Monday, August 20, 2012

Choosing Holiday Reading

I know I'm leaving my holiday a little late this year, but I'm heading off to foreign climes for the last two weeks of September.

Which brings me to the tricky subject of holiday reading.

Firstly, I don't agree that a holiday read needs to be fluffy or light. Last year, while exploring Bavaria, I read lots of Alice Hoffman, Kiersten White's Supernaturally (which is light-hearted in tone but not in content) and Giles Foden's Last King of Scotland, a novel about the dictator Idi Amin. Not exactly the kind of thing that's marketed to be read on a beach - but then I wasn't on the beach, so maybe my holiday reading needs are different!

With that in mind, I saw a photo of the covers of Louise Phillips's upcoming Irish crime novel, Red Ribbons. I am very keen to read it - psychological crime set in Dublin? Bring it on! - and it is being released about a week or so before I fly out. Seems like a great candidate for a holiday read, right?

Well, not quite.

When I am away, where possible I like to read something connected with the place I am visiting. I didn't manage that last year (although I did thoroughly enjoy the history sections of my travel guide). This year, I'm off to France and Belgium. My French reading list currently consists of Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette, which I've been planning to read for ages anyway,  several Kindle-only travel books, my trusty Rough Guide and a phrasebook.

My Belgian reading list is somewhat shorter. It consists of several Kindle-only travel guides, and a vague notion of finally trying some of Agatha Christie's Poirot novels.

But I think my list - my French list anyway - is flawed.

I'll only be there for six days. Is that really enough time to plough through one of Fraser's biographies? Won't it be annoying, travelling to Belgium while reading about the country I'm leaving and not the country I'm going to? And wouldn't the trip to France be more rewarding if I knew more about the history before I arrived, rather than learning it while there?

So I think instead, I will read Marie Antoinette (and Red Ribbons!) before I go, and choose something shorter and less historical for reading while I'm there. Given that France exerts a powerful pull over Western imaginations, I imagine I'll have no trouble finding something good. I'm still a little stumped for Belgium - can anyone recommend any modern Belgian novels that are available in English?

What are your favourite holiday books? Do your holiday reading tastes change depending on where you go - or is that just me?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tips for Writing About Ireland: The Republic Today

The last instalment of my Writing about Ireland tips will focus on the part of Ireland I know best, the Republic. This is the part of Ireland that comes to mind for most people when they think about Ireland. Dublin, cobblestoned streets, Trinity College, Oscar Wilde, Yeats, Guinness, Temple Bar, stag weekends, shamrocks, St. Patrick's Day, Catholicism, dancers who never move their arms - we've got it all.

And a bit more besides.

We're in the grip of a pretty awful recession, deepened by the reckless actions of our banks and the Bank Guarantee Scheme, where the State assumed responsibility for all banking debt, which they seem to be determined to pay for solely by depleting my paycheck :p Taxes are increasing, we're seeing cuts to public services (numbers of teachers for students with special needs, for example, are being reduced) and to state payments like pensions and social welfare, and unemployment is high.

'High' at the moment means circa 15%. I like to put a positive spin on it and think that employment is at 85%.

So things suck, but we're not Greece (yet!). There have been no serious protests. Some people feel we should be taking to the streets because the State and its people are paying dearly for mistakes made by private corporations, who are still giving payrises to their employees and paying themselves substantial bonuses. Personally I think that is pretty disgusting, and have been tempted more than once to knock on a few CEO's doors and ask for my cash back, but I'm not sure street protests are likely to help much.

We're seeing a lot of businesses closing - I know I'm making very conscious consumer choices these days, ensuring I give my business to companies that I especially want to support and not just buying from the closest outlet. There was a period just after Christmas where it seemed like a major retailer was closing every few days, but thankfully that has slowed.

That's how it looks from the streets.

There's a lot of anger towards our previous government, who signed the Bank Guarantee Scheme and budgeted recklessly during the boom years. There is anger towards our current government for not going far enough to reverse those things.

We do have a lot of cobblestones, though. And Guinness. And I have no idea why the dancers don't move their arms.

If you ever find yourself writing about Ireland and want to check things, please feel free to give me a shout - during November, I'm usually on the Nanowrimo forums offering help. And there's almost always a decent contigent of North Americans writing about us, which is very flattering!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Tips for Writing About Ireland: Northern Ireland and Names

In Friday's post, I talked about how the island of Ireland has two countries in it - Northern Ireland, which consists of six counties ruled by their own assembly, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which is, as the name suggests, a completely independent state. I live in the Republic.

The Giants' Causeway, Northern Ireland. Photo used under Creative Commons from Locace
Today I want to post a little background about Northern Ireland. As I said on Friday, you may associate Northern Ireland with - the building of the Titanic in Belfast, the Giant's Causeway and, tragically, sectarian violence. It can be a challenging place to understand, especially if you're from outside Ireland.

