a million, Niamh, that’s lovely to hear.
character of Belle is based on a real person, someone you have known about for
quite some time, and who is buried a ‘stone’s throw’ from where you live in
Ballinasloe. You have already spoken about your research inprevious interviews– so what I would love to know is, was it hard to
chose which portion of Belles rich and various life to represent and what to
Nuala O' Connor
I think this is always the tangly bit for novelists –
we do our research and end up with a pile of facts and then we have to finesse
them into something readable and, hopefully compelling. And, basically, some of
the facts of people’s lives don’t necessarily fit with the story we end up wanting
to tell. So writing a novel becomes a series of questions about what caves (of
the character’s life) we want to shine our torch into. I’m interested in people
and their little madnesses and obsessions, so I wanted to see how Belle handled
the various upheavals she found herself at the centre of (baby out of wedlock
in 1888; a fraudster boyfriend; elopement with a viscount; his sudden
disappearance etc.) I focussed on four consecutive years in Belle’s life and
thought my way through the most relevant parts of them, as unearthed through
adored the language of the novel, it evokes Belle’s world in an incredibly
sensual and immediate manner. It’s a leap and a lifetime away from our contemporary
hashtag /emoji/lol filled language – had you any particular rituals or
techniques for immersing yourself in 1880s London when you sat down to write?
The only ritual I have is to read yesterday’s written
work before I move onto today’s. That way I get myself back into the
mood/tone/language of the piece before moving on. I wanted Becoming Belle to read like a Victorian novel, so I did a lot of research
around that through reading contemporary social reports and newspapers, novels
of the day etc. It’s important to me that the language sounds authentic so that
the reader feels they’re immersed in the Victorian era.
Cigarette Cards Featuring Belle
really enjoyed reading the Author’s Note where you fill us in on what happened
to Belle and the other characters. It felt respectful to their real lived
selves and was quite moving. If there’s a particular pleasure in weaving
fiction and fact, what would you say might be the cautions – I am thinking of
other writers who may be reading this – what would you say are the particular
challenges that come with working in this genre? I suppose I have contradictory thoughts about it. In
one way I feel we as writers have a duty to be faithful to the lives and events
of the real people we write about. In another way I feel we’re fiction writers,
we should have freedom to invent where we feel that’s necessary. I come at my
characters with love and respect. That doesn’t mean I present them as paragons,
I want them to seem real: lacking, sweet, damaged, fun, blemished, honest and
confused in the way that we all are. Belle can come over as selfish at times
but who is not guilty of that on occasion? I think it’s important not to make
demigods of real people – we all make mistakes, and do regrettable things, even
our beloved factional characters.
short stories often involve real characters, and this is your second novel
inspired by someone’s actual life (Miss Emilybeing the first) – do you feel you have found a groove, so to speak?
Are you hooked? Can we expect more bio-fiction novels in the future?
Yes, I’m working on another bio-fictional novel now. It
centres on a strong Irish woman who has been flicked to one side by history,
but who I’m bringing centre stage. I love bio-fiction, but it can be a little
restrictive, in that you have to hang your fiction on the archway of a real,
lived life. Once my novel-in-progress is done, I may have a go at another
contemporary novel. I miss the freedoms of unadulterated invention. That’s
something to look forward to while I wade through the muddier bits of the
Best of luck with that novel in progress Nuala, and look forward to finding out who this strong Irish woman is! Becoming Belle is available in all good book shops, and Amazon. For more about Nuala's writing, and Belle (including a fascinating video of her collection of Belle ephemera) check out herWebsite
Meet Red Riding Hood. Meet witches, ghosts, beasts, painters, muses and mermaids in a poetry collection about art, motherhood, and voice.
Watch out for the wolf
My collection of poetry, is available from today from Amazon. Many thanks to John MacKenna, and Nuala O Connor, who took the time to read the book and say good things.....
‘In these clever, concise poems, Niamh Boyce
resurrects the ancestors who gifted her a legacy of words and their ghostly
presences shimmer through the work. Boyce has the artist’s peeled eye: she
dissects fairy tales and reassembles them with colour, menace and wit. Her
imagery is visceral, and she is as comfortable making the reader laugh as
moving the heart. These are honest poems, open to beauty and to examining
women’s complex negotiations with the world. *Inside the Wolf* is a diverse and
vivid collection, a fierce celebration of words and women.’
Nuala O’Connor, author
of ‘Miss Emily.’
the moment when the skeletons are pulled from the closet to the moment when the
forest is riddled with monsters, these poems are, as Niamh Boyce writes,
"mothers calling their children for supper." They are spells woven,
like the witch-spells about which she writes, to draw us in, to show us the
possibilities and the darknesses of the human condition. But, most of all, it
is the ghosts of people like Agnes Richter, Frida Kahlo, Katharina Detzel and
Kitty who "tiptoe in like children who ought to be sleeping" who will
long remain with me, their lives reimagined in these marvelous poems.’
John MacKenna, author of ‘Once We Sang Like Other Men.’
