Mysterious cat murderer provides intriguing subject for creative writing workshop at Belfast Book Festival

Illustrating the wide span of activities at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre, walking to Room 3 on the second floor earlier this week where I was hosting a workshop on creative writing at the city’s annual book festival, I passed a book club meeting, a dance class, an event hosted by a UN group and even a music lesson for people learning the tin whistle.
To say this well-known arts centre located a short walk from Queens University provides an impressive range of cultural and educational activities for city residents and visitors alike may be an understatement.

Under the skilled directorship of Keith Acheson as well as staff members such as Peter McCloskey, the centre maintains its position as a popular community venue by reaching out to people of all ages, genders, faiths and nationalities.

The week-long annual Belfast Book Festival, which ends in a few days, is a prime example. Dwarfing many such festivals in other countries for sheer diversity, it comprises around 100 different events and activities, ranging from children’s literature to crime, with multiple author presentations in many genres and lively discussions and debates.

I was delighted to be asked to host a two-hour workshop entitled ‘IQ for Creative Writers’ in which, through a combination of practical writing exercises and a multi-media presentation,

The workshop allowed me to demonstrate the links between rules of journalism and creative writing, as well as the importance of asking questions (thus IQ, meaning ‘I Question’) to develop strong characters, plot-lines and locations, indeed all aspects of a novel or short story.

Using the classic five Ws of journalism, ‘who, what, why, where, when’ plus the all-important sixth ‘W’ – ‘what-if’ – workshop participants, including an experienced teacher, a qualified solicitor and an actor, produced vivid stories based on a recent intriguing newspaper article I found that focused on a mysterious murderer of cats in small-town France. One such story written by one of the participants featured a unique character – an astute detective – a cat.

Other stories developed during the workshop included an intriguing tale of “promises, praise and half-truths” about the shenanigans of a corrupt chemical company whose products caused widespread illness and a tension-filled story about a woman’s momentous decision in the dead of night to follow her husband whom she suspects of being a cat murderer.

Participants also discussed the qualitative difference between open and closed questions for critical information gathering.

I also showed how I utilized my own background experience in print and broadcast journalism in Europe and the US to help me develop scenery, drama and key characters for my novel, ‘Pretty Ugly.’

The Belfast Book Festival continues this weekend. Don’t miss your last chance to enjoy a wealth of interesting talks on the wide world of literature.

Advertisements

Whirlwind US ‘Pretty Ugly’ book tour: Tucson, New York, Kansas City, Fredericksburg…

Speaking recently before audiences of high-level academics, medical leaders and journalists and editors in diverse settings across the United States about my novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ has been a most exhilarating and gratifying experience.

Even more gratifying was the positive response from Americans about Donegal. Most – including those who had been to Ireland almost every year for decades – had never been to the ‘Forgotten County.’ Hearing about northwest Ireland’s key location role in my novel’s drama, many said they were intrigued to visit the region. One up for literary tourism.

Now back in the quiet, bucolic landscape of Bloody Foreland right behind my house, I find myself remembering many of the enjoyable and challenging moments during those pivotal weeks, from Kansas cornfields to Big Apple skyscrapers, while of course, internally evaluating what I consider I did right and what I could have done better.

And ultimately, thanking my lucky stars for the opportunity to embark on such a whirlwind tour that took me from Tucson, Arizona to Kansas City, Missouri to Fredericksburg, Virginia, with Florida and New York sandwiched between.

In Tucson, I had the privilege to talk before an august gathering of some of the best women doctors in Arizona in an event organized by Dr. Sandra Katz, three-term president of the of the Tucson Society of Women Physicians. Ranging from cardiologists and gynecologists to neurologists and orthopedic surgeons, they were all deeply interested in the potential dangers from nanoparticles in everyday cosmetics and discussed openly during question time and among their peers beside them afterwards over dinner, what health problems such tiny particles could cause within the human body. Most of the doctors were intrigued and delighted that such a real-life, and somewhat controversial medical theme, could be the central thread of a novel.

Dr. Katz thanked me on behalf of the medical society for what she described as “an enlightening and fascinating presentation,” adding, “You had a room full of physicians of every specialty- from family practice, anesthesia, dermatology, obstetrics/gynecology, ophthalmology, plastic surgery, general surgery, orthopedics, oncology – and we were all spellbound by the facts you presented about the dangers of toxins in cosmetics.  Hopefully, your book will have an impact on the regulation of the cosmetic industry and will educate the public on the health risks.”

Meanwhile, my talk in Missouri allowed me the chance to re-visit the place where I had lived for ten years working as the medical and science correspondent for the main morning newspaper, The Kansas City Times. Warm memories flooded back of wonderful people I had met, including highly-skilled journalists such as Pulitzer-prize winning Dunstan ‘Dusty’ McNichol (now sadly departed and for whom I offer a dedication in ‘Pretty Ugly’) and Chicago-born Mike Kennedy who still plies his trade skillfully there and who, to me delightful, was able to attend my presentation.

The event itself also give me the chance to honor two other highly-regarded individuals who have had a marked effect on me during my life. The evening took place in the Diastole International Scholar’s Center beside the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, which like Diastole, was established by Dