Thursday, April 7, 2011

The past is another country

The past is another country. A great idea, and well used over the years, but an apt expression of the dilemma historical fiction writers face in locating their stories in an environment which no longer exists. There might, of course, be traces of that environment remaining. Buildings of the time may have survived intact and may still be in use for much the same purpose as they were in the past. I'm reminded here of my time spent researching in Westminster Abbey. Sometimes, however,  there are only ruins but, with a bit of imagination, they can be reconstructed mentally so that the novel's characters can feel at home in them. More often that not, though, nothing remains.

Even so, there is merit in visiting the place where the novel is set if only to experience such elements as the climatic conditions. it is hard for those of us who live in the wide brown land at the bottom of the world to contemplate the Northern Hemisphere without having felt the seasons for ourselves.

When I went to Ireland for the first time with the ghost of my great great aunt Brigid, I had no expectation of discovering any more that what it felt like to be in a place that was green year around and frequently wet. I soon found out that the countryside wasn't uniformly green, it was various shades of green which were dependent on the soil, the rainfall and the amount of sun and shade there was. Some of the landscape I was seeing showed the impact of the Celtic Tiger which was still flashing its teeth across the island, but underneath there were remnants of the past everywhere I looked. And there were the Heritage Centres and local history libraries which could fill in the gaps that my eyes could not tell me.

At the Heritage Centre at Corofin in County Clare I found out about Brigid's family. On a map I was able to pinpoint the exact location of the house her father had rented, but although I drove up and down the New Quay Road I could not find the lane which led down to the cluster of houses which had once formed a clachan on the edge of the bay. Then I met a couple of old codgers propping up the bar at O'Brien's pub in Ballyvaghan who could remember what their grandmothers had told them of famine times. They told me the boreen I was looking for was the set of tyre tracks across a modern paddock, I had seen but thought nothing of. With some trepidation I went back, opened the gate and began walking towards the bay. There on the other side of a second paddock were the ruins of half a dozen little stone houses one of which had been my great great grandfather's. What a thrill!
Link to Jill's Books


  1. I'm there with you, Jill! I think I've always been more than healthily interested in the past, and love nothing more than going on a journey aiming to make a discovery of some kind, even if it's only to see with my own eyes the place where something specific happened.

    And as no doubt you tell your writing students, such visits are the source of all the vital observations and details that will give life to their words on the page.

  2. It is the little things you discover on research journeys that make all the difference. They're the ones you wont find in the Lonely Planet Guide. Often they are personal, sometimes quirky, and sometimes they can't be used for the project you are working on at the moment but they they become the spark that ignites the imagination for the next project. Mt first Westminster Abbey experience was just that.

  3. There are the times when the Irish you meet seem to fit the stereotypes notwithstanding the (former) Celtic Tiger. It is such a thrill and privilege to see where our ancestors lived, no matter how sparse the physical evidence. PS Loved your book and have had it for years -saw it again the other day when cleaning the bookshelves. Time for a re-read? Pauleen

  4. I hope you enjoy it as much the second time around, Cassmob. It's always a thrill to hear from someone who has liked what you have written,