Episode one: Listening in

Every author’s asked the question: ‘Where do your ideas come from ?’

I sometimes say: ‘I listened in.’

From an early age, before I learnt to read and write, I eavesdropped on the adult world and the foundations of my first novel were built on a conversation I overheard as a child, hiding behind the curtains in my grandmother’s drawing room. Her friends had assembled for afternoon tea and one of them, a portly lady in an ugly tweed suit, was talking about a relation of hers.

‘She was so frightened of water,’ I heard her confide, ‘That she wouldn’t let her coach man drive over a bridge.’

Who was that woman and why was she frightened ? No-one remembered – I never found out. But her fear of the water remained in my mind and from it developed the character of the feisty but frightened Milliora O’Brien and the storyline of my first novel, A Wrong to Sweeten and its sequel, A Heritage of Wrong.

My other novels followed that trend. The Image of Laura was inspired by the experiences of a young woman who studied photo-journalism in Berlin in the 1930s and whose story I heard at a party in Ireland, while the plot and characters in both Ulick’s Daughter and The Moon is Red in April are also based on real-life stories.

Ideas can stay with you for years waiting to turn into novels. Sometimes, too, they travel with you. I was working in Johannesburg as a journalist in the newly built offices of the great liberal newspaper, The Rand Daily Mail, during the apartheid era, when a furious row about space broke out between News and Advertising. Then the builders revealed that they’d sealed off a room, forgetting to add doors to it. A secret room, I thought at once – I have to write a book about it. I kept the idea at the back of my mind. Many years later it expanded, metamorphosing into Seeking Clemency, a story of suppressed memory set in an Irish Georgian house.

Old Irish houses appear in my books. They were part of my youth and I couldn’t avoid them. And along with the houses there had to be ghosts…

The Irish word for ghost is ‘taibhse,’ which means ‘to show.’ In the Ireland of my youth they seemed to do that frequently and the spectres of those who’d killed themselves for love, or been enclosed in castle walls, or murdered by their wicked husbands, mingled with demonic monks, poltergeists and headless coachmen. To my cousins and myself, they were as valid as the saints, devils, witches and fairies who co-existed in our world for ours was a childhood as deeply influenced by Celtic myth as it was by the teachings of the Catholic church.

And then, too, there were the ghosts whom we regarded as our own. Listening in to the grown-ups, we knew all about the ghosts who lived in our family homes.

My books are published by Endeavour Media.

Next week:
The ghost who haunted Clonmacken House.