Seamus Beirne and I both have ties to Barbados. My novel Barbados Bound and Seamus’s forthcoming novel The Ice House are both partially set in historical Barbados, when British plantation owners were making fortunes from sugar cane at the expense of slaves and indentured servants. Both novels are published by Fireship Press. I asked Seamus to share something about how he writes:
Writing for me is a journey of discovery. Unlike many writers I do not have an outline or a plot summary before I begin. That does not mean that I don’t know where I’m going, I do, but I don’t have a GPS map of the road to my destination. For example before writing my current novel, The Ice House, I started with this premise: Michael Redferne runs afoul of the local landlord’s son. For his trouble he is kidnapped and deported as a slave to Barbados, known as the Sugar Island. There he is branded, abused and beaten, before escaping and making his way back to Ireland. That’s a skeleton and it’s a long way from a completed story.
The question now becomes, how to put meat on those bones. I can sit down with a pen and paper or at a computer and speculate outside the world of the story what direction this tale will take, but nothing of significance happens. That exercise is analogous to being asked to describe the paintings in the Louvre without having been there. So the key for me is to get into the world of the story, and since I’m the creator of that world, I need to start writing the actual story, otherwise I’m shut out. I’ve discovered I can’t sneak in by writing a summary. Holding a pen or putting my fingers on the keyboard is like turning the key in the ignition. Nothing happens until I do that, and when I do, the energy starts to flow. Of course one of the downsides to such an approach is the danger of going down blind alleys which a writer may not discover until the end of the story. Worse still, it may stall the forward motion of the story. No, I don’t have an answer to that dilemma. Writing sometimes is a frustrating business.
As you can deduce from all of that, such an approach does not lend itself easily to starting out with well-developed characters, where all of their foibles, weaknesses, goals, and motivations are laid out on paper beforehand. Many writers do, arriving at a core understanding of their characters, through paper interviews and descriptions to determine their personality types before getting into the world of the story. Best selling historical fiction writers Ken Follett and Ben Kane are examples of that approach. I’m not knocking that, it simply doesn’t work for me. I know little about my characters until I meet them, and I meet them within the context of the ongoing story. Then I know only what they allow me to know, like people in real life. The content of my characters is revealed to me gradually, by their actions, thoughts, and how they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. The development process of the old Polaroid photo best captures, I believe, the progression I go through in character discovery: First there is a black slate, which morphs into grey patches, which in turn gives way to green and red swirls, until finally an image emerges in all its detail.
I didn’t know beforehand that my protagonist, Michael Redferne, would be callous and indifferent to his wife, or that landlord Robert Preston, bent on clearing his land of poor peasants, would turn out to be a man with a conscience, or that Isaac, an African slave, could rise above the indignities heaped upon him by the white power structure. All that emerges gradually as the story of The Ice House unfolds.
About Seamus Beirne:
A native of Ireland, I have lived in California for over forty years. I have an M.A. in English from CSULA and spent thirty years as an English teacher and administrator in high schools and college. My wife Ann and I have three children, all now plowing their own furrow—the gods be praised. We’re holding our breath, but none of them have moved into the spare room yet. Ann spends two days a week taking care of our grandsons, Colin and Roan. I spend seven days a week wrangling our two-year old, full of p and v, German shepherd named Lucy. Ann has gotten the better end of that deal.
In my spare time I write–two novels so far and one in the making. My second novel, The Ice House, is due to be published this year by Fireship Press. I have received the following awards: Conference Choice Award winner for adult fiction, San Diego Writers Conference, 2010, 2011, and 2012. Runner-up for adult fiction, San Francisco Writers Conference, 2010. Finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference, 2011. Along with writing, I run a web-based college essay editing service www.essayplus.com
— Seamus Beirne
Author of The Ice House (forthcoming from Fireship Press)
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