Creative writing with Danielle McLaughlin

Posted on: 10th June, 2016

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Cork author Danielle McLaughlin will host a workshop on the ‘Creative Writing for Beginners’ at this year’s West Cork Literary Festival. Danielle’s own stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Irish Times, Southword, The Penny Dreadful and The Stinging Fly and have been broadcast on RTE Radio 1 and BBC Radio 4. She has won numerous awards and is currently working on a number of new short stories and a novel. She talks to Mary O’Brien about getting started and the ins and outs of being a successful writer.

Danielle McLaughlin, 47, came to writing later in life. After falling very ill quite suddenly in 2009, she was forced to stop practicing as a solicitor. She attempted to write fiction unsuccessfully at home but it wasn’t until she attended a series of workshops at the Munster Literature Centre in Cork city, that Danielle reached a turning point in her literary endeavours. Here she also met the women who became her writing group. Five years on and the group continue to meet every two weeks. “It was a revelation to discover that there is so much about writing that can be taught,” says the author.

Since then Danielle’s own stories have been published widely. She has won numerous awards, including most recently, the Saboteur Award for best short story collection.

‘Dinosaurs on Other Planets’, Danielle’s debut collection of short stories, was published in Ireland by The Stinging Fly Press in 2015 and in the UK earlier this year by John Murray. Random House will publish it in the US in August. The stories are set mostly in modern-day Ireland, some in rural County Cork where Danielle lives, others in Dublin, or on the Inishowen peninsula where her husband is from, there’s one set partly in West Cork, and one story set outside of Ireland in the Abruzzo region of Italy. “I find that I’m drawn to exploring characters who find themselves at a point of crisis in their lives, and who struggle to make sense of the spaces they inhabit and the people they share them with, characters who experience the world as beautiful, but also alien, characters whose isolation is not just geographic but also psychological,” she explains.

Danielle says that her inspiration “comes from all sorts of places”. For example, the title story Dinosaurs on Other Planets started with a question asked by her youngest child when she was putting him to bed one night: Are there dinosaurs on other planets? “I thought it was a wonderful question but I didn’t begin working with it immediately, it sloshed around in my head for a while. Then, sometime later, my husband and the kids went for a walk in a nearby forest and came back with a skull. The story grew from the combination of that initial question and the image of the skull.”

Another story sparked when one day, driving north to Donegal, the family overtook a lorry carrying “the foulest smelling load ever! I wondered what it might be, and my husband suggested fish meal on its way to a mink farm. That smell, and the picture conjured up by my husband’s guesswork, grew into ‘Night of the Silver Fox’.”

Danielle describes her writing process as messy, involving a large number of drafts. “Some stories take a few months, others I might be working on for a couple of years before they come right. In the early stages of a story I write longhand. I like to go to a cafe in the mornings after I’ve done the school run and write in a notebook. Once a story progresses to a particular point, I’ll put it on the computer. Back home in the afternoons, I’ll work on the computer editing stories that are further along.” She always has a number of different stories under construction at any one time.

The biggest challenge in being a writer according to Danielle is the writing itself, that constant striving to try and tell a story in the best way possible. “It’s not just about the story you’re telling, it’s also about HOW you’re telling it,” she explains.

Danielle has a number of new short stories under construction and is also working on a novel that started out as a short story.

Her workshop at the festival is for those who are taking the very first steps in their writing journey, as well as those who have been writing for a while. “We’ll look at ways of generating ideas, how and where to begin, keeping readers interested, creating memorable characters, getting the ending right, as well as how to submit work to journals, competitions, agents and publishers. And lots, lots more!”

Her advice for budding writers: “Attending writing workshops and joining a writers group made an enormous difference to my writing. Also, read, read, read! I’m with Stephen King when he says ‘if you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.’”

The workshop will take place at Colaiste Pobail Bheanntraí from Monday, July 18 – Friday, July 22. Danielle will read from Dinosaurs On Other Planets in the Maritime Hotel at 2.30pm on July 21, and also discuss her writing group alongside Barbara Leahy and Marie Gethins at 2.30pm at the Maritime Hotel on Tuesday, July 19. The West Cork Literary Festival takes place in and around Bantry from July 17 to July 23.

Booking on 027 52788/9 or LoCall 1850 788 789 or on line at www.westcorkliteraryfestival.ie.

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