Martina Devlin is an Omagh-born author and journalist. Her eight books range from historical novels – The House Where It Happened and Ship of Dreams – to non-fiction including Banksters and The Hollow Heart. She writes a weekly current affairs column for the Irish Independent and has been named columnist of the year by the National Newspapers of Ireland. Short story awards include the Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Prize and a Hennessy Literary Award. Martina's latest book is The House Where it Happened published by Poolbeg's Ward River Press.
Her website is www.martinadevlin.com
Q&A with Martina Devlin
1. Do you plan the story first and then do the research or does reading and research spark ideas?
The research sparks ideas for me. I have a general idea of plot, themes, and so on, but I have to hunt for the characters and wait for them to flesh out.
2. Do you think historical fiction is enjoying a resurgence and why is that?
It never went away, for some of us fans of the genre. But yes it does seem to be having a moment. The past fascinates some readers because we can see where wrong turns were taken but are powerless to shout: Not that way, this way! The end result is already cast. Or is it because we like to replay what-ifs and wonder how they might have changed the course of history? Perhaps it’s nostalgia. Or that we learn while we read. There could be any number of reasons.
3. What draws you to writing about the past?
I’m a history buff. Researching these novels enthralls me. For some bizarre reason, I like to know how much a stamp cost in 1711, and whether or not a servant girl was allowed a half-day off a week.
4. Do you have a typical writing day?
Where possible, I try to write in the morning because my brain is less cluttered and I have more energy, consequently the work is better. It doesn’t always pan out that way, but that’s the ideal. I’ve been adopted by a tortoiseshell cat, who comes and lies in the sun near where I work, and I find her presence soothing. And she seems to find the click-click-click soothing, too. So it’s mutually beneficial, a useful combination.
5. What are you working on now?
Another novel, speculative fiction, in which the protagonist is an outsider trying to make sense of a strange world. I didn’t set out to write speculative fiction, I just wrote the story as it came to me – and was somewhat surprised, at the end of the first draft, to discover that’s what it was. Makes me sound like a hapless channel for stories, doesn’t it? I usually have a short story on the go, too.
Martina's Five Favourite Books
In no particular order, and I could change my mind about the list tomorrow:
1. Samuel Pepys’s diaries, which he kept between 1660 and 1669. He was so fascinated by life. So fascinated by himself. So fascinating to me, hundreds of years later. He blended the personal and the panoramic, and his diaries are a porthole into the social history of his era, the English Restoration.
2. Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor because he blends detective and historical fiction to produce a cracking read of Dickensian dimensions. His character Pius Mulvey is compelling. So, too, is his famine narrative.
3. I find myself returning to Seamus Heaney’s poetry: the vividness of the imagery, the strength of the narrative, the love underpinning the portraits of his family – peeling potatoes with his mother, “Never closer the whole rest of our lives”; watching his aunt make scones, “And here is love/Like a tinsmith’s scoop”; the pen pictures of his father in old age. The Economist compared his death to a great tree falling.
4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – a revenge story, a love story, a sad story, a masterly story. And it’s set on the haunting Yorkshire Moors. What more could a reader ask for?
5. As a child I was entranced by the Anne of Green Gables series, about an orphan girl sent by mistake to a farm in rural Canada owned by a middle-aged brother and sister. I admired how LM Montgomery refreshed the orphan-made-good formula. However, I should point out that I may have had subjective bias because the heroine had red hair and so do I.
Martina's Top Five writing tips
1. Re-write, re-write, re-write. Cut and polish. No substitute for it.
2. Don’t wait for the muse to strike. Just do it. Start writing. Even if ‘writing’ is a euphemism for staring at a blank screen. Eventually the words will flow.
3. Ask yourself, how would I tell my story in one sentence? Have a clear idea what it’s about.
4. Know your characters inside out: their motivations, their speech patterns, their back story. Make them flawed – nobody is perfectly good or irredeemably bad.
5. Be selective about TV viewing – no need to give it up entirely but be conscious that it can suck you in for hours, so only switch on for specific programmes. Ditto with rummaging round on social media and the Internet. Those lost hours could be spent writing.