When I started writing fiction, I thought the screenplay would be my natural format. I had worked as a television documentary maker, had read drama scripts for the BBC and had been consulted by the drama department about making a film based on a factual story. I didn’t think at all about writing a novel. While the story of Singing Bird was taking shape in my head, I thought of it as a series of scenes, beginning with the telephone call from Sister Monica.
I could see that opening scene clearly in my mind – Lena and her friends sitting around the long oak table in the big kitchen drinking champagne, the birthday cake on the breakfast bar, the sunlight pouring in through the windows. I could hear the soundtrack Una voce poco fa – sung by Teresa Berganza. But I couldn’t get the scene down on the page. And I couldn’t work out why.
I thought maybe it shouldn’t be the first scene? But it was the inciting incident from which the entire story sprang. It was the mention of a telephone call from a nun that planted the seed of the story in my brain. When I was a reporter researching a documentary about adoption, the mother of an adopted daughter had told me that ten years after the adoption, a nun from the orphanage had telephoned to ask how the girl was doing at school. “I got the impression my daughter was special in some way. And I remembered that when we adopted her, she was handed over to me in the solicitor’s office and not at the orphanage.”
I never made the documentary (I got sent to Sarajevo instead) but the mother’s remarks stayed with me. Why did the nun telephone? I asked myself. And in reply came the “what if” that is the beginning of all fiction.
I thought about it and thought about it until the entire landscape of the story – characters, plot, locations – had formed in my head.
Now I had a story. But I couldn’t work out how best to tell it. Several drafts of a screenplay got dumped in the bin.
Then Appletree Press (an Irish publishing company) commissioned me to write a golf book. (Emerald Greens: The Essential Guide to Golf Vacations in Ireland was published in October 2000.) When I had finished it, I realized I had written more than 70,000 words.
For the first time I thought maybe I could write a novel.
The first scene in my abandoned screenplay -
INT. KITCHEN – DAY
LENA sits at the table with three friends. They are drinking champagne -
became the first sentence of “Singing Bird” – “We were drinking champagne in the kitchen when the nun telephoned.”
After that, I wrote a chapter outline. Then I just went on writing. I sat down at my desk after breakfast and worked until lunchtime – about four or five hours. I can’t honestly remember how long it took me. But I know that thinking about it, waiting for the characters and places to become real to me, the plot to evolve, took much longer than the actual writing. (That is still the case, only more so.)
I wrote in the first person, past tense because that came naturally to me. (It still does.) It meant I couldn’t write great bravura sentences that roamed widely and omnisciently. It made plotting more difficult. But it kept the focus tight and, I hope, pulled readers more quickly into Lena’s world. (Although she is, of course, an unreliable narrator.)
I found that patterns emerged from my subconscious. Songs and arias I quoted echoed each other and the plot. Dove Sono and Silver Threads and Golden Needles are both laments for lost love. At the end of The Marriage of Figaro, the eponymous Figaro finds his mother. When I realised that, I deliberately gave Mary the role of the novice mistress in Puccini’s opera Suor Angelica, intending it to be both a clue (Mary is a different kind of novice mistress) and a red herring (Suor Angelica had a child before she entered the convent.)
That kind of thing makes writing fun.