Inspiration is a funny thing. Some writers believe their muse is the key to their inspiration and the driving force behind their writing. I don’t have a muse—or if I have, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced as of yet. Writing, in my personal experience, is the most challenging craft I’ve ever tried to undertake. It takes time, dedication, sacrifice, hard work, acceptance of constructive criticism, and the belief that you’ll get there in the end. Each writer’s inspiration is unique to them. And I believe the driving force and inspiration behind my own writing is down to a number of contributing factors.
Part of the driving force behind my writing is the enjoyment I get from creating stories, characters, and settings. I love to people watch. I appreciate that sounds a little stalkerish, but people watching is one of my favourite pastimes. When I’m sat on a bus, having a coffee with friends and family, walking our dog, working at the theatre, or even doing my local grocery shop, I’m always distracted by my nosiness. My family are Irish and I truly believe that my nosiness, as well as (what I like to believe is)a wicked sense of humour, a compulsion to feed guests regardless of whether they’re hungry, urge to sing and sway while drunk, and the captivating storytelling, are all attributed to my family’s Irish heritage. It’s in the genes—or perhaps it’s how we’re brought up, but whatever’s the cause, it’s definitely to do with being Irish.
Another aspect that drives my writing is my family and friends. Without their unwavering support and love, I might not have persevered. In recent years, my self-esteem has deteriorated. So, writing a novel that will be read and judged by strangers is a very stressful experience for me. With my upcoming second novel, Season’s Meetings I was downright certain, that I couldn’t successfully turn my hand to writing a contemporary romance. My debut novel, Secret Lies was a dark and gritty YA novel, whereas I knew straight away that Season’s Meetings was going to be festive and fun. They couldn’t really get much more different even if I’d tried. Change, has always worried me. I’ve never been one to willingly embrace new things, so this was a big deal for me. Countless times, I gave up, accepted defeat, tore my nerves to finer shreds, happily wallowed in my low self-esteem, and became consumed by self pity. Irritatingly, my wife and family wouldn’t let me stop writing. Their belief in me and my writing ability was unwavering. I was sat back down in my chair and verbally prodded with words of encouragement, until I gave in and got back to writing. They, without a doubt, are my driving force. I remain infinitely grateful to them.
My inspiration for stories, characters, and settings often come from personal experiences. The inspiration behind Secret Lies came in 2007, when I was working with vulnerable young people in care. I asked one of the young people why they didn’t enjoy reading. Their reply was, “Everyone’s always perfect in books and they only have silly problems. They haven’t been through what I’ve been through. It just reminds me that I’m not normal. No one wants to read about someone like me.” This resonated with me. In the back of my mind I’d been toying with the idea of writing a YA story for a while and this was the push I needed to actually pursue that ambition. I had a vague storyline based on a short story I’d written for my English coursework when I was sixteen. I made two major changes to the original storyline: I introduced two lesbian protagonists and I set out to raise awareness of the taboo issues of abuse and self-harm. Over the years, I’ve known many young people who identify as LGBTQ who have been affected by self-harm. I wanted to incorporate this into the story and subtly include where resources and support can be accessed.
I also drew on partial experiences from my own teenage life: Catholic school, Irish family, Sister Act, house parties, discovering newfound sexuality and reconciling it with faith, peer, and social pressures. Not a single character was based on a real person. I took characteristics and attributes from various people (myself included) and added fictitious aspects to create a character in their own right. And that’s part of what I love about writing. You get to see the characters come to life and take on their own experiences. By the end of the process, Jenny and Nicola were as real to me as anyone else I might meet. I felt maternal towards their plight and despaired at their decisions and actions.
