When I first began writing, my writing tutor told me that all good stories had a beginning, a middle, an end and a point. When the reader reaches the end they should end on an emotion – a smile, a laugh, perhaps a few tears, and a new, improved understanding of the world and how it operates. It’s this that gives the story its raison d’etre. Stories, my tutor said, should embody a universal truth, or illustrate a well-known proverb – eg “love conquers all”, “blood is thicker than water”, “money can’t buy happiness”. She was speaking then about short stories, but the same principle can and should apply to novels, the only difference being that a novel is so much longer and can incorporate several themes within their length.
I try to come up with a theme for each novel early on in the planning phases. I write dual timeline novels, and for me it’s the theme or universal truth that hopefully ties the two stories together in a deep and satisfying way.
What themes have I used in my novels? The Emerald Comb is all about identity – who do you think you are? Is it your ancestry that makes you the person you are, or the way you were brought up?
The Pearl Locket is about love and constancy. The Daughters of Red Hill Hall looks at toxic friendships and jealousy. The Girl from Ballymor has a strong theme of maternal sacrifice. The Drowned Village has themes of family loyalty and betrayal.
And my latest, The Forgotten Secret, is I think my strongest-themed book to date – it’s all about independence. The historical backdrop is the Irish war of independence, and in the contemporary story a woman approaching the milestone age of 50 is fighting to regain her own independence after a long and abusive marriage.
Writing about the Irish war of independence brought its own set of challenges. It was far more difficult than writing about the second world war, as I did in The Pearl Locket. In WW2 there were more obvious ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ but the Anglo-Irish war is not so clear cut – especially when you look at the aftermath of the treaty that ended the war of independence and divided Ireland. The Irish leadership was split between those who agreed with the treaty and those who opposed it. Civil war broke out between the two factions within a few months of the signing of this treaty. And the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland of the 1970s-80s were a direct descendent of the disagreement about the treaty.
So as well as using the theme of independence, in The Forgotten Secret I try to illustrate the old adage that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” - that there are two sides to every conflict and it is not always obvious which is right. It was a fine line to tread, in the book. The choice of language plays a large part in this – was a soldier “murdered” or “shot dead”? Are the rebel MPs running a “campaign” or “plotting” against the government? Many early reviewers have commented that growing up in Britain during the period of the ‘Troubles’, had left them with little knowledge of the origins of Ireland’s problems, or understanding of the ‘other side of the story’. I hope my book has addressed this, a little.