This year I carried out my first ever research trip for the soon to be published The Chancer, Mac Maguire’s eighth mystery, which was followed up by my second research trip to Cyprus for an, as yet, untitled book that will be published next year. Two facts conspired in making these trips happen – I retired and I’m actually making a little money from book sales.
So why, after seven books mostly set in Hertfordshire, did I feel that such trips were needed?
Ever since Mac Maguire came into my life I’ve been aware that, while he was brought up in Birmingham in the English Midlands, his Irish background is important to him too. So, I’ve been thinking about how I could explore this facet of his life and reveal a little more about his past. In this latest book Mac gets the chance to help with a murder when he is in Donegal, Ireland for a funeral. He hasn’t been back ‘home’ for a while and, as he visits familiar places, he is reminded of a past he’d thought he’d all but forgotten. Besides the murder a family mystery is also resolved.
My wife is from Donegal and I’ve been there quite a few times. However, as a crucial part of the book is set in Derry, I decided that I needed to find out a little more about the city as my knowledge was quite limited. Like most people with an Irish background I was all too aware of this little city’s troubled past and I wondered what had changed since peace had been declared. I’m really glad that I made the visit. It is a beautiful city and everyone I met was very friendly. My wife, who accompanied me on both visits, was really struck at the warm and friendly customer service she received in just about every shop, cafe and pub we visited. And yet…
It only exists in small parts of the city now but the demarcation of the two communities is made all too clear by the flags and murals that still exist in certain areas. The city is split in two by a river and by history as well with it being mainly Protestant on one side and Catholic on the other. It also has two names, Derry if you’re from the Catholic community, or Londonderry if you’re from the Protestant community which many people find confusing. Both I (and Mac in the book) feel that there’s still a tension remaining in the city and, while this could just be me, I found that I was being fairly careful in what I said to people about myself. As soon as I opened my mouth my Birmingham accent declared me to be English yet my name and background declared me to be Catholic so I was unsure of my welcome in either community. However, it has to be said that the city has come light years since what was basically a simmering civil war in the seventies and eighties so I am hopeful for its future.
Verdict? I was really glad I made the trip and I felt far more confident about writing the part of the book that’s set there. While it doesn’t really affect the plot I felt as if I now knew with some clarity what Mac would make of his visit to the city. If you decide to visit you must try the ‘Ulster Fry’ for breakfast, it’s absolutely marvellous!
This was my second trip to Larnaca this year. As I retired in April I decided that I would spend some of my retirement lump sum on a family holiday in Cyprus. While we were there my partner and I finally got married after an engagement lasting over twenty five years. Both of us wanted a very low key ceremony and we were both glad that we decided to do it there. I found that my back improved somewhat and I walked a little farther than I would have if I’d been at home. This could have been due to the warm dry temperatures or the regular sea bathing but I feel that it was mainly down to just feeling good about being on holiday there. During that trip I got the inkling of an idea that a book might be set there but that was all it was. The idea quickly became a sort of itch.
So I decided to go back again for a longer stay part of which was aimed at exploring this idea further. I wanted to see if I could get some inspiration for the outline of a story and, with any luck, the main characters. I would normally have gone for two weeks but I extended it to three so that I and my partner would get the benefit of a holiday while allowing some time for me to wander off and think about a book. And it worked!
I’ve now got the outline of a story and some of the main characters. For an island that’s on the Middle East’s doorstep and is a four and a half hours flight from London it still has some surprising links to England. The road signs are familiar as are the electric plugs and the fact that they drive on the left. We found something quite surprising though, something that proved to be a key to one of the main characters in the book. Both my partner and I have Irish backgrounds but were born and brought up in England. We met quite a few people there who were brought up in England but had a Cypriot background. We found that we had an awful lot in common as we kind of sit astride both communities but feel that we don’t totally belong to either. It felt like we really understood each other. In the book Mac will be asked to help out by a Cypriot police detective who was brought up in Birmingham.
I know that some readers might think this might be an unlikely coincidence but think on this. The taxi driver who drove us to our wedding had a daughter in Birmingham and visited the city regularly while the notary who married us could speak in a pure Birmingham accent having lived and studied there when he was young. In fact he lived about ten minutes walk from where my wife and I were brought up!
Verdict? Well worth the extra week and all the walking about and bench counting (you’ll need to read the book to find out what that was all about). Both my wife and I have fallen in love with Larnaca and we’ll definitely be going back again next year.