This week I had an interesting conversation with a friend, about creating a map of Alternative-Northern-Ireland, capturing the places I’ve used in my spec stories. Then, yesterday, I brought out my first collection of short fiction, and it surprised me to see how many I’d set in places I’ve been, or know.
In a novel, it’s very clear where a book is set. The breadth of a project gives context to that setting, and vice versa. But a short story is often a snapshot and it can be less clear. Here, then, are the settings I’ve used, and why:
In Namesake, my haunted canal story, I capture the eerie stretch of canal that passes through the meres just beyond Whitchurch, going onto Ellesmere from the Shroppie to the Llangollen canal. It’s really strange. So silent. So much water. And herons, all the way along, guarding their little patch. It was impossible not to imagine the canal must have secrets hidden there.
The Invasion story of Inish Carraig is set through the City Centre and over to the Ormeau Road, where it joins University Road. Because Belfast City centre is, largely, flat – the sea and hills frame it, I tried to use that to give a sense of not really knowing the scale of the devastation at first. Whereas, Hunted, the old prologue to the book is set on the Cave Hill, up near the Zoo, looking down onto the city. The two different settings give a very different feel.
The Nun’s Walk – aka Sister Smut – is set on a very iconic walkway around the town of Portstewart. It leads from the old convent on the hill (O’Hara’s Hill, iirc), round to the Strand, and is a fantastic walk. Lots of sea air! I plan to return to that walk in Inish Carraig 2, when a key new character witnesses something on the strand that threatens the life of one of our estabilshed favourites.
Silver Threads is a second-world story. It’s not real life. But the salt sea was inspired by crossing the Bann River at Coleraine, on a train, with the sun shining on the still grey water in just the right way to inspire…Another ‘hidden’ setting is the shopping centre in Strong Arms to Hold – it’s Victoria Square in Belfast.
Mammy’s Boys was set in Dublin, where I initially thought I’d set a story about something-dreadful-happening in Ireland. But, that story became Inish Carraig, and I get lost in Dublin within minutes and I didn’t know the city with the intimacy needed. Plus, the voices of Belfast came into the story and this first tale, with the strong Dublin feel in my mind, is the only thing left of that first idea.
Refusing the Road to Heaven is set in the Sobihor deathcamp. I read the book, Escape from Sobihor, from back to back several times, as well as watching the film, and the depictions of the camp always stayed with me. The bleak yard, and yet the fact that relationships still developed in the midst of the camp. This little story took hold in that place, and it stayed with me. The resilience needed to escape and the many small acts of bravery that occured are testament to our need to be free and to fight for it.
Ain’t No Ghosts is an interesting one. The story is set in America, with a sort of King feel to it, but the house was in the village, Eden, near Carrickfergus. It’s knocked down now, but as kids we used to creep up to this old, creepy house. It had a boat’s mast the length of the attic, I remember, which we used to climb into (the attic, not the mast!_
Finding MacNeice. There’s a little graveyard around the back of the leisure centre, in my town, and it used to belong to the rectory where MacNeice lived as a child. In one of his poems, MacNeice recalls his mother being taken away (‘Come back early, or never come’ he refrains), and she never returned. She was, it’s believed, mentally ill. The graveyard is as it would have been then and it seems to me, when there, it would be easy to turn back time and see the moment that came to define someone who I regard as a great, and somewhat underrated, poet.
Also near the leisure centre, is a little bridge over a river. It collects Dandelion clocks on its mesh, and I walked over it one day and imagined them as captured wishes: this became the Wishing-Bridge
A couple of others, since I won’t bore on. Hampstead Heath’s ponds, I’ve never been to, but would like to. To get the place right, I called on friends – Christopher Bean, I’m looking at you – to keep me right! A two-faced carved stone on Boa Island, called the Janus Stone, set off the theme for The Gates of the Temple.
Don’t wait for inspiration to hit; look around. From the places, sometimes we get the stories. 🙂