Lizzie Borden, process, research
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The Boon of Keening: how being lazy led me to character insights

I’ll say it now, writing is terrible for your health. I’m taking a few weeks off work to work on the novel. The last time I did that, i wrote 70 + hours a week and finished with a severely blocked ear, limited sight in my left eye (I’m already short sighted, so this doesn’t help) and enlarged glands. I was also unable to sleep properly. This happens every time I write in huge concentrated blocks and I’d love to figure out what, if any, is the connection between intensive creativity (or simply longer periods of time of concentration) and the weird eye, ear and throat things I get.

I decided this time around, I’d slow it down and try not to injure myself. Two days in, my ear became blocked and by the end of the week my throat looked like goitre city. So i took a morning off to visit my good friend, Netflix, and binge watch the rest of  ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’ hoping that would help my poor soul. No dice. All that meant was that I was two hours behind schedule and I worked up a delicious serving of  writers’ guilt.  This made everything worse.

Wait. maybe all this ill health is a physical manifestation of stress?

Anyway, I digress.

I was feeling guilty about not writing, especially when I needed to research some very particular ‘Irish things’ for Bridget, the Borden’s maid. But I was pressed for time and couldn’t justify spending hours and hours in libraries reading Irish history and culture. Then I had the genius idea of interviewing some good family friends who happen to be Irish and are from Cork (where Bridget is from). Best. idea. ever.

So last Sunday afternoon, I took my trusty voice recorder over to their house and we spoke about everything from naming grandparents, the potato famine and the beginning of mass exodus from Ireland, death and murder, ghost stories, Irish food, Salmon fishing, labour in Cork,  crossroads, to wakes. Although not everything discussed will make it into Bridget’s narrative, I felt reassured that what I had previously written for Bridget was close to truth. I also feel that just knowing about the anecdotes told to me will help shape Bridget not only as a character but an outsider to the Borden’s.

Something I was really excited to learn about was the particular songs sung at Irish wakes. There is one song that was consistently sung to those leaving Ireland for good: Noreen Bawn. This little ditty is about a young woman  who leaves Ireland , gets TB and dies. Totally uplifting.

Here’s a version of the song:

When I heard this, I was reminded of Danny Boy. I know, it’s completely stereotypical to bring up this song when talking of Ireland and musically there’s almost nothing in common, but i felt a thematic connection and I welcomed it. Perhaps I welcomed it because Danny Boy was played at my beloved Grandmother’s funeral last month. There is only one version of the song that always breaks my heart:

We also spent time talking about Keening at wakes. I’ve heard different aural interpretations of keening, from wailing, to music, and in song.

Here is a group of women wailing (and I admit, a sound I haven’t been able to shake for over a week now)

And here is a lament:

I also particularly like this version of keening:

These are some of the elements that have been informing aspects of Bridget as I write her. I’m looking forward to seeing where the next section of research leads me.

This entry was posted in: Lizzie Borden, process, research


writer, observer, reader, procrastinator. My debut novel, See What I Have Done, published by Hachette (ANZ), Tinder Press (UK), Grove Atlantic (US), Piper Verlag (German), Editions Payot & Rivages (French), Hollands Diep (Dutch), Edizioni Piemme (Italian), GW Foksal (Polish), Palto Publishing (Turkish)

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