The inspiration behind Season’s Meetings came last October. My wife and I love Christmas and always get overly excited—to the extent that we’re worse than a sleep-deprived child experiencing a sugar rush on Christmas Eve. We’re terrible influences on each other . Come October, we’re already buying gifts for family and friends, which I’ll readily admit is a task I relish. We eagerly count down to December 1st so we can blitz our house, pets, and even ourselves with festive paraphernalia. Last year, I was talking with my wife about Christmas and how it’s always over far too quickly. She suggested I write a festive story and that got me thinking. Twelve hours later, I had the full outline and character profiles of my Christmas romance sorted. BSB accepted the proposal and a contract was signed. Something was still missing from the story, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. In December, our perfectly decorated Christmas tree (which we’d spent hours slaving over)was sabotaged by our two cats and little cairn terrier, Kimmy. Kimmy was the main culprit. She’d used a thirty minute window of unsupervised doggy opportunity to break into the front room (we still don’t know how she got by the metal barricade) and reveled in her naughtiness by defiling our tree. Kimmy, was the missing link. Once I added her naughty grey little behind into the story, everything else fit into place. She not only stars in the story, she’s also on the front cover too.
So now I come to the part that is most important. I’ve been planning on writing this blog for a while, but kept putting it off…until now. After finishing the page proofs for Season’s Meetings, I realised something profound and deeply personal. My subconscious (without my knowledge or permission) had been trying to voice my grief and get me to come to terms with it. In both Secret Lies and Season’s Meetings there is a similar theme, the death of the main protagonist’s grandmother. In Secret Lies, Jenny is still hurting and struggling to come to terms with the passing of her grandmother years later. While Catherine Birch, in Season’s Meetings is bereft after the recent passing of her Granny Birch. I’m genuinely shocked at the revelation and truly never, not even once, noticed the similarity or made the connection.
In 2007, my grandma, Bridie Dunne passed away from cancer.
I was away from home, in my final year at university, had just come out, was in a very unhealthy relationship, and was sitting my final exams. I was fortunate that one of my best friends drove me all the way home, so I could visit my grandma in the hospital. She was asleep when I last saw her. I spoke quietly so as not to disturb her. I’m not sure she knew I was there, but I hope with all my heart that she heard what I said and knew how much I loved her. I returned to university that night. A few days later, I received the phone call that she’d passed away.
My biggest regret, is that I hadn’t stayed at home and spent every waking second of those last few days by her side. I don’t think the guilt will ever fade. In truth, I wasn’t mentally or emotionally able to deal with the situation and returning to uni, was my running away from everything. Knowing my grandma as I do, I know she wouldn’t have begrudged my inability to cope.
My grandma was smaller than me in height and not many people can say that. She had a very hard life. But she never stopped laughing. She saw the humour in every situation and loved nothing more than to have a good belly laugh. I still remember her laugh as if I’d only just heard it. Her sense of humour was wicked and the epitome of what makes Irish humour so awesome. I never tired of listening to her stories. She was fiercely ferocious in her protectiveness and love of us.
Her greatest pleasure in live was reading. She’d happily read a book a day. I never remember her not having a book to read. She used to tell us about when she was a young women living at home with her family in Ireland. Her sisters were all about the men. Her mother was keen for the girls to marry well and took it upon herself to judge every prospected suitor. My grandma, had no interest in men. She just wanted to read. She’d tell us about them different men, my granddad included, who used to call at the house to see her. Her mother would shout upstairs for her to come down, and she’d stay exactly where she was, comfortably sat on her bed, reading her book. I think my dad and the rest of us get our love of reading from her.
She also loved action films, which wasn’t surprisingly considering she had four boys. We had a family tradition that we’d all go to mass on Saturday evenings, so we could get up early, and go to the cinema first thing on a Sunday morning. If there wasn’t enough action in the film, she’d happily nod off and snore, only to wake twenty minutes before the end of the film. As soon as she realised that she’d been asleep, she’d burst out laughing. In the end, we’d all be laughing with her.
