Announcing Mrs Engels

Mrs Engels copy

‘Tis a truth universally acknowledged that behind every great man, there has to be a greater Irish woman. And, indeed, ’tis a little known fact that Friedrich Engels’ better half was a Lizzie Burns of the Emerald Isle. A working class immigrant to Britain, she had first hand experience of the hardships of the proletariat and was to play a key part in the formation of British socialism.

Taking this fact and applying his not insignificant talent and imagination to create a gripping historical novel, is Gavin McCrea, a writer and debut novelist from Dublin. I have to declare an interest here, not only is Gavin Irish, we also took our MA in Creative Writing at UEA, the same year (2009). However, this merely means that I’m familiar with his talent and his potential, and I would highly recommend you make ‘Mrs Engels’ your next book purchase.

‘Mrs Engels’ by Gavin McCrea will be launched on April 30th, and is published by Scribe, London. The novel will be published in the U.S. in October.

Remember you heard it here first.

Gavin McCrea, author

Gavin McCrea, author


East and West

SueKJFIoNA2

KJSUEFIONA

There are ten years and quite a few countries between these two pictures (above); the first one in Budapest, 2004, the second taken last week in a pub in Pimlico. And these girls are still as strong, funny, fun and gorgeous (even more so!) as they were when we were all young expats living in Hungary.

I spent eleven years in Budapest. They were heady years when I grew up in many ways: when I first fell in love, got a proper job, learned to drive, took my degree, first published my creative writing, bought my first properties and found many of my closest friends. All the above are milestones in one’s life and mine all happened in Hungary. It’s a country which continues to inspire and give grist to my creative output, even if I’ve not lived there in six years now.

I moved to the UK to do an MA in 2008. For the purposes of my Ph.D., I’ve been living in Kensington/Chelsea, London, since September 2014 (as it’s close to the focus of my thesis, the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square). This part of London is an impressive and captivating territory and as full of history as Budapest. Likewise, there’s culture and art and parks and shops and museums galore. And now spring’s here, there are visitors… and I’m using them as an excuse to explore the backstreets of Chelsea, or ‘my manor’ as they say in London.

In other words, Chelsea and I have hit it off. I feel that this area and I will have as long and positive a connection as I’ve enjoyed with my friends Kristina and Fiona (pictured above). Nowhere I live in the future will ever compare to Budapest and what I gained from my time there, but when Chelsea’s got her blossom on (see pics below), she sure is going to conjure your muse. Wherever you live, writers, make sure it inspires.

019 029 038 044 056 082


Paper Never Refused Ink

Writers worth their ink need to be making some point with their story. By that, I mean your tale ought not be solely just a boy-meets-loses-regains-girl trip.

Beneath your storyline, there should be something else going on, a deeper message, your comment on how humanity works, or doesn’t. It is a writer’s (or artist’s) job to present the human condition as they interpret it. It isn’t meant to be heavy and scary, I’m simply suggesting that once you’ve written your story, or even just have an idea for one, you should sit back and consider what it could be saying on a larger, universal scale.

A good way to understand this concept is to consider Aesop’s Fables. Each one is a tale that could be enjoyed on a superficial level by a child, yet there is a deeper meaning, or moral, which endeavors to teach the child some universal truth about life, ie being slow yet determined is often better than being hasty and fickle (Tortoise and the Hare).

A good place to seek inspiration is a list of proverbs. A proverb is usually a metaphor and encapsulates in simple terms, a lesson from the common experience of humanity. Here’s an exercise that might get you going: sit down and have a think about the specific meaning of the following and then go freewrite a story illustrating this philosophy.

Graveyards are full of indispensable people.

You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

The belly has no ears.

Trees don’t grow to the sky.

A dumb priest never got a parish.

The only free cheese is in the mousetrap.

Eaten bread is soon forgotten.

The squeaky door gets the oil.


