On Writing – by Roisin Meaney

Whenever someone asks me what I do for a living, it takes quite a bit of effort not to accompany my response of ‘I’m a writer’ with a large smirk. The annoying truth is I hardly regard my job as work at all, more of a heck of a way to spend my days – and to be paid for doing what I love just makes it all the sweeter. It’s full of fringe benefits too – legitimate entry into writers’ retreats (I’ve been to Newfoundland, Spain and France), licence to spend your day under the duvet as long as the laptop accompanies you, and if you’re particularly fortunate, inclusion in the Writers’ Week programme of events.

Roisin Meaney
Roisin Meaney

That’s not to say the life of a writer is easy; some days it’s far from easy. Some days I squeeze out a page or two of what I know in my heart is drivel that will be deleted the next time I switch on the laptop. Some days I sit and stare at the blank screen until my eyes cross, and nothing else happens. On these days the only cure is to down tools prematurely and head into town to do severe damage to my credit card balance. They don’t call it retail therapy for nothing.

But there are other days, thankfully much more common, when I tap the keys in happy little bursts, when my characters behave themselves and the story moves along obediently and the word count at the end of the day has four digits in it, and I can reread all of it, or most of it, without cringing.

Since 2001 I’ve written eight adult novels. Two of them have crossed the Atlantic. Four of them have gone in the other direction, to sit in various European bookshops. This summer will see my first Italian translation. And for all that, there are times when I still feel as if I’m waiting to be found out. (Don’t tell.)

Every book I write starts with me lying in bed after I close whatever book I’m reading and switch off the light. This is my time to start tossing themes around in the darkness until I hit on one that takes my fancy – someone being dumped on the eve of opening her first shop, someone who decides to offer evening classes in life drawing, a group of amateur actors coming together to rehearse a play. Sometimes it takes quite a while to find one I’m happy with.

Once I have my theme I get to work on my main character, another slow process. Before I can write someone’s story I have to get to the stage where I feel I know her as well as I know my sister, or best pal. And in order to get to that point, I mentally sit her across the table from me and interview her. What faults do you have? I ask. How do you think others see you? What do you most desire? What’s your earliest memory? What annoys you more than anything? And so forth. I have to feel that I’d recognise her if she walked into a room. ‘Why, there’s so and so,’ I’d say, delighted that we’d come face to face at last.

Finally, armed with my theme and character, I take myself off to the laptop and begin. I plot each book fiercely and in some detail, needing to have the security blanket of an A-to-Z storyline to wrap around me. Having said that, my plots rarely stay unchanged. I blame the characters, who will insist on having their own way sometimes. In my first book, The Daisy Picker, I was determined that Lizzie O’Grady would not fall in love. I wanted to buck the happy-ever-after trend and keep her single, but the hussy had other ideas. (Mind you, he was lovely. I would have done the same.)

When I’m ready to begin writing the book, I open three documents on the computer. The first is the manuscript itself; the second is ‘points to remember’, where I record any factual detail as I go along – ‘Joe has blue eyes’ – so I can check back when I need to. The third is ‘overview’, in which I summarise the story section by section – ‘34-36: Angela’s birthday party’ – so I can find a scene easily. I have no idea if other writers do this – for all I know they have much more efficient ways of organising themselves and navigating through a manuscript, but it works for me.

And then I potter along, writing for anything from two hours (bad day) to the whole morning and a bit of the afternoon (very lovely day). I find five or six hours per day is about all I can handle, with a few little five minute breaks thrown in (during which I might sit in the sun, talk to the cat, make a cuppa or check emails). Any more than that and my head is scrambled, and I know that anything I commit to the screen will probably be doomed by virtue of being crap.

The inspiration for my latest book, One Summer, came from the fact that in 2010 I happened to visit a multitude of islands – Lanzarote in May, a scatter of Croatian islands in July, Guernsey and Sark in the Channel Isles in September, and tiny, beautiful Sherkin off Cork’s coast in October.

And in November, when it was time to start on a new book, I decided to find someplace scenic and cheap to rent for a month, just for the hell of it. And wouldn’t you know, I ended up on Valentia Island, off the Kerry coast, in a little cottage that had started life as a stable. Talk about scenic.

As I settled into my home-for-a-month, the significance of all my recent island-hopping struck me. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, to set a book on a small island? And once I decided to centre it around the local hairdresser who was getting married, the plot of One Summer pretty much fell into place.

But again it changed as I wrote the story. It got a little quirkier and a little more poignant, and the ending was slightly different. And I have to say that I really, really loved writing this one, and there were fewer bad days and a lot more very lovely days while it was coming into being.

And now it’s out there, and I miss my islanders, and I hope they find favour wherever they go.

One Summer, published April 2012 by Hachette Books Ireland.

During Writers Week, Roisin Meaney will be Storytelling (6-8 Years) in Listowel Library on Friday, June 1st (1.30pm to 2.30pm) and running a What’s Your Story? workshop on Saturday, June 2nd (2-4pm) in the Feale Room, Arms Hotel.

Find out more about Roisin at www.roisinmeaney.com