**Edited to add: this is a very simplistic overview of the meanings behind some of the conflicting terms that are used about Northern Ireland. I'm not from Northern Ireland, so I'm far from the best person to comment on this. The following is intended as a very, very simple primer on terms that have the potential to be troublesome, but it is not a substitute for examining the many nuanced aspects of identity and history that have shaped the region**

The first confusing thing about Northern Ireland is the name. It is alternatively known as The North, the Six Counties, Ulster, the North of Ireland, the Province and very occasionally British-occupied Ireland. All of these names have connotations.

There are two main communities in Northern Ireland - unionists, who are quite happy to be ruled by the UK, and nationalists, who believe that Northern Ireland should be part of the Republic of Ireland. Within these very broad definitions, there is obviously a wide range of opinion, so what follows is not exhaustive. Unionists tend to use terms that emphasise Northern Ireland as a distinct entity - they are more likely to say Ulster, or the Province. Nationalists, on the other hand, tend to emphasise the geographical link with the Republic and are more likely to refer to the North, the Six Counties, or British-occupied Ireland (I haven't heard that one much myself, and it would mostly be used by people with more extreme views on the subject).

If you are writing about Northern Ireland, keep it simple and call it Northern Ireland. If you want to depict a unionist character, drop in an Ulster or two, and if you want to depict a nationalist character, have them call it 'the North', but the term 'Northern Ireland' is widely used.

In the Republic, we tend to call it The North. Which is technically incorrect because Co. Donegal, among others, is in what would be considered the extreme north of the country but is firmly and passionately part of the Republic (actually, the term Ulster is inaccurate too, because there are three counties in the Republic that are part of the region called Ulster but not part of the political entity that is Northern Ireland. See why I said it was complicated?).

The second city of Northern Ireland is rather simpler, but more divisive. You may know it as Derry or Londonderry. I know it as Derry, and some people know it from the song The Town I Loved So Well (if you're looking for a version of it to listen to, I like Luke Kelly's best).

During the Plantation of Ulster (a period of organised colonisation by England, when settlers from England and Scotland were sent to Northern Ireland to increase British control of the region), the city of Derry was substantially rebuilt and renamed Londonderry. It was popularly called Derry for several centuries until the outbreak of civil unrest ('The Troubles') in the 1960s, when the issue became politically charged and unionists began to use the official name Londonderry again. The city council, confusingly, is called Derry City Council, so when referring to local government issues, it is correct to say Derry. There has been debate for some years about whether or not to change the city's name to Derry officially, but the debate has been split completely along political lines. Unionists want one name and nationalists want the other, so the status quo has remained in place in the absence of a better suggestion. This happens a lot in Ireland, and probably everywhere else in the world too. . .

In the Republic, we say Derry, and you'd get a funny look for saying Londonderry - one of our government ministers called it Londonderry during a discussion in parliament earlier this year and it generated a lot of comment. It was as late as 2009 before we would accept passport applications that listed Place of Birth as Londonderry - prior to that, forms had to say Derry. Our road signs point to Derry. In Northern Ireland, both terms are used but it is highly politicised, so if writing, a character from the Republic of Ireland will say Derry, a Northern Irish unionist will say Londonderry and a Northern Irish nationalist will say Derry.

Wikipedia informs me that UK-based organisations have some creative solutions - the BBC will use Londonderry initially in any piece and then use both terms interchangably. The left-win Guardian newspaper suggests Derry and the right-wing Telegraph suggests Londonderry. The Northern Irish Civil Service are advised in correspondence to use whatever term their correspondant does. The last word, though, goes to Irish comedian Neil Delamere, who commented that the Irish national TV station's pronunciation guide is effectively the same as its BBC counterpart, except the word "Londonderry", in which the first six letters are silent.

I hope some of this proves helpful to visitors, writers or anyone else trying to navigate the confusing world of Irish history! On Friday I'll talk a bit more about writing about Ireland and her two resident countries, and next week I'll be posting some hints for writing about the Republic of Ireland (and there won't be a leprechaun in sight, I promise).

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Few Pointers On Writing about Ireland

Wow. There's been some pretty breathtaking ignorance about Ireland in this week's Olympic coverage.

First, we had the Telegraph claiming our (now) gold-medal winning boxer, Katie Taylor, as 'British.'

Then the Australian newspaper group Fairfax Media behaved with a Murdoch-y lack of journalistic decorum and made comments reinforcing the hard-drinking, aggressive Irish stereotype. The Irish Ambassador to Australia stepped in to sort that one out.

And then, because Australia clearly hadn't been mortified enough by their sportswriters screwing up, Russell Barwich decided the Irish were ridiculous for not competing as part of Team GB, likening it to Tasmania refusing to comete as part of Australia. The best bit is that as he said this, he admitted that he didn't understand Irish politcs - I admire his candor, but given that he had just said the most offensive thing you can say to an Irish person, clarifying that was wholly unnecessary.

