Category Archives: My Writing

The inside story…


Crumlin Road Prison by Stephen Shaw. He's a super observant watercolourist in Belfast. Click on the pic for his online galleries. The old prison was said to be the most secure in the British Isles. It hosted many escapes and executions. A tunnel led from the jail to the courthouse opposite, which features in Blackwatertown.

Here comes the inside story of my book. It’s the brief synopsis I’m sending to agents. (Some agents prefer a different approach – longer blow by blow, chapter by chapter efforts.)

The next post will cover my recent calamities and a particularly juicy piece of gossip. But for now, have a peek inside.

Synopsis of Blackwatertown:

Blackwatertown by Paul Waters is a thriller set on the Irish border in the 1950s. The intertwining of fact and fiction is based partly on a murky episode of Ireland’s past, and partly on things discovered about my family’s own secret history.

It is the story of a reluctant and conflicted policeman called John “Jolly” Macken, who is drawn into a conspiracy, accidentally starts a war (the 1950s IRA border campaign) and inadvertently becomes a hero.

It is also the story of how complacency in a time of peace can quickly be shattered, if the underlying tensions in society are not addressed.

Jolly Macken begins with a personal crisis because of his leading role in a police action he knows is legally correct, but feels is morally wrong.

As a police officer, an RUC man, he is isolated from his fellow Irish Catholics because he serves the Crown. As a Catholic (in name anyway), he is by definition distrusted by his Protestant fellow officers and the State.

There are three main strands:

1. Macken is punished after a farcical episode of violence at the beginning, by being exiled to Blackwatertown village, a sleepy Co. Armagh backwater. He is sent there to replace the previous token Catholic officer in the district who died mysteriously. Was it an accident or murder? Were the killers fellow police officers? Will Macken be next?

2. Macken meets an unusually bewitching local girl whose bravado masks a certain innocence. However, is her innocence feigned? Will their romance endure? Is she an IRA spy or is she hiding a much darker secret?

3. Macken is caught up in a police conspiracy and cover-up that has unexpected consequences. Their fakery is so convincing that the conspirators are lauded as heroes and accidentally start a war. Macken becomes part of a web of political and personal intrigue, watching his back as genuine and imaginary sides go to war for real.

An ambiguous fourth strand weaves in and out of the action. It retains its mystery until near the end, when its true purpose and horrible identity is revealed.

As the tension and stakes mount higher, Macken is forced to choose sides when it comes to war and to his personal life. He embarks on a journey through a broken and twisted world to see if it is possible to salvage anything that is good, worthwhile and beautiful.

Blackwatertown conveys a sense of place in the tradition of Ulster writer Maurice Leitch, and is threaded through with flashes of humour reminiscent of Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian Inspector Montalbano mysteries.

The story transcends time and place, but also parallels the current dangerous political situation in Northern Ireland today, and shows how a seemingly secure peace can be squandered.

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Now look what you’ve done…

Now look what you’ve done. You’re famous. That’s you – readers and commentators. You have only gone and become online exemplars who have made “clear the sort of support you can get from a virtual network in a connected world.”

That’s according to the highly prestigious Trading As WDR blog. (“A blog containing thoughts about change, and how to achieve it…”)

WDR spotted what’s been going on here recently and has drawn attention to it.

After such high achievement, you deserve a special treat.

Spandau Ballet sang:

“Questions questions

Give me no answers

That’s all they ever give me

Questions questions”

But to cut a long story short, this is the moment you start getting answers. Three answers. (Four if you count the last one double.)

First, I’m going to reveal to you the answer to the question that has been bugging you since childhood. Continue reading

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But I can’t help it…

But it's not just me. People you've heard of also like it.

My greatest, most heinous crime, according to Word’s spellchecker, is starting sentences with the word “but”.

I’ve been proof reading the latest draft (Final draft? Ha ha ha. Hysterical laughter. Who knows. Could Be.) of my novel Blackwatertown. The spell checker does not like my colloquialisms, Ulster dialect vocabulary or my “ands”. We argue most frequently over my tendency to start sentences with “but”. The thing is, sometimes “however” just doesn’t cut it.