I'll be teaching a workshop at the end of August specifically for people interested in weaving fact and fiction. It would suit people who have already begun a project, or have a particular subject in mind. So this Autumn might be the time to tackle that story that's been brewing for a while :) This is an article I wrote on my own process for my first bookThe Herbalist. And here are the course details....
Location:Athy Heritage Centre, Emily Square, Athy
Date: Sat 26th August from 12.30- 3.30pm
Price: 45 Euro per person. (Limited numbers so booking is essential)
A practical writing workshop, exploring how
true stories can inspire a work of fiction.
In this practical workshop, award winning
historical novelist, Niamh Boyce will explore how true stories can inspire a
work of fiction. She will discuss writing that first draft, revision and
research. It is suitable for both beginners and those who have been writing for
All you need is a pen and notebook…
Niamh has just finished her second novel, her
first ‘The Herbalist’ (Penguin Ireland) won Newcomer of the Year at the Irish
Book Awards 2013, and was long listed for the IMPAC Award. 'The Herbalist' was
set in the 1930s, and inspired by a newspaper clipping. Her most recent work
was also inspired by a true story - a medieval witchcraft trial, to be published in 2019.
Winner of the Hennessy XO New Irish Writer
of the Year 2012, Niamh’s poetry collection was highly commended
in The Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award 2013. Her novel, The
Herbalist (Penguin Ireland) won Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2013, and was
long listed for the IMPAC Award. Her stories have been adapted for stage,
broadcast, published in literary magazines and anthologized, most recently in
The Long Gaze Back- Irish Women Writers' and 'The Hennessy Book of Irish
Niamh is a trained
facilitator and tutor with a background in community development. She has
devised and taught creative
writing and novel workshops for many years. She has a Master in
Women's Studies (Trinity) and an honors degree in English and History (UCG)
Other qualifications include a Higher Diploma in Community Development
Practice(NUIG) and a Community Arts Certificate.
Duggan is a writer from Kilkenny, a medieval, haunted city in the south of Ireland. A Place Called Perfect is her first
book. I met Helena many years ago on a writing course. Our group got on so well, that we still meet regularly and hound each other to keep writing:)
Hi Helena! What inspired
you to write A Place Called Perfect?
the original glasses!
I always wanted a pair
of round rimmed glasses. Most people think when I tell them that I must’ve
loved John Lennon or Harry Potter, and while Harry Potter is definitely on my
list of favorite people - neither is the reason for my love of round specs. It
was actually James Joyce who sparked my interest. I’d love to say I'd admired
Joyce’s work from an early age, but truth be told, I didn’t know who he was
outside of the fact that he was a man in a painting my mother owned and he wore
the coolest glasses. Years later I saw a similar pair in an antique shop in
Australia and I bought them convinced I would change the lenses and wear them
myself. That never happened. The more I carried the glasses the more I began to
think about their last owner. I wondered if he or she were dead and surmised
they were as I the glasses were antique. I began to think about that person and
their life. Maybe their memories had become locked inside the lenses and if I
got rid of them - I’d be throwing away the last pieces of that person. This
idea set me on the path to Perfect.
Perfect is a fascinating place, is it
based on anywhere in particular? What was it like creating a world?
It’s based on Kilkenny.
I hadn’t started out basing it here, it just kind of happened organically. I
needed a family name and I chose Archer. It’s prominent in Kilkenny’s history,
and it lent itself to both good and evil characters. Then I needed a place
where part of the town could be hidden inside the other part without anyone
noticing. Kilkenny’s High street sits above Kieran’s Street and its stone
walls. I began to play with the idea of extending few walls here and there and
locking Kieran Street inside the rest of the Town. This worked well as did the
underground passages, cobbled roads and medieval graveyards of Kilkenny and
slowly Perfect began to take shape. It was never a concise decision just
something that happened really and I wasn’t aware that I was creating a world
until it was created, otherwise I’m not sure I’d be able to do it ;)
And, last question Helena! Who is your favorite writer?
I love Roald Dahl, I
read his books loads when I was younger and loved his language and how he made
up his own words. Most of what I remember while reading his books is laughter.
I think I laughed a lot and that feeling has stuck with me. I also really love
JK Rowling's Harry Potter books. I haven’t read any of her other works. I think
Harry Potter has stuck with me because she created a totally believable story
right from the beginning, none of the seven books feel contrived and the whole
idea which was huge has very few plot holes. Her world feels real to me!
About A Place Called Perfect…Who wants to
live in a town where everyone has to wear glasses to stop them going blind? And
who wants to be neat and tidy and perfectly behaved all the time?
