No one was watching him.
Angry shouts between fatherless siblings, matched by those of a widowed mother, rose up like the howls of wolves renewed; they rose like smoke from the cottage chimney, only to be licked away by the ocean wind. When they reached him, a strayed child from a broken home, he heard only a whisper, a whimper, a wisp.
— from Part One: What I Saw in the Water
One night in January 2013, during my senior year of high school, I wrote these words as the opening to what was then a short story titled “What I Saw in the Water.” I was awake until five the next morning because I could not stop until I had finished a first draft of the story. I remember listening to Florence + The Machine’s “What the Water Gave Me” on repeat; the song was inspired by Frida Kahlo’s painting of the same name, by the stories of children and parents swept out to sea, and by twentieth-century author Virginia Woolf’s tragic suicide drowning. These elements influenced my short story as well, so I thought it fitting that it have a title to connect it to the painting and song.
When I wrote the story, I had no idea where it was taking place. I appreciated the vagueness of location and time, but after writing subsequent drafts I began to wonder about all of those details. What happened to the characters after that last line? What secrets from their pasts were they hiding?
Before too long, my short story had expanded into a novel’s worth of narrative ideas. I don’t remember ever making the decision, but at some point I knew my characters were Irish and that they were living through the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. I knew mental health reform would play a large role in the novel. I learned my characters’ intricate backstories. I changed “What I Saw in the Water” from a short story to part one of three, followed by “What the Water Gave Me” and “What I Gave the Water”.
I am writing this from a hostel in Dublin, Ireland. I will be in Ireland by myself for the next month. In my time here, I will: build on three years of research on the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War, and on Ireland’s dark, complex history with mental illness; walk where my characters walked and see where they grew up; visit museums, libraries, archives, and monuments to gain the best possible firsthand experience of the Irish Civil War; see the location of my fictional lighthouse in the Atlantic Ocean and the real Irish lighthouses that inspired it. And, of course, I will meet the people and learn more about the culture and land.
To be here is a dream come true. It is a dream I never expected to see become reality. It would not be possible without the support of the University of Central Arkansas, the Schedler Honors College (for which my novel has become my thesis project), and my friends and family, especially my parents. I can’t wait to see how this trip influences my writing, and I can’t wait to share my day-to-day experiences and how they relate to the novel-in-progress.
Today has mostly been a rest day to adjust to the time difference (a failure, seeing as I’m writing this at 3:00 in the morning my time), but I will include some things from today in the next post coming soon!
Here’s to a month of adventure, growth, mental time travel, and, perhaps most importantly, novel writing.