Taking liberties with the facts.

It’s often called artistic licence, some might say it’s not justified, others it’s a valid tool of the creator of the fiction that is the novel.

In my first published novel, Conflict, I use a location for some of the crucial scenes, which I knew to be historically inaccurate. The prime location for much of the action is a driving school located in Smithfield Square, Belfast. The old covered market that once stood there is the setting for several pivotal scenes. The novel is set in the late 1970s several years after the old market was burned down in a firebomb attack. It was eventually re-built in the form it now has. When I set these scenes, I knew I was playing fast and loose with the facts of the location.

So far, no reader has pulled me up on that, so for the record here is a little of the nostalgia that led me to use this location – even after it had been consigned to the history files I raided for these images. (They are taken from public access internet sources, if any are considered copyright protected let me know and I’ll take the offending image down.)

The bookshop

I set one scene in the second-hand book shop seen in this image.  This place was responsible for my youthful literary (and sexual) education. Harry Hall, book seller, sold and traded mostly cheap paperbacks but also mens interest magazines! A boy who looked older than his thirteen years might, if he was bold, buy such a magazine there. Perhaps to stash it under his bed for secret pleasures and revelations about the mystery of the much desired but unknown land that was the woman.

I began my collection of John Steinbeck’s novels in Harry Hall’s shop. I still have several first edition paperbacks bought there when I was perhaps twelve. The more common and long forgotten pot boilers were traded for the shillings, I earned on my paper rounds. I spent money earned in this way, feeding my mind rather than on the more usual: sweets and soda and the then new – cheese and onion potato crisps.

The market square.

Fiction and non fiction, anything and everything could be found in this literary underworld of cheap and often pulp fiction. So when I embarked, late in life, on a literary adventure, this my literary touch stone, had to feature in that work, even if the historical facts didn’t support that. I took liberties with an area infamous in Belfast’s cultural history, for the taking of liberties.


This history taken from: http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/article/355/a-belfast-souk

An old map of Smithfield.

Smithfield Market became the focus of popular culture throughout the nineteenth century with, at one time, 27 public houses being resident on the square. Smithfield’s reputation for bawdy life was embodied by the location of Marshalsea Prison, a hospital, dispensary and a house of industry, on the square. The market itself was mostly open to the elements until the Belfast Corporation created a square roofed building sometime during the late nineteenth century. The market housed clothes dealers, auctioneer’s, theatres and a handball alley. One contemporary noted: ‘We penetrated into Smithfield court, which is not unworthy of the patronymic. This is, as we learned on the spot, the battle ground of the whole neighborhood; and wrathful pugilists resort thither, even from the most distant parts of the town, to settle their disputes after their own fashion, undisturbed by impertinent policemen.’

The Rev WM O’Hanlon expressed stronger views in 1853: ‘The very worst grade of our population will be found heaped together, corrupting and being corrupted, in this quarter. It is a sort of tumour … in the heart of our city.’ The square was at its most lively at the end of August during the Lammas fair. As SM Elliott testified: ‘Thousands of country people, especially sweethearts, gathered in Smithfield.’ The ghost of Biddy Farelly is said to walk the market at Lammas time, seeking out Luke White, her childhood sweetheart who deserted her to earn his fortune in Dublin.

With the advent of the covered square, Smithfield became, in the words of Robert Johnstone, ‘like the souk in an Hibernian Casablanca’, an underground paradise of bric-a-brac.

Prominent families included the Dawsons, the Kavanaghs and the Havelins, who still run premises on Berry Street. The last inhabitant of Smithfield, Joe Kavanagh, did not close his ‘I buy anything’ shop until 2000, which for many was the valedictory event in Smithfield’s history. The market continued to exist under the noses of the great industrial citizens, always regarded as a low place with dubious morals. For most of the twentieth century, the Belfast Corporation, as the council was then called, attempted to close Smithfield down.

An inside lane.