Doesn’t – that’s (or should I say, that is) another thing it hates. Abbreviations. To which I answer: Can’t stop. Won’t stop.

What does “but” signify? Excitement, surprise, radical change, a hairpin bend, a switchback, a light step, confusion, uncertainty, drama.

“However”, m’lud,  speaks of the stilted stentorian speechifying of the courtroom. It’s – sorry – it is studied, predictable, predicted, slow-moving, ponderous.

Moe: Hello, Moe’s Travern- birthplace of the Rob Roy.
Bart: Is Seymour there? Last name, Butts.
Moe: Just a sec. (calling out) Hey, is there a Butts here? Seymour Butts? Hey, everybody, I wanna Seymour Butts.
Moe (catching on): Hey, wait a minute. Listen, you little scum-sucking pus-bucket. When I get my hands on you, I’m gonna pull out your eyeballs with a corkscrew.

Anyway, by rights of cultural heritage, I should be ending sentences with but. You know what I mean like but? How would you like that spellchecker?

In Belfast, the word “but” has extra-dictionary duties. It’s standard punctuation to mark the end of a phrase or sentence. It conveys the added message that whatever fact has been conveyed, we all know how little reliance can be placed on official truth. Boiled down to its simplest, you have the phrases “Yes but” and “No but”. It becomes unconscious after a while.

So houl’ yer whisht spellchecker, and let me get on with it.

(Whew. That was difficult. See what I did there? I didn’t start any sentence with “but”. But I’m exhausted now. Know what I mean like but?)

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Just finish the damn book… OK, OK, I’ve written it.

Finnish. (Bear with me, my proofreading is slow.)

Blackwatertown the book and Blackwatertown the blog have both come good this week.

A while ago Kerry View told me to hurry up and “finish the damn book. I promised to get it!”

Just the other day  Tony Schaab asked, “Is your novel completely written?”

The answer is – Continue reading

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A new story

It’s the best way to put off finishing your book – come up with an idea for a new one. You feel much better putting down ideas and scenes and fragments of conversation for the new one. It doesn’t feel like avoidance at all. Which it is. But in a good way.

So I’m at that excited stage. The slog is some way off. There’ll be some research, but it’s manageable.

It has a name Continue reading

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Attention seeking

Please don't invade us! It's manky here. (Bigger version below.)

Writing is attention seeking. You want readers. But there’s no guarantee they’ll like what they read. And then there may be those who never actually read a word you’ve written, but form opinions through hearsay.

Those were the fellas on my mind even before I started. My book, Blackwatertown, is fiction. But it’s set in a real time, the 1950s IRA border campaign. And it’s based on real events which involved real people.

Some people whose views I respect urged caution on me when they learned I what planned to write. Not because they feared it would be rubbish. (Or if they did, they were too polite to say.) But because they feared what people might think.

Those dread words. The book might trouble people, offend them or annoy them. Even worse – it might attract attention.

You’d imagine attention would be a prerequisite to getting published and selling a few copies. But when the normal modus operandi is “Whatever you say, say nothing” – drawing attention is discouraged.

Of course loads of people write prose or poetry, sing or create images related to violent times in Ireland. And good for them. Perhaps, like I have, they decided to put other people’s sincere concerns to one side and plough on regardless.

Now I’m close to completing my Blackwatertown story, brows around me are furrowing again. While I’m worrying if anyone will publish/read/enjoy the book, others are dreading adverse reactions. Will publication dredge up old resentments? How far might critics, especially the hearsay merchants, go to express their disdain? What might be the practical consequences? Who might be vulnerable?

When people pass on warnings to me, I do take them seriously. But living life head down, shoulder hunched is a waste. So, publishers permitting, the book carries on.

And to any critics tempted to vent their criticism in an extreme fashion. Please at least buy a copy of Blackwatertown when it comes out, before you do something unpleasant. It’s only fair.