And The Nominees Are….

reviews

It’s gong season. But forget your Tonys and Emmys and Oliviers and what-have-ya. Surely, the only drama awards that really matter are from the country that has given the world William Congreve, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Synge, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Brendan Behan, Brian Friel, Samuel Beckett, Martin McDonagh and Enda Walsh (to name a few)… yes, that’s right, Ireland. And today, the Irish Times Theatre Awards nominations were announced….

I’m particularly happy to see Jim Nolan’s play ‘Dreamland’ nominated for ‘Best New Play’. Jim, one of Ireland’s leading playwrights, has been a great supporter/mentor of mine over the years and has directed all four of my radio plays to date. ‘Dreamland’, which toured nationally in the early spring, also gets a ‘Best Supporting Actor’ nod for veteran Irish stage actor, Des Keogh. ‘Dreamland’ deserves to win, but even the nomination at least is recognition of Jim’s talent and tireless work for theatre, particularly in Waterford. I should mention that another of ‘Dreamland’ s cast is up-and-coming actor Michael Power. No stranger to awards himself (he won the Best Actor at the Portsmouth International Short-Film awards earlier this year), Michael is a core performer of our radio productions having acted in all four. So, to see Jim’s ‘Dreamland’ get two nods today, is very pleasing indeed for all of us.

Also, over in the Best Opera Production category, the Cork Operatic Society’s ‘Der Vampyr’, directed by Michael Barker Craven, is among the nominated – no doubt due in part to the talents of soprano Maire Flavin (yes, I’m biased, she’s my cousin – but she is a stand-out talent).

So, break a leg, my luvvies x

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/stage/irish-times-irish-theatre-awards-and-the-nominees-are-1.2068589


Voices from the Past

Family history is a superb source of inspiration for creative writing, and a gripping back-drop to any tale, be it a love story, an adventure or comedy. I recently wrote a play, ‘Cake’, a work of fiction, that was based on events in my great-grandparents’ WWI experience – though it primarily explored the impact  of the era on women.

Interestingly, a writer friend of mine who is familiar with my play ‘Cake’ was recently researching 1916 newspapers in Ireland and came across an actual letter written from my great-grandmother to the editor of the “Waterford News” informing him of her husband’s death in battle (the letter was written from Walthamstow in London, where the family lived for some years before returning to Ireland). Also printed in the paper, were two further letters, one from my great-grandfather’s Major to his Priest and another from a comrade. I’ve decided to share these letters here in tribute to my great-grandfather.

But first, I must give some background to Ireland’s relationship with the Great War. The First World War is less of a contentious issue in Ireland now than it used to be – for a good seventy years afterwards, Irish soldiers who fought, and died, with the British 1914-1918 were at best snubbed, at worst viewed as traitors for taking the “Saxon Shilling”.

Thankfully, there have been recent moves to acknowledge and remember the more than 200,000 Irishmen who fought with the British forces during WWI. Their reasons for joining up were varied and complex. Certainly, poverty was rife and a soldier’s wage offered steady income. Many others believed that their service would be rewarded by Ireland being granted home-rule. More were convinced by the ‘save small Catholic Belgium from fearsome Protestant invaders’ narrative, which was really pushed in recruitment drives in Ireland. And. at that time, Ireland was part of the UK, so there were some who saw joining up as a patriotic duty. I don’t know my great-grandfather’s own reasons for going to war, and indeed this question was a through line of my play.

The Easter Rising took place in 1916, violently challenging British rule in Ireland and changing Ireland forever. Thereafter, Irish soldiers who were lucky enough to have survived the trenches of the Somme, came home to an Ireland at war with England (the Anglo Irish war (1919-1921), followed by a civil war (1922-1923) and in the shadow of these two home-grown wars, the veterans of 1914-1918 were ignored.
However, these men should not be forgotten. The youngest soldier to die in WWI, 14-year old John Condon, was from my home city, Waterford. My great-grandfather Lance Corporal Joseph Bohan O’Shea of the Royal Engineers died in the Somme and is buried at the Quarry Cemetery, Montauban. At the same time, his identical twin brother Michael fought with the Irish Republican Volunteers against British rule in Ireland, and eventually emigrated to America after the War of Independence – and my family is not unusual in this sense.