In 1974, the Corporation was planning to demolish the old bus station site, but they were saved the trouble by the efforts of firebombers in May. Amid the uproar of those years, nostalgia was a rare resource, but many were aware that a complex and colourful past had been razed.The market was rebuilt with prefabs in 1976, and a new brick building was opened in 1986. But to many in the city, the soul of the market was gone. With the advent of Castle Court, a smelly, dirty and disorganised market had little place in the city.To those who remember the old Smithfield or have listened to its tales, a certain part of the rough and ready exoticism of Belfast has been lost. As Herbert Moore Pim states in Unknown Immortals:’In Smithfield, breathing as it does the majestic maxim, “Man know thyself” we have a storehouse of splendours, for the loss of which nothing could compensate this city of success.’

Abandon Genre?

Let me declare an interest first: The limitations, (self-imposed or inflicted by big publishers,) that writing within a genre inflicts on my creative process, was one of the principal reasons I went Indie.

Genre is a thing most writers grapple with either during the creative process, or more usually after – when they are trying to wedge their work into one of the strictly enforced genre groups dictated first by agents, then publishers and finally by retailers.

My writing has always been defiant of an easy fit within in one or even three genres. I choose to avoid thinking about genre at all during the creative process. I follow the plot and the characters in a process of imaginative living and visualising that takes many twists and turns and does not conform to any genre specific rules.  That results in, thriller like scenes, physiological drama, free-flow internal dialogue, poetic literary description of places and people, sexual and sensual frankness and challenging perspectives on politics, history and society. There may be themes in each novel and subtexts that explore a given idea, but usually when I begin a new novel – I’ve no idea where it will go and certainly no idea what genre slot it might be crammed uncomfortably into.

Please don’t get the idea I’m complaining here. I think the advent of Indie publishing and the freedom afforded to writers by the explosion of eBooks and the possibilities offered by Createspace and other on-demand publishers, is the greatest liberation ever offered to those of us compelled to follow the uniquely human impulse to tell stories. However; even here in the brave new publishing world, we must face the task of ticking the menu-buttons to indicate what genre our efforts must be labelled with. I tried the catch all: Literary fiction. I tried: Thriller and it’s sub headings.  I tried: Family Saga. I tried: Historical Fiction. I even included: Lesbian romance. All this after the novel was completed, never during the writing.

Here I come to the argument of this essay: How much should we as writers allow concerns about genre to dictate how we write and what we write? There are obvious exceptions. Those who describe what they write as: Science Fiction, or perhaps: Erotica, or: Crime –  might think those genres present no impediment to them as writers. I would argue that even within these fairly clear genres, too, much concern about staying within prescribed boundaries limits the creative process and results in work that is less satisfying for reader and writer than it could be – if genre were not considered during the writing.

I am therefore suggesting, that we as writers, need to be braver about stepping outside the traditional boundaries of genre, at least during the creative process. I’d love to see these genre categories destroyed completely but I can see how that revolution might have downsides too.

Perhaps a compromise might be a whole new genre: Outside Genre or No Genre. Come on Amazon, let’s have that on your listings.

Beware the keystrokes!


Here is the penultimate cover design for this series. It is a little bit obvious in terms of the symbolism but I like that. Simplicity has a lot to commend it.

A lesson for those doing their own formatting for eBooks.

I’ve been tearing my hair out with the eBook conversions because a bit of HTML slipped through unseen. When I first wrote the books, I had checked a few facts, addresses, and the like on Wiki and other sources. I copied and pasted a few words and terms into the Word document. Just a street name or similar.  So what do I find when I look at the sample on Amazon.com?  A live link lurking!  Click and I’m on Wikipedia!

It didn’t show on Word and I didn’t spot it on Calibre while formatting. Upon checking I found three other examples in other books. The result- I pulled an all nighter, checking all, correcting, and reformatting then uploading to KDP.

I can see how these Wiki links might be actually useful in some circumstances but not in a novel.

Beware of the seemingly quick and easy keystrokes to copy and paste, HTML lurks unseen.

Butterfly wings, ripples and connections.


Just like in the real world, my fictional world is interconnected. Ripples started in one pond spread into another, through characters or locations or time. There are a few readers and fans who have read all my published work and even a few who’ve test read those waiting final proofing. They have all expressed delight in this effect. They pick up on threads of story from one novel that connects to one they’ve previously read and it adds colour and richness to the experience. Things hinted at or passed over lightly can be examined again and revelations occur. It is very subtle and there is no hint of the serial with teasers and unresolved endings.

