Tag Archives: research

A FREE Educational Opportunity!

Join hundreds of other students worldwide in the study of Irish Language and Culture, at the MOOC provider FutureLearn:

Both courses begin on 26 March!

Now you can learn how to read the Irish dialogue that’s in Irish Firebrands (without having to rely on my in-text translations!)





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Truth in Advertising . . .

. . . is sadly lacking in the United States of America on March 17. Here’s my answer to a query found on Fractured Faith Blog‘s, Everything You Wanted To Know About Ireland But Were Afraid To Ask.”

. . . They don’t do corned beef and cabbage in Ireland. You’ll see it on the menu only when American tourists are expected (such as for March 17). It’s not a genuine ethnic Irish meal because in ancient Ireland, cattle were a form of wealth like currency is today: see the legends of Queen Medb and Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). The Irish traditionally raised their cattle for dairy consumption, not for their meat (when the Irish could afford to eat meat – which wasn’t often – it was chicken, pork or mutton). After Ireland became part of the British Empire, the British wanted beef, and they bought it from the Irish, who shipped the cattle over on the hoof, and also slaughtered, with the meat preserved in very coarse salt (“corned,” because the bits of salt were about the size of grains of wheat, which in Europe was called “corn” – see also this usage in the term “peppercorns”). The barrels of salted beef were marked that they were the product of Ireland. Thus, it was the British who ate “Irish corned beef,” not the Irish. Irish corned beef was also shipped to America, where the standard of living slowly improved for Irish immigrants, until they began to be able to afford to eat the cheaper cuts of beef (the fatty corned brisket). Imported Irish beef also would have been bought by Americans (particularly of Irish descent) as a sign of support for Ireland, although they were probably buying it from British suppliers who were shipping over their excess inventory.

I learned a lot of interesting stuff like that when I was writing my first novel. I wanted the story to be an authentic reflection of contemporary Irish life, so it took three years to research (including a 2-week backpack trip over there).

BTW, the proper culinary name for the combination of corned beef brisket and cabbage is “New England Boiled Dinner,” which is another hint about its origins as an American dish.

Outline map courtesy of d-maps.com free maps. Photo CornedBeef&Cabbage.jpg courtesy of Jonathunder at commons.wikimedia.org.



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Solving the Puzzle.


Do you have “writer’s block”?

Maybe you need to look at the pieces of your story in a different way.

Perhaps you have a strong urge to write, but you have no idea what to write. Staring at a blank page and trying to make sentences come without words is like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with the backs of the pieces facing up.

Words are the bits of the patterns on the fronts of the puzzle pieces. The pieces have to be turned over before you can work with them, but they have to turn themselves over. Until they do that, you’re best off leaving that blank page alone and doing something else. (Always carry a pocket-sized notebook and a writing instrument, so you don’t lose a great idea while you’re busy pruning trees.)

Don’t strain your brain: the ideas are there, but they have to assemble themselves from bits and pieces of your life experiences. In other words, if you arbitrarily decide, “I’ll fictionalize the time when (fill in the blank) happened to (fill in someone’s name),” it won’t work well, and sooner or later you’ll get blocked again. It’s like trying to force a jigsaw puzzle into a shape it wasn’t designed to fit. This is one of the hazards of trying to plan or outline everything.

Try writing by the seat of your pants: Let ideas flow, and commit them to the page, just as they come to you. You don’t have to begin at the beginning: middles and ends will do; and you don’t have to finish one chapter before beginning another, nor even one scene before starting another. This is because your subconscious mind needs time to find bits of ideas and start hooking them together, like matching the patterns, tabs and slots of puzzle pieces.

The best help you can give your subconscious is to do research on your story: learning new things helps stock your mind with information that your brain will later disassemble, sort and match, and reassemble into the false memories that constitute fiction. When each fictional memory comes to you, no matter where it belongs, write it down. Periodically comb through what you’ve written, to do basic proofreading, reorganize sections, and get inspiration for filling in blanks. Eventually, all of the holes in your chapters and scenes will hook themselves together, and you’ll have a complete story.

This is the way I wrote Irish Firebrands: all 196,000-plus words of it. I never experienced “writer’s block,” and I had so much enjoyment in writing the novel, that every time I pick up the book and read a bit of it, I can still feel the way I did when I wrote the passage that I’m reading.

Think about how good it feels to find a puzzle piece that fits. Writing should feel good. As long as we’re having fun, we’re doing it right.





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