Here are the letters from my great-grandmother, to the “Waterford News” (some words are unclear due to age of paper):

10 Cornwallis Road,

Walthamstowe,

London,

NE

August 17th 1916

To the editor “Waterford News”

Dear Sir,

Would you kindly make mention in your paper, this week if possible, of the death of one of your fellow citizens, my husband, Joseph Bohan O’Shea, son of Joseph Bohan O’Shea, late Relieving Officer, of 42 Grattan Terrace, Waterford.

Deceased was a pupil of Mount Sion Schools, and was only 30 years of age. He leaves myself and four little children to mourn his loss. His death is a very heavy blow, as he was one of the kindest and best husbands and fathers. But the burden is light when I know he died such a noble death – in fact a hero’s death. He was killed as he was carrying an officer off the field under heavy fire, and I am sure his death is an honour to the city of Waterford and that he will be deeply regretted by his very numerous friends and companions. He was employed with Sir William Arroll and Co., Bridge Erectors, from the age of 17 years, when he started on the Barrow and then the Suir bridges, and had been on the Blackfriars Bridge, London where he was awarded a medal for a life-saving in 1909. He joined the Royal Engineers in April 191? and had been through the Battles of Loos and Mons, and in fact, had never been out of danger. He was made Lance-Corporal in May 1916. He was killed on the 19th of July.

I am sending you some of his companions’ letters and also one of his major’s letters to our priest here. I am also enclosing his photo, and would you kindly let me have letters and photo back at your earliest convenience.

Trusting, dear Editor, it’s not imposing too much and thanks you in anticipation,

I remain, yours sincerely,

Mary J. O’Shea

August 7th 1916

Dear Father,

I was not present when Corporal O’Shea was killed, but it occurred as he was helping to carry one of our officers, who had been wounded in a trench which the enemy was shelling at the time. It was a brave action, because it was done under fire.

Corporal O’Shea had been in the company under my command for nearly two years. He was a quiet man and a good workman, one of many who have sacrificed themselves for the honour of their country. It is owing to the quiet sacrifice of men such as he that we have raised an army which even the Germans now respect, and which contains many individuals such as him, whose quiet heroism has excited the admiration of the nation and their comrades will not be forgetful.

I am glad to think that I was able to let Lnc Corporal O’Shea get home to see his wife and family before the action in which he fell. If I remember right, I was able to help him in this matter on his request.

With sincere gratitude for the prayers you are making for our safety, and I assure you we need them.

Yours very sincerely,

R. Hearn

August 5th 1916

Dear Mrs O’Shea,

It is with feelings of sorrow and deepest sympathy that I now write these few lines to you. I know one of our chaps has written but I feel I must express my sympathy towards you for the loss of your dear husband. We are all sorry to lose him as he was such a good, genuine (Pal) ??? and one of the best men I have ever worked with. I went on my first route march in Bordan with him and I was in the same section until about three months ago. We have shared blankets and parcels from time to time and I can assure you, although I am a single chap, I used to admire Joe for the love he had for his wife and children and few men thought more of home than he did. I went for a (wash/watch)??? to an old post with him the same morning as he passed away that night, but he was doing his duty when he died as he was helping one of our own officers that was badly wounded.

We read it is God’s Word that “No greater love hath no man than that man who lays down his life for his friend.”

My address is Sar. R. Baines, 34th F. T. McCoy. ??? I have his diary that one of our chaps gave to me as it would have been destroyed. So, I will send it along as soon as I have the opportunity. I left a photo he gave me ?? home when I went on leave in May, and if I live through I shall treasure it more carefully and I know someday I shall meet him in a better world. I pray that God may support and sustain you and yours in your hour of sorrow and trial. But Joe was loved by all who knew him and we are all very sorry to lose him, yet we do not know who the next might be, so may God bless you and sustain you. I do not forget you all in my prayers to the One above. With deepest sympathy, I remain your sincere friend.