This has been one of the challenges I, as the creator of these worlds, have enjoyed and been stretched by. Managing all the diverse threads that spread through time from 1900 to date. In locations from the Canadian prairies to Ireland, England, France, Italy, the Lebanon, Australia, Greece, USA, Italy. Or moving in ships at sea and planes in the air.

I have tried to ensure that each novel stands alone and can be enjoyed as a complete experience without any reference to others. However the reader can enrich their experience by radiating backwards or forwards in time to visit other stories that will be made more satisfying than if they remained isolated and unconnected.

I know I risked losing readers by presenting some of the work as a series. The Daniel series has not sold so well as the other work and I think that is because people are wary of series, thinking they must read them all in sequence to feel satisfied. Telling them this is not the case often goes unheeded for many do not read or take seriously introductory notes. It is my experience that readers who come to the series having read say, Prairie Companions, are delighted by the experience and do read more and enjoy the butterfly wing effect of connections and the richness of the tapestry.


My characters tend to be unconventional and non-conformist and their stories are unexpected and sometimes challenging. Thrills, intrigue, political corruption and collusions are exposed and establishment values questioned but all that is done as background to the main themes of my work. The human experience of life, love, sex, birth, and death. The universal stories that transcend time and place and that all literary fiction has at its core. Above all, the world I create is meant to provide escape and pleasure to anyone who peers at it and follows the ripples, and the breeze of my butterfly’s wings.

Do join me. It is a stimulating world in here.

Giving thanks to Steinbeck.

John Steinbeck.

My seminal literary influence was not a native Irish writer but he was of my heritage. Scots-Irish on his mother’s side, the Hamilton’s. John Steinbeck used them as prototypes in one of his most ambitious novels, East of Eden. I had cause to think about Steinbeck’s influence on me recently for two reasons. One was an appreciation of him by Melvin Bragg shown on BBC 4 two nights ago. The other was a radio interview I recorded, which may or may not be aired in the new year. I was asked which writer I most admired and which had influenced me most. I unhesitatingly named Steinbeck. He was the first serious author I read as a fourteen year old. Not because he was on the school reading list, he wasn’t. But because I picked up one of his first editions in a favoured haunt, the second-hand book shop in Belfast’s Smithfield market. The book was The Pastures of Heaven and it is still a cherished part of my library along with every other book he published. I also have his biography and other appreciations of the man and his work.

I was trying to distil what it is that attracted me to Steinbeck’s writing and really struggled to do that concisely. There is so much. The big books like Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden do not really feature in my thoughts. Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, Tortilla Flat, Travels with Charlie, Sea of Cortez, were all much more influential for me. When forced to speak briefly during the interview, I found I was making a list: Warmth, humanity, colour, sense of place, reality, humor, poetry, ecology, humanism, compassion and bravery. This last being hugely important. Steinbeck displayed enormous courage in describing things in thirties America that brought him the outrage of the right, communist labels, and actual death threats. He was no communist but he did take a stand for the rights of the working man and the downtrodden. He gave Monterey bums humanity and the bottom layer of society dignity. He spoke unpalatable truths and still he is reviled by certain folks in the US.

All these things appeal to the rebel in me. I have emulated Steinbeck in my own writing. Not consciously – I was unaware of the similarities until a reviewer pointed them out to me. I now see that I do champion unpopular causes and have a certain indignation against injustice, lies and establishment cover ups. I also write characters who are not mainstream, who live by their own rules and who are bawdy, raw and real. When this was pointed out to me I was surprised but delighted. So I gave thanks to the man I consider Americas greatest writer, John Steinbeck.

The food of love.

For one of B’s special birthdays recently, I prepared a special meal as celebration and consolation. You can see part of the menu in the first pic but it’s unreadable, so here it is:

Risotto of escargot

 Cep in pastry nests with red pepper sauce.


 Langoustine and salmon fumé in creamed scrambled eggs

 Pineapple sorbet

 Boned quails stuffed with chanterelle and foie gras served with vegetable aspic

 Venison sirloin – slow-gin flambé with braised potato

 Rum soufflé

 Cheese board.