Ireland - Not Worth Invading, Honest... This map comes from the incomparable Strange Maps website. The map title is "Cautious Cartography". Apparently it appeared in the August 1940 issue of the Irish satirical magazine Dublin Opinion. According to Strange Maps: The map purports to portray Ireland in as unappealing a perspective as possible. The text accompanying the map explains how cartography may be at least partly to blame for Europe’s misfortune: " Feeling that the present unrest in Europe may have been largely caused by the well-intended, but highly mistaken policy pursued by countries of boasting about their natural advantages and attractions, a policy which has had the not unnatural result of exciting the cupidity of other countries, our Grangegorman Cartographer has designed the above map of Ireland, which is calculated to discourage the inhabitants, much less strangers. The trouble is, he feels, that, even as depicted, the country still looks more attractive than the rest of Europe." Well, yes, that'll be World War Two, Southern Ireland remained neutral during the conflict, managing to avoid invasion by either Britain or Germany, (though many volunteered to serve in the Allied forces). NB: Obviously it's all lovely in Ireland these days. Come and invest, why don't you?

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When does welcome really mean goodbye?

Feline loving fool

Feline loving fool - What not to name your cat.

When does welcome mean goodbye? When it’s the title of the seminar designed to ease you out of your job. Nineteen of us were in attendance at the Welcome Seminar, each clutching our “welcome pack”. We felt like extras out of Up In The Air. Which is where our futures are at present.

To be fair, the session was useful, and the women running it friendly and professional. And one was from Carlingford. What more could you ask for? Perhaps I should check out the film to see how George Clooney would have handled us.

So – a few more weeks and welcomes to the world outside, and that’ll be that. I’d better get a move on finishing writing this book, Blackwatertown. (Opening lines here.) The good news is, it’s nearly complete. I was hoping to be done by the end of this month, but realistically it’ll be February now.

Which means that, book written, current employment behind me, I’ll be available for weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, freelancing, wild book launch parties and promotional tours. Happy days.

But enough about me. In other news: Is it significant that the fool in the newspaper cutting above is a cat owner? Would a dog owner be as stupid? Or worse?

Abandoned Cities

Kolmanskop, Namibia. An abandoned city.

And this post caught my eye – a set of eerie Abandoned Cities from Daily Cognition. No. 3 on the list is Kolmanskop, a small town a few miles inland from the port of Lüderitz in Namibia. According to Daily Cog’: “Windswept sand has made its way into nearly every building in the town, which was once a diamond mining town and abandoned in 1956 as diamond demand declined and richer sources of diamonds were discovered in other areas. Its only residents are now birds, hyenas and other animals.”

Next time: The book is not even published, but already I’m receiving warnings that it could annoy people. The type of readers who express their annoyance in a more physically direct way than writing a bad review. Ain’t life rosy.

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The cab home, Belfast

Maddens Bar (from feilebelfast.com)

So I was drinking last thing  in Maddens bar near the centre of Belfast. I’d stolen off to my favourite nook, away from my excellent sisters and the rest of my family because… Because sometimes you just want a quiet pint. And it’s late. And everyone else is tired. And tomorrow is Christmas Eve. So you slope off alone to a cosy corner where you might fall in with this one or that one, with flutes and fiddles doodling away in the background.

No music this night. No great chat either. Marie or Mairead was next to me at the bar. She was with her friends, and looked too young to be a grandmother. But only two months to go, she told me. And she was excited. Above our heads the ceiling was taking a rare pummelling. “Set dancing,” explained the bloke on the other side of me with the four cans of Guinness in a plastic bag. Rhinos, I thought to myself.

Mairead’s friend was bemoaning the lot of women at Christmas – buy the food, cook the food, buy the presents, wrap the presents – but  determinedly independent, she declared she would never let a man to do it for her. Time for me to go. Happy Christmases from me to them and from them to me.

No cars at the first cab company. ABLE Taxis are next. Just the one car left and it’s about to leave. “Sure, squeeze in that one,” they say. “You can be dropped off on the way back.”  So I try the first back door. Oops. Not this side. The woman in there is not moving over, I thought. Wedged pretty tight already. The bloke at the other side shifted into the middle. Snugly packed, we set off west from the city centre on a cold and snowy night. Two in the front, three in the back.