R. Baines.


New Year, News Ideas

010

The New Year is a blank page, but a blank page can scare the artist; it is important to get the work flowing as soon as possible before the writer’s block sets in. The challenge is to find inspiration. Leonardo di Vinci used to stare at the walls in his studio until the damp patches formed scenes and figures he wanted to paint. If you look closely at some of his works, you can even see how those dark stains suggested the rock formations he conjured. Of course, you don’t so much ‘get’ ideas as you eek them out from your own subconscious .

Hopefully, you don’t have damp patches around your writer’s garret. You may have yesterday’s newspaper, however. I worked as a journalist for many years and love newspapers and appreciate them as a source of ideas and stories for the creative writer. For starters, you could just take an existing story and change the setting/gender etc… to make it your own. Ideas will come to you as you work on it.

Alternatively, you could apply the ‘what if’ question. The ‘what if’ question prompts you to consider alternative endings to news stories. A good example of this question is Stephen Fry’s Making History, in which he explores a world where Hitler was killed in WWI but an even more dastardly figure comes to prominence, and wins.

The small ads section can spur the imagination. Hemmingway once said his best work was one he wrote in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. It’s clever as there is clearly a heavy back story here but Hemmingway, being Papa, does not spell it out. My point is that you could operate in reverse, search the small ads and then write its back story. Think of the tale behind a novel that ends with that small ad.

Then there are photos. Ignore the captions/related stories. Look at the photos and guess what is going on. Develop an identity for someone in the background of a picture. Give them a problem. Imagine how they are being affected by the main event in the photo. The key is to go for the more obscure shots. Obviously, if it’s a picture of 9/11, the chances are you’re not going to come up with anything too original but if it’s a picture of a man biting a dog, you may be on to something.


Voice of an Angel Says: ‘Don’t Bother Praying’

There are all kinds of writers from poets thru playwrights, novelists thru short-story writers. And, all types of writers are influenced in turn by other forms of artistic expression, be it painting, film, dance, music and song. However, it is the marriage of word and music that creates the most immediate effect of any art form.

A couple of notes in a particular key wedded to carefully selected lyrics, can reach in and squeeze your heart, roil you memory, pump your tear ducts.

And to prove the point here is my cousin Fiona Flavin – who has one of the finest voices in Ireland –singing her own composition, a soul-blues number, ‘Don’t Bother Praying’. Enjoy!

 

 

 


Keep on Keepin’ on

 

 

It’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings at midnight December 31st, however I’m already reviewing my log for 2014. Writing-wise, I’ve had a middling-to-good year. As seems to be the norm, about a third of the ‘ships’ I sent out, returned to port carrying some form of booty, be it publication, acceptance, broadcast, recognition or short-listing. Veterans of this blog will know that when I refer to ‘ships’ I’m talking about all the short-stories, stage/screenplays, radio dramas, training/workshops, residencies etc… which I’ve sent out on spec re publication, staging or broadcast or whatever. Over two thirds of my ‘ships’ sank without trace. For a writer, that’s actually a good hit. That’s how hard this profession can be and how utterly important it is to be able to deal with relentless rejection.

So, these are the stats: .last year I sent out a total of 45 ships. Some 16 returned to port, 26 never made it and three are still out there bobbing on the waves of publisher/broadcaster whim. It was a pretty similar story in 2013 when I sent out 56 ships, 17 returned to port and 39 went nowhere. The highlights of 2014 were my three broadcast radio plays and beginning my PhD on New Writing at The Royal Court Theatre (and the move to London that entailed). I’ve also been selected to go to Italy (Assisi) to an artists’ residency in 2015 and a number of short-stories of mine have recently been selected for publication in anthologies – meaning a total of nine stories of mine have now been published, along with four broadcast radio plays. But, believe me, for every one of those ups, there have been at least two disappointments.