Whenever we visited her, she’d feed us. (It really is an Irish thing and I’m as bad now, as she was.) It didn’t matter if you were hungry or not, a pork chop or a cheese sandwich would magically appear on a plate in your lap. She loved McDonalds nearly as much as my sister and I did as children. On one occasion, she tried to send me to school with a five pack of Mars bars. I thanked her, but told her I wouldn’t eat them all. Normally, we would have disagreed for a while and she’d always win in the end, but on this occasion she backed down. I immediately became suspicious. A few minutes later, she strode past me, unsuccessfully hiding something beneath her woolen jumper. When I asked her where she was going, she told me, “I’m going to the toilet. Mind your own business.” I started to follow and she said, “I’ll do as I please, thank you.” I waited a few seconds, then peered around the door, to find her shoving the multipack into my coat pocket. I crept back to the sofa and sat down, pretending I hadn’t seen. When I went off to school, she waved goodbye to me with a triumphant grin on her face. Come the first break, I was glad of the chocolate and shared them around with my friends.
Another fond memory I have, is when I was 15. I was staying over for the night in her bungalow, as the next day I was travelling on a school trip to London. At this time in my life I was totally oblivious to my sexuality, but I was secretly a huge fan of the TV show Bad Girls. Usually, I’d watch it in the privacy of my bedroom. On this occasion, I had to resign myself to missing an episode. At half past eight, my grandma went to make us both a drink of Ovaltine. “I must quick,” she said rushing around. “My favourite programme is on soon.” I helped her stir the drinks and asked what programme she was on about. “Oh, it’s great. Them naughty girls,” she said in her Irish accent. Confused, I asked her again what she meant. “Those naughty, naughty, girls in prison. I love it.” With a gasp, I nearly dropped my cup and asked, “Do you mean Bad Girls?” She grinned and nodded. “Aye. I love that show.” So, we settled back down and watched the episode of Bad Girls together. I should point out that I spent most of show with bright red cheeks, avoiding looking at her, and at the TV.
When I went to university I joined the women’s rugby team. When I told my grandma about it, she said, “Oh, I love the rugby. I wish I could’ve had a go at that when I was girl.” It was both of our hopes that she’d get to see me play a match, but unfortunately it never happened.
One Bonfire night, I was drinking Lemon Hooch (which in an alcopop). I offered my grandma a taste and she didn’t hesitate to accept. She took a big swig and said, “That’s nice. I want some of that, too.” So, I poured her a glass and we happily sat, drinking our hooch, and laughing away. Many bottles later, (mostly with me trying to keep up with her) my dad came into the room and shot me a very disapproving look. He asked grandma if he could get her a cup of tea, and in a slurring voice she replied, “No. I want another lemon drink.” He took me outside and told me to stop getting grandma drunk. The problem was, by trying to match her pace I was also drunk. My grandma was fine the next day, but I was dying a slow and painful hangover death. It’s still one of my absolute favourite memories.
Another regret I have, is that I never came out to my grandma. I sometimes wonder if she secretly knew, but I have no doubt whatsoever, that she would’ve accepted me regardless. A little while before she passed away she told my younger sister, “You should marry that tall lad. Go on. You marry him soon.” (A few years later my sister did marry that tall lad.) Then she turned to me and said, “You don’t be worrying about marrying anyone. And if you do decide to marry someone, do it after you’re thirty. There’s no rush. You take it from me.” I wish, with all my heart, that she could have met my wife. They’d have gotten on like a house on fire.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her and miss her. I have a huge gaping hole in my heart full of pain and regret and it will never go away. It hurts to remember her, because I miss her so frigging much, but I wouldn’t lessen that hurt even if I could. It’s a good hurt. It reminds me of how much I love her. How much she means to me. How much she inspired my life and helped shape the person I am today. And the more I talk about her and share my memories, the longer her memory lives on.
Both of the grandmothers in Secret Lies and Season’s Meetings are incredible women, but they don’t come close in comparison to how incredible my grandma Bridie was. She’s the real inspiration behind both stories. And writing them, has helped me come some way in regards to accepting my grief. It’s been a pleasure being able to share my memories of her with you.