Why the past is the toughest assignment of them all…
Writing Tip: How to Write About the Past
“Don’t you know, you can’t go home again,” as Thomas Wolfe was famously warned, but I have done so, for my writerly sins, returning at the age of thirty-five with my young family to the small rural community in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, where I grew up, to work as a journalist and writer. Over the past seven years, I’ve written six novels and still work part-time as a reporter. Along the way, I’ve had many sleepless nights and anxious hours mapping out my fictional landscape. Little did I know when I started on this journey that the past is a tougher assignment for a journalist than any war-torn hotspot around the globe.
One of the blessings and curses of my profession in such a close-knit community is that people tell me many stories. A lot of the time, they aren’t very good or interesting stories. The notion that their words might find their way into print triggers a peculiar energy in some people, turning them into garrulous vessels of gossip. Occasionally, however, someone will tell a tale so powerful that it etches itself deeply in my imagination, reconfiguring with its long shadows the place I call home, this corner of the world that turns out to be a landscape saturated with secrets.
Take, for instance, the ruined house that has sat untouched at the edge of my parish for almost forty years. It had been a familiar landmark in my childhood, stark and silent in a landscape of busy farms. We often rode by it on our bicycles and wondered why it had been abandoned in such a state of dilapidation. When I asked my mother why no one lived there, she told me a tragic story of a newly married couple who had died in an accidental fire, and whose ghosts were believed to haunt the burnt-out remains.
However, I heard a very different story from a local politician a short time into my career as a reporter for the local newspaper, the Tyrone Times. He told me that the young couple had been painting their new home the day after their honeymoon when a bomb hidden in the hot press detonated, killing them instantly. I relayed to him the story my mother had told and, in the telling, I realized how simplistic it sounded, stripped of any sense of evil or blame. A poignant, isolated tragedy, constructed for childhood ears. Listening to the politician, I was struck by a feeling I have grown familiar with—an aversion for the shocking truth—coupled with a stronger desire to hear how evil had plowed a course through my childhood.
In my Celcius Daly detective series, set along the Northern Ireland border, I use the conventions of the detective genre to excavate the secret narratives of my locale. It feels safer that way for me as a writer, and it’s also a protective device for readers, giving them the illusion that they are in the familiar company of a middle-aged, divorced, and slightly depressive sleuth, one whom they have met countless times before in other settings, with other crimes to solve, and who will somehow triumph over evil once again in spite of his flaws.
I have immersed Inspector Daly in the Ulster landscape that I know and love—the gurgling, treacherous bogs, the mist-shrouded loughs, the gruesome-looking blackthorn trees, and decomposing cottages—a rain-soaked landscape where loose bits of the past are still floating through the shadows. After almost a decade of delving into the stories of my locale, gathering the seeds and plot threads for my novels in my day job as a reporter, I have come to the sobering conclusion that I must have grown up with blinkers on.
It is true that my childhood was hemmed in by security force checkpoints, army helicopters, and paramilitary shootings, but I know now that I didn’t really see what was happening. I didn’t understand a thing about the Troubles. Take the story of the abandoned house. My mother’s explanation about the accidental fire had been so much simpler to live with than puzzling over an evil motive. How much easier it was to forget a stray tragedy in the mix rather than worry about a murder that might be part of a sinister pattern. My family members weren’t the only ones to ignore what was going on and weave stories around the painful truth. It’s human nature to ignore evil in case it comes closer to home. My parents had to live through those times and somehow rear a family, and I don’t question their choice of explanation in any way.
But someday, the past has to be rehabilitated and brought into the light. During the writing of Silence, my latest Inspector Celcius Daly mystery, I often took myself for a walk whenever I encountered writer’s block. One evening, I returned home to hear a voice in the front porch asking my wife where I was. I hurried on, excited by the prospect that I had a visitor, an old friend perhaps, one who might provide a welcome distraction from the daily ordeal of filling an empty page.