Rejection is part and parcel of the writer’s lot and learning how to handle it is one of the most important (and difficult) challenges writer faces. I’ve seen terrifically talented writers fail because they couldn’t hack the relentless disappointment. Equally, I’ve seen mediocre writers break through due to their tenacity and self-belief.

Don’t give up – look at how you can improve your rejected story/script/novel/play and send it out again. And, much depends on what the magazine or the competition judge is looking for at that particular time, it may not be a comment on your writing skills. It’s all about not giving up, and sending out more and more ships… Now, get back to work.


Beginning, Muddle, End

The 'Anonymous' statue in City Park, Budapest. Commemorating the unknown scribe who recorded the story of the Magyars. Rubbing his pen brings inspiration.

The ‘Anonymous’ statue in City Park, Budapest. Commemorating the unknown scribe who recorded the story of the Magyars. Rubbing his pen brings inspiration.

A good exercise in plotting is to take a book, a play or a film you’ve really enjoyed and try to break it down into a series of plot-steps. Now, change the setting, the gender of the protagonist, the era, the goal and the type of obstacles that stand in the way. Yet, stay true to the plot template. When you’ve finished you’ll find you have a completely new story. Don’t feel as though you’ve stolen another’s plot. In truth, there are no new plots, each is a retelling of an older version. You’ve simply adapted and updated a classic plot line and in the process have created a unique story.To have a story, you have to have some sort of muddle or conflict, which fall into one or more of the following categories:

man vs. nature

man vs. man

man vs. the environment

man vs. machines/technology

man vs. the supernatural

man vs. self

man vs. god/religion

Steps to structure your story could follow the classic Hollywood example below:

Stasis – the status quo. The reader is introduced to the character and setting.

Disturbance. Something occurs which upsets the normal run of things. For example, a stranger arrives in town.

The main character is affected by the disturbance.

The main character decides on a plan of action to rectify or improve matters.

Obstacles stand in the way of the plan of action succeeding.

Complications occur in the guise of choices/new characters/new ideas/discovery.

These lead to a crisis, when the focus of a play comes together in an unavoidable way.

The crisis usually leads to a climax or the major confrontation.

Finally comes the denouement or resolution which results in a new stasis.

The above will often feature a character development arc whereby the protagonist is changed in a fundamental way by the events.

So, a ‘Beginning, a Muddle and an End’.


Podcast of my Play

Strongbow’s Clock podcast on WLRfm (broadcast Oct. 27th).

Set in Brennan’s Bar, a peculiar pub on Waterford’s O’Connell street, Strongbow’s Clock is a comic ghost story concerning a pair of barflies, an immigrant Hungarian barman and the events that ensue when the pub’s clock stops working and a mysterious young woman is swept in the pub door.

Nick and Angela have met at the same time in Brennan’s Bar every evening, for years. They are served by Gabor, a Hungarian who has become ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’, and who is a keen, if confused orator of Irish history. On this particular evening however, the antics of a Hallowe’en circus in town delays both Nick and Angela’s arrival and interrupts Gabor’s daily ceremony of winding the grandfather clock. The regular flow of events is thus unsettled, jovial banter turns nasty and the exposure of a dark secret looms. Then, the evening takes a further surreal turn with the arrival of a dazed young woman from Ferrybank…

Strongbow’s Clock is a comic ghost story. It is also a study of the consequences when unrequited love is toyed with carelessly, and the violence such passions can stir.

Strongbow’s Clock is directed by acclaimed playwright Jim Nolan and stars leading Irish talent Michael Power, Jenni Ledwell, Ema Lemon and Nick Kavanagh. This will be my fourth radio drama, following Cow, The Daffodil and Cake, also directed by Jim Nolan.

Strongbow’s Clock was made with the support of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland with the television license fee.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,725 other followers