OK, OK, this is not the Falls Rd mural. This take on CHE is by grafitti artist DOLK. His website is http://www.thegiant.org/wiki/index.php/Dolk You might also want to check out Jim Fitzpatrick http://www.jimfitzpatrick.ie/ who created the iconic Che poster (featured on the T-shirt) from Alberto Korda's original photo.

Up Divis Street, the Lower Falls, past the murals – there’s Che Guevara. (He was behind the bar too, under the Hunger Strike commemmorative hurley stick.) On up the road, past the Falls Baths, Jobs & Benefits, the Falls Library, Bobby Sands and his “Everyone has a role to play in the struggle…” Past Cavendish, which always looks odd to me now without the high walls of the barracks blocking out the light.

The woman in the back is from Sydney, Australia. But she doesn’t know Doyle’s chipper on Circular Quay. The driver has been telling us about his visit there. “Great chips,” he says. “it was set up by an Irish man.” She and the bloke in the middle exchange complicit smiles at the driver’s attempts at familiarity.

First stop just past the top of Broadway. She gets out her door. I offer to let her bloke out my door. Oh, I have it wrong. They’re not together at all. He’s with the bloke in the front passenger seat.

Aussie lady is now on the footpath handing cash through the passenger window. The radio crackles. We hear the cab controller back at base reveal that the Aussie lady’s friend has lost her purse. Would the Aussie lady have it? She does. And when she hears that her purseless friend is now at the depot, she offers to pay her fare for her in advance. Back and forth over the crackling connection goes the consideration of this offer. In the end she hands over the whole purse to our driver, to pass to her friend when he gets back to the depot after dropping off his last passenger.

Or, to put it another way, she hands over her friend’s cash and cards to a nameless man she’s never seen before. Crazy? Naive? I can’t imagine it happening where I live now. But on this Belfast journey it seems the natural thing to do.  Is life so different here? Or maybe, to quote a different wobbly woman overheard earlier in the evening: “It must be the Jagermeisters kicking in.” I go for the first explanation.

Off we go again. I apologise to the bloke beside me in the back for assuming he was with the Australian. “No problem,” says he.  We pass St Kevins. The school looks different from the last time I was here. Up the Glen Road. The shops at Gransha look different too. And it’s very quiet. No people out walking in the cold.

We’re nearly at Coolnasilla. The bloke beside me is gathering his cash to pass forward to his friend. He refuses to accept it. They argue back and forth. Back Seat finally wins by revealing that he actually owes Front Seat a pint for drinking one of his, and that another time he had not bought a round as Front Seat had thought. Front Seat admits he was too drunk to notice and doesn’t remember any of this. But it’s as if Back Seat has been storing up these personal failings so as to be able to use them against himself on just such an occasion as this. So his honesty prevails and Front Seat accepts the contribution towards the cab fare.

Stop number two. Too icy to turn off into Coolnasilla, so Back Seat wishes us all a Happy Christmas and gets out to walk the rest of the way home.

We’re on higher ground now, and getting higher still as we drive further out of the city to Poleglass. It’s whiter, colder, frostier, icier. Too icy to leave the main road. “Bit too Christmasy,” says the driver.  “I’ll walk from here,” says Front Seat, handing over his own and Back Seat’s contribution.

Now the long descent back into Belfast. I move into the front passenger seat. The driver is Jim. More crackles from the radio. “They want me to hand over the purse to another driver to get it to her,” says Jim. “No way. It’ll stay in my glove box till I get back to the depot.” He apologises for the long detour I’ve been on. “No,” I say, “I’ve enjoyed it.” We laugh about the whole purse business.

“I could tell you some stories,” he says. “I used to be a bus driver. I’ve been hijacked, bus burned out, you name it.”

He tells me his daughter lives abroad. She was once interviewed over the telephone by George Jones on Radio Ulster. They had a long conversation about the humming bees of Costa Rica. Or was it birds? Jim tells me he’s not long off retirement.

Last stop. I pay for the trip out west and back. “Ah, no son. You’ve given me a tenner,” says he. “That’s only five pounds.”