However, I slowed when I heard the voice speak again, recognizing the gruff tone from recent phone calls. It was a former paramilitary, an old warrior who was now committed to the peace process and eager to use the media to address unresolved issues from the Troubles. But why had he hunted me down to my home?
When I took him into the living room, he spoke in a low warning voice so that I might understand the nature of his visit: “You should ask the children to leave the room now.”
He stared at me fixedly as I ushered my three young daughters into the kitchen.
“I’m here about a story,” he said.
I must have blanched. “One that I’ve written?” I asked, trying to keep my voice neutral. My first thought was that I had offended him in a newspaper article. It was usually the case that complaints came from the news stories you least expected to cause offense, and from individuals almost completely unconnected to the facts.
“Not at all,” he replied, sitting by the fire and making himself comfortable. “One that I want you to write.”
We can’t ignore the truth forever. It’s pointless to keep closing your eyes and ears and turning your back. We have to live in our chosen landscapes, even if that means reconciling oneself with the ghosts at the dark corner of the road. Going back home means that the past never really leaves you. It watches over you and appears to you in the form of haunted old men who still think they can influence events buried deep in people’s memories.
I let him tell his story by the flickering light of the fire. I was quiet to the point of invisibility. Sometimes writing is a passive act. You sit and wait for something to happen. A passing remark, a chance encounter, or an unexpected visitor dredging up a terrible tale. Sometimes a writer only has to breathe and his muse comes to him.
At first, my guest seemed slightly agitated, unable to contain himself. But it passed. His unease lasted only a short while. He grew immersed in the story, which was about the unsolved murder of a young woman who disappeared from a local dance hall forty years previously. She had been seen by numerous eyewitnesses leaving the hall in the company of two men. A few days later, her body was found at a scenic spot popular with lovers. He said that the wrong men had been arrested and questioned and later released without charge. However, the finger of blame had always marked them, blighting their young lives. Years later, after the investigation collapsed, a member of the victim’s family had contacted him in desperation, hoping that he would hold some sway over the community and break the wall of silence. He had asked questions and was convinced the original police investigation had been a cover-up. I listened to more details and weighed up the strength of the story. After some deliberation, I told him that I doubted I would ever be able to investigate the story as a journalist. It was too murky a tragedy to reconstruct as a set of facts. Too many of the people involved had either died or left the country, and there was no one left to verify or contradict his version of events. There were just too many gaps in the narrative begging to be filled.
He accepted my explanation, and I advised him to bring the information to a priest or solicitor. However, my mind was already working out how his story might be told as a piece of fiction. He must have read the look on my face or seen the gleam in my eyes because he asked, “But you still might write about it?”
“Yes,” I replied slowly. “It’s a powerful story. I can see how it might work in a novel.”
I tried to stop my thoughts from racing further. A doomed young woman, the dark pool her body was found in, the vague figures of the suspects, the wall of silence raised by the village, and the incompetence of the police investigation that suggested a sinister cover-up. Already, I had stepped down from the proverbial gallery and was getting emotionally involved with the characters.
“That’s fine with me.” He seemed cheered. He said goodbye with a half-repressed smile. He was no longer in need of my company and was anxious to be on his way.
Shouldering the responsibility of what to do with these stories has given me sleepless nights. Sometimes there is a hidden agenda when strangers bring a story to your door; sometimes what they’re looking for is a propaganda tool rather than a conduit for the past. It’s not easy dredging through the murk of a long conflict, but somehow I feel compelled to listen and mull obsessively over their secrets.
Too many stories about the Troubles were never told or were lost along the way. Who knows how many secrets were taken to the grave or are still hidden in people’s hearts? One thing I have learned as a journalist is that, in spite of all the cover-ups and silence of the past forty years, there is always someone who knows something, and the truth, no matter how twisted or incomplete, has the strength to filter through the tightest of defenses. I am part of the story, too, as a child of the Troubles, and going back home means I can’t escape the telling, no matter how dark the tale.