 Special meals have been a feature of our lives together, both home cooked and in restaurants. We often have bed time memory trips to such times and places to ease us into sleep when the stress of life intrudes and brings on what we call ‘the dark puther’. Some of these meals have been reproduced in my novels too. They are a useful vehicle for establishing characters and relationships. Many a seduction in life and literature has begun over a table of fine food and wine.

Not all our memorable food experiences have involved fine-dinning.  In Rome at Christmas: A tiny place near the Pantheon.


They served take-away roast suckling pork in a crisp pizza style bread. The pork was infused with exactly the right amount of sage and included soft moist meat and crisp crackle skin. It was perfect. We went back for seconds then sat on a wall in the shadow of the Pantheon and enjoyed a sublime food experience.

piggy – heaven

Another great memory is B’s first taste of the underrated flat fish – Brill. When I first took B to  Northern Ireland, we spent some time in around the Mourne mountains. There I showed her the places of my youthful escape. (I used to rent a semi-derelict old farm-house in the heart of the mountains. It had one tap bringing water from a spring, which often spewed out live wriggling leaches! Heating and cooking was be means of an ancient wood or coal-fired range.) We found the old house again, now completely derelict. We peered in at the old rusting range. My big old coffee pot still stood upon it. I recounted how I used to leave this big enamel coffee pot simmering on the range and would top it up constantly and empty it only when the grounds filled it. I would throw old eggshells in to give the thick black coffee a wonderful sheen.

Mournes Silent Valley

After we drove through the Silent Valley and down to the fishing village of Kilkeel.


On the harbour we found a shop selling fish fresh from the boats. I spotted a lovely big Brill and bought it. Later we set up a the picnic-table and gas single ring cooker. The big fish only just fitted in my fry-pan. It was stiff fresh and was, with doubt, the best fish meal we’ve ever had. Crisped butter fried skin, milky white flesh, firm and sweet. Finished with a splash of Sancerre, it was utterly fantastic. B’s still raves about it and when I cook Brill now she invariably says: “It’s good but not at good as the great Kilkeel picnic.”

 Memories like these, fuel for the body, feed the imagination and provide rich material for a writers creative efforts. Yes food and romance go hand in soft stroking hand.


A Trippy Tale for children age six to sixty.

In a secret wet valley called Deeply Dell by locals, live a race of creatures spoken of in whispers by those who have ventured here. If you walk here at dawn or dusk and are silent and soft and look very carefully, you might spot a deeply or even a whole family.

Deeply Dell

The entrance to the Dell is always guarded by the special cast of deeply known as… Samurai . No sorry Salami.

Guard Pep

Here we can spy a guard on duty. His name is Pep Eroni and he is the chief of the Salami cast.  He is watching over a family out gathering food.

If you look really hard you can see them moving through the grass.

This is papa Chip Olata and his mate/wife, An Douille.  Their children, called links in Deeply, are behind. Young deeply are called links because they spend their early lives literally linked one behind the other. They even feed this way.

The oldest eats and some food is passed down the line to the youngest at the back. Yucky you might think, but baby deeply links don’t mind, they know no other way.

Here we can see a family of Deeply in their nest den. The links sleep curled up in circle so they can pass food along even as they sleep. This is why Deeply grow so fast. As a deeply grows they break their links one at time.

They grow bigger but they keep their yellow legs until after they get old enough to begin the mating rituals.

Here are Ba Nger and Mor Tadella flirting and telling each other lies about their adventures. They might decide to be mates and then their legs turn light blue. Once they’ve had baby links their legs turn dark blue.

The life of a deeply is filled with peril and danger. Like all teens, blue leg deeply are adventurous and they go places they shouldn’t.  Here we see some in a part of Deeply Dell called death valley. They are forbidden to go here by the elders. The elders are known as Skinless. When a deeply reaches old age they shed their skin and grow extra eyes. They need them because as Skinless Deeplies they are in great danger. The monster of Deeply Dell hunts all Deeply but it especially likes Skinless Deeply. The skins of blue legs and links stick in it’s fangs so it hunts mostly the Skinless cast.

A family out feeding near death valley see some blue legs down in the valley and call to them.

But one slips on the slimy sides and falls. This why it’s called death valley.

The story continues on the page marked Deeply Dell.