Oh, and while I was Googling all this, I found out that the BBC's Daley Thompson said that a tattooist who made a spelling error must have been Irish, prompting me to yell things in my head. The corporation's response:

"Thompson’s comments about this were clearly meant as a joke, but we apologise if any offence was caused; it certainly wasn’t our intention."

was not an apology, because if you call 3.5 million people stupid, you don't get to use the word 'if' about offence caused. There was offence caused. Be grown-ups and own it and knock off the passive-aggressive crap.Calling it a joke - also not smart, because the person making the joke doesn't get to decide whether or not it was funny. That's the audience's priviledge, and I for one am exercising the hell out of it :)

Anyway, I could do two things in response to this. I could cry and eat cake, because racism is horrible, especially when half of it comes from a country from whom your grandparents had to buy back their own land during the Great Depression and the other half comes from a commonwealth state that should know rather a lot more than it does about what independence means and how complex it can be.

Or I could write a handy guide for people who want to write about Ireland, but find it hard to locate good informatio about our admittedly tiny and globally insignificant country. That sounds like more fun, apart from the cake, so I'm going to do that. Most of this will be pretty obvious to my readers, but there is some actual information in Point 1 that may be of use :)

1. This is the complicated bit - the island of Ireland has two countries in it. Ireland looks like a teddy bear. The teddy bear's head is Northern Ireland, 6 counties under the rule of Great Britain but with its own assembly, exactly like Scotland or Wales. That's the bit with a tragic history of sectarian violence, which it is admirably and constructively working to overcome. They built the Titanic and Belfast and produced lots of linen and they have the Giant's Causeway and the city of Derry and the giant lake that looks the teddy bears eye. The rest of the teddy bear is the Republic of Ireland, the bit I live in, made up of the 28 remaining counties, and it's a state completely independent of Great Britain. It's the bit that has Dublin, Guinness, the Rock of Cashel, Cork and the blue lakes of Killarney in it.

2. Calling Ireland part of the UK is about the most offensive thing you can possibly say. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but saying 'Ireland' is lumps the republic in there too, and we really hate that.

3. We don't find the stupid jokes funny. But everyone already knew that, I presume, because people don't like being called stupid, right? So it's a no-brainer.

Paradoxically, some Irish people will tell and enjoy Irish jokes but non-Irish people calling us stupid, or being surprised that we have universities - not cool. We have more Nobel Laureates for literature per head of population than any other country, so we can definitely read and write :p

4. We're actually not that aggressive. The Irish have a rep for getting drunk and getting into fights. This is because so many Irish people who moved abroad did it - but you're talking about a demographic that never saw two shops stuck together until they got to New York or Boston or London, and yeah, lots of them went a bit crazy. But Ireland is a very safe country (both the North and the Republic - in spite of the North's history of violence, tourists are pretty safe). We don't allow handguns. Our murder rates and other crime rates are low. And in spite of some pretty seriously nasty austerity measures, we haven't had any violent protests. We're far closer to the other stereotype - that of the complacent Irishman drawing on his pipe and saying 'Ah sure, it'll be graaand.' We could stand to be a bit more aggressive sometimes!

5. The drinking thing. OK, I may be on my high horse at the moment but the drinking thing is . . . kinda true. The Irish drink quite a bit, but more importantly, all of our drinking is public. We don't have a culture of drinking at home (although we're working on developing one to save some cash!) so our consumption is very visible. Also I live in the Irish capital and even here, it can be hard to find non-alcohol-related things to do after a certain time in the evening, and it's obviously worse in rural areas. By necessity, even non-drinkers may find their social life centring around the pub. This stereotype is the least offensive, and I think most Irish people are more bothered by the implications that we get drunk and hit people than statements that we get drunk.

6. We are a modern economy with cars, roads and factories. This may sound daft, but there are people who think we're still stuck in The Quiet Man and picking blight off the potatoes. Not so much. Some years ago, because of the massive boom in the pharmaceutical industry here, our chief export was not potatoes, whiskey and postcards of the Cliffs of Moher, but . . .  Viagra.

Rest assured, we totally saw the funny side of that :)

This post is largely for the kind of people who say things that are very offensive, which doesn't include any of my blog readers, all of whom can read and research things, and know that calling someone stupid is not very nice, ever. Unfortunately, none of these people will ever read it, but I certainly feel better!

Next week, I will continue my 'Pointers On Writing About Ireland' with the less obvious stuff that might *actually* be helpful for someone setting a book here, as opposed to me spleen-venting :) If anyone has any questions (whether you want to write about Ireland, or visit it, or just ask a question that's been bugging you), please pop them in the comments and I'll address them on Monday! There are no offensive questions, because questions indicate a desire to know things which I believe is universally a good thing :)

Happy weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Romantic Heroines in YA: Anna and the French Kiss

A few weeks ago, I read Stephanie Perkins's excellent book, Anna and the French Kiss.