“Purses, passengers, drivers…” I think to myself. “Is everyone so honest here?”

Or maybe it’s just the Jagermeisters kicking in.

La Boca - Belfast's only Argentinian restaurant. It's in Fountain Street. This is the website http://www.labocabelfast.com/index.html I added this because the food is great and so is the proprietor, Pedro. Good music, beer and atmosphere too. (You might even see yet another pic of that famous son of Galway tucked away here too. One of the Lynchs. Ernesto Guevara Lynch de la Serna. Yup, he gets everywhere.)

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The opening lines (and Happy Christmas)

One Christmas drink too many

One Christmas drink too many. (Thanks to savagechickens.com)

 Happy Christmas and a mellow new year from Belfast, which is where I am right now.

People sometimes ask me: If this blog is supposed to be at least partly about your book, where can I read some of it?

Fair question. The answer is here: Here. Now.

The most important lines in any story are the beginning. The stakes are high. Go wrong at the start, and that’s it. The reader has moved on before any emotional committment has formed. It’s easy to cut one’s losses before getting in too deep.

So – with trepidation – here are the opening lines of my book, Blackwatertown.

But first, here’s a little context to the story.  It’s set in rural Ireland, along the border,  in the mid 1950’s. The hero, Macken, is a police sergeant in the RUC, the then police force of Northern Ireland.

And so the story, Blackwatertown, begins – like this:

Sergeant Jolly Macken didn’t want to be a policeman anymore. He clenched his teeth, and sucked in through his nostrils the cool air of the Mourne foothills. The butt of his hand pressed down on the polished handle of the baton, not yet drawn. He hated his job. He hated the crowd pushing at his back and the string of men blocking the road ahead. All  of them waiting, impatient for his signal,  muttering his nickname. He  hated the verbal albatross that had been hung round his neck too. Jolly. Christ!

 The stoney slopes of fern and heather and gorse would usually lift his  heart. The open land a refuge from complication and regulation. He’d  feel the tension ebbing from his shoulders. The small smile that would  quietly creep over his face, unbidden and unwitnessed. If Macken believed in anything, it was that there was no better place, nor way, for a man to be at peace than by quiet water, with a rod and line.  Alone, but never lonely.

Today was different. Today he was only a hard-faced big man trapped inside a uniform. The Mourne mountain road he stood on was busy with intruders, eager for action. Stones bounced round his feet. The isolated serenity of this County Down emptiness had been shattered long before. But at this moment of decision, all the shouting and jeering, the drums and the flutes, seemed to fade to silence in Macken’s mind. The violence was about to begin – the striking out at head and body with stone and bar, baton and rifle butt. And he was going to be the one to start it.

That’s it. More to come in a while. But I would very much like your comments on the opening.

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The Banned / A New Name

Everyone’s getting banned. Aung San Suu Kyi is banned from leaving her house arrest in Burma. Ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya is banned from leaving the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. And now I’ve been banned from using the computer on Sundays. I proudly stand with my fellow bannees. But Sunday is past. So I can now mention a couple of things.

  1. Worrying/odd treatment of the British National Party (BNP) by BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat show. See Guardian newspaper news story and Roy Greenslade comment.
  2. Something delightful I saw on the Cultural Snow blog.
  3. I’ve changed the name of the main character in my novel, Blackwatertown, to (ta dah) Macken. Or more fully. John Oliver Macken, aka Jack Macken, aka Jolly Macken. There now. Isn’t that a heroic moniker?

Macken’s previous name was too close to living people, who might themselves be displeased, or might themselves incur the displeasure of others incapable of differentiating fact from fiction. Bad for the health and all that.

Macken is a conflicted Catholic policeman serving in the RUC in the 1950s. After farcical encounters in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains of County Down, he is demoted from sergeant and banished to sleepy Blackwatertown near the Irish border. His arrival has far-reaching consequences: It wakes the place up; stirs up the murkiness round the mysterious death of the police officer he is replacing; sparks a new border war; and begins a sometimes dark, sometimes funny, wild ride through the politics of sexuality, sectarianism, loyalty and what it means to belong.

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