But Violet quickly discovers there's something weird going on –
she keeps hearing noises in the night, her mum is acting strange and her dad
When she meets Boy she realizes that her dad is not the only
person to have been stolen away...and that the mysterious Watchers are guarding
a perfectly creepy secret!
can buy your copy HERE at Amazon - or all good bookshops
Time: 6.30pm – 8.30pm Duration: 10 Weeks Cost: €280/€260 Members
Venue: Irish Writers Centre
No. 19 Parnell Square, Dublin
One of the (many!) great things about finishing a novel is being able to concentrate on short fiction, and having time to teach. I'm delighted to delivering this workshop at the Irish Writers Centre in September, its a place that's been good to me. The Writers Centre's inauguralNovel Fair was where I met my publishers Penguin, which led to the publication of my debut, The Herbalist. The course is for beginners. No matter how long I've been writing, I find coming back to a beginners mind is essential (and exciting) - as Natalie Goldberg says - " Each time is a new journey with no maps"...
Suitable for those new to writing, and getting back to writing.
Fun but focused, the core of this course will be weekly writing exercises. Through these, participants will create, and shape new fictions. These might grow into flash pieces, short stories, monologues, rants or chapters. Each writer will work towards completing their piece over the course of the ten weeks. Basic character development, voice, point of view, story and setting will also be discussed.
A Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year 2012. Niamh’s novel, The Herbalist (Penguin Ireland) was an Irish Book Awards winner and shortlisted for an IMPAC Award.
In the summer, and with school out, and my writing schedule eaten up - I love turning to shorter work, stories, poems, hybrid tales that are neither one or the other. There are plenty of places to send work at the moment. I posted previously about submitting to magazines (and must update the list of Irish magazines - they've tripled in the past few years, a really good sign.)
Words Ireland have a good list of magazinesHERE. In the meantime, Mslexia are currently inviting submissions from women writers for their showcase section. They want stories of up to
2,200 words, poems of up to 40 lines, and short
scripts of up to 1,000 words.
The themes are...
Issue 76: YESTERYEAR
It’s often said that the past is another country. For this theme we invite you
to take your imagination on a journey to history or prehistory and tell us
about the poignant, tragic or amazing people and events you discovered there.
CLOSING DATE: 4 September 2017
Issue 77: BEWITCHED
For this theme we’re look for stories and poems with a mythical, mystical or
paranormal aspect to them. So channel your inner Rowling and Pullman and open
the door to daemons, dungeons and dragons. CLOSING DATE: 4 December 2017
Submitting your work
Entries are judged anonymously, so please put
your name on a separate cover sheet and omit your name from your poem or
story. To send us your submissions online, fill in the form below and
upload your submission document .
To send your entries by post, write to
PO Box 656
Newcastle upon Tyne
Just back to blogging, after a bit of a hiatus, with some bits of news... the final draft of my novel has just been (finally, finally!) printed off - and its just in time to let me travel to Tipperary and facilitate a First Novel, Second Novelworkshop...
Photo by @ lorrainemurphydooley
The title refers to my recent novels - both were inspired by true stories, the first by an Indian Herbalist in the 1930s, and this latest work, by a medieval witchcraft trial. In the workshop I'll be reading extracts from both, The Herbalist and Her Kind, and talking about writing fiction inspired by real events - covering research, setting, characters - and that difficult question - how much fact, and how much fiction? Participants will also do a little writing themselves. Its a three hour evening workshop, and is open to anyone interested in writing. Organized by The Source Arts Centre, Thurles, Co Tipperary - it takes place at 7 pm, tomorrow - Thursday 23rd March.
FROM THE SOURCE ARTS CENTRE ....
1st Book, 2nd BookNiamh Boyce
7pm to 10pm
Niamh Boyce is currently working on her second novel. Her first ‘The Herbalist’ (Penguin Ireland) won Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2013 and was long-listed for the IMPAC Award. 'The Herbalist' details the arrival of an enigmatic figure in small-town Ireland in the 1930's and the ramifications of his dealings with the women in that town. This practical workshop will look at the utilisation of local stories as subject matter and how they can be interpreted and developed to tell universal truths. Niamh will also discuss the process of editing - specifically in relation to working on her second novel.
Strictly limited to 10 places
Please book directly through box office 0504 90204. Ring or call to the desk during box office hours.
available to give one to one feedback on work :)
Writer’s Centre have compiled a Professional Mentor Panel. Basically, if you need a critique
or feedback on specific work, you can choose a particular author to work with. If you're struggling to complete your novel, or finish a short story, or short
story collection... check it out !
details areHere or
contact the Writers Centre - General Manager, Bernadette Greenan, at 00353
Nearing the end of my novel, soon. A few more weeks, I hope! Its been a long haul. It helps that the short people are back at school, though they'll have almost seven weeks of 'off days' (between holy days, bank holidays, and religious festivals etc...) this year....so better keep my head down - but in the meantime - Poetry... The 2017 Strokestown International Poetry Festival Competitionis open for entries. I went to this festival a few years ago and had a ball, it was great crack, very fine poetry and even a guided mountain climb. There'll be a festival anthology this year - in which shortlisted entrants will feature alongside the work of the judges and other poets. Shortlisted poets for each of these competitions will also be asked to read a selection of their poems as part of the festival, and will receive a reading fee of €200. Closing date: 2nd December, 2016.For details, rules and entry forms see HereGood luck if you enter :)