Why did I love it? It might have been the super-cool boarding school Anna attends. In Paris. It might have been the author's use of Paris as a setting - the Latin Quarter, the Pantheon, Notre Dame and Shakespeare and Co all come to life beautifully. It might have been the romantic lead - a French-English-American guy who is (gasp!) shorter than his leading lady.

It might even have been how the author managed to make friendship the main theme of a YA romance novel.

But mostly, it was Anna herself.

Anna likes film. She's funny. She has in-jokes with her best friend, she has crushes, she wants to be a film critic, she worries, she is left-handed and she has a gap in her teeth and a bright slash of dye running through her dark hair. She is mortified by her father's writing career and loves her mom and brother.

She is a well-rounded and definite character. Someone I can imagine meeting for tea, someone who has a life beyond the boy she likes.

She has a life, an identity and goals.

There has been a lot of criticism recently of books that treat their female heroines as mere receptacles for love, sitting passively by until the perfect man floats past and deigns to gaze on her,

Feck that. Give me Anna Oliphant and her film blog (which no one reads) any day of the week. While she makes some mistakes and bad decisions in the novel, she is a very real person and I think in spite of her mistakes, she is a positive role model. Because she's real and rounded, not passive and dull. I haven't been a teenager in almost ten years, but I adored this book as a 28-year-old and as a teen, I would have devoured it.

Can anyone recommend any other YA novels with well-rounded heroines?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Naming Characters: Won't Somebody Please Think of The Parents?

There have been some great posts about how to name characters. I like this one, by Nadia Jones guesting on Lisa Amowitz's blog.

Recently, I had to choose names for two characters in my next WIP, both of whom are Irish and younger than me. I don't know many people younger than me. With older characters, I can look at people I know and say 'Hmmm. I know lots of Lauras, Jennys and Sarahs in their early 30s. They're probably safe names to use for that age group - and seemingly the trend then was for nice, modern, simple, easy to spell names, so if I call a character Emmaline or Ada or Fylycyty, I may need to explain myself just a bit.'

Equally, a lot of simple, older names are currently back in fashion in Ireland - Rose, Molly, Emma, Eva. Even Ellen is making a comeback, which I never thought I'd see! I love those names, but if I chose one for a character born in 1996, it wouldn't ring true, because that trend hadn't taken hold then.

I know very few young folk born around 1996, being a curmudgeon at heart. So I consulted one (he was very helpful), and Googled a lot, and read census reports, and thought about what names would suit my main characters. I wanted one of them to have a feminine name that shortened to a male name (Samantha, Roberta, that kind of thing) but very few were popular during the period when my character would have been born.

When naming a character, I find it helps to remember that a character's name is a) a product of the time when they were born, not when the book takes place, and b) chosen by their parents. One my characters would have loved to be called Dylan or Madison, but her parents would never have chosen that. If I had called her Dylan, it would have been a mistake - and it would have really messed up my characterisation of her parents, who are quite conventional Irish people and would never chose such an unusual name for a baby girl.

Choosing a name is not about the character - it is about their family.

That can set up some interesting conflicts - my wannabe-Dylan's character has been shaped by the fact she feels her personality is at odds with her name. She feels as though her name holds her back.

So talking of the role that parents play in naming our characters, how do you feel about the role your parents played in naming you? Do you like your name? Does anyone? :)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Return of the Blog: The First Draft Edition

I realise I'm a month late, but I am finally returning to the blogging fold! It's nice to be back.

The reason I am so late is because finishing the first draft of The Curse of the Carberrys took longer than I expected. It was my Nanowrimo project in 2011 and had stalled a little once November was over. Once I restarted writing in earnest, I expected it to be very quick.

It didn't quite work out that way, because as I re-read what I had written, I spotted a few issues and fixed them as I went (two sisters kept swapping ages. Not good!).

And then in the final week of writing, I sprained my right shoulder. I'm right-handed. My day job involves typing and picking up phones. I can expect to be in pain for another four weeks, and excessive activity could cause scar tissue to form and lead to permanent damage.

I was 4000 words from the end of the book and I had to slow right down. Writing those last 4000 words took about five days, which is much slower than I usually manage when I know where I'm going with the story.

But now it's done! Copies have been sent to beta readers and I am bracing myself for feedback. I know the book has weaknesses, but it's the longest book I've ever written, the only one I ever completed with a shoulder sprain and the first to feature a dead gay book-reviewer. I'm pleased with it.

I'll be resuming my usual Monday and Friday blogging schedule from this Friday 3rd August, and I know I've said this before, but it is nice to be back.

So what did I miss? :)