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

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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), MunhakDongne (Korean) SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE (Awards and Some Praise) WINNER OF THE ABIA LITERARY FICTION OF THE YEAR 2018 WINNER OF THE MUD LITERARY AWARD 2018 Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2018 Shortlisted for the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction 2018 Shortlisted for the Strand Critics Awards for Best First Novel Longlisted for the ABIA Matt Richell Award for New Writers 2018 For the originality of its voice and the power of its language and imagery, See What I Have Done deserves to be considered a Gothic classic - THE SATURDAY PAPER See What I Have Done is a meticulously researched and boldly imagined book that crackles with tension throughout. Schmidt's portrayal of Lizzie is haunting and complex, a deeply psychological portrait that forces the reader to question their preconceptions about what women are capable of - for better and worse. Both disturbing and gripping, it is an outstanding debut novel about love, death and the lifelong repercussions of unresolved grief. - The Observer Schmidt is a consummate storyteller whose account of the Borden murders is utterly compelling. - Australian Book Review Schmidt's writing is rich and confident, painting a vivid portrait of a household with something rotten at its core. It's a strong debut that promises much from an original and compelling new voice in Australian literature. - The Guardian There are books about murder and there are books about imploding families; this is the rare novel that seamlessly weaves the two together, asking as many questions as it answers. - Kirkus Reviews [An] unforgettable debut ... Equally compelling as a whodunit, 'whydunit,' and historical novel. - Publishers Weekly Heralds the arrival of a major new talent ... Nail-biting horror mixes with a quiet, unforgettable power to create a novel readers will stay up all night finishing. - Booklist This novel is like a crazy murdery fever dream, swirling around the day of the murders. Schmidt has written not just a tale of a crime, but a novel of the senses. There is hardly a sentence that goes by without mention of some sensation, whether it’s a smell or a sound or a taste, and it is this complete saturation of the senses that enables the novel to soak into your brain and envelope you in creepy uncomfortableness. It’s a fabulous, unsettling book. —Book Riot Eerie and compelling, Sarah Schmidt breathes such life into the terrible, twisted tale of Lizzie Borden and her family, she makes it impossible to look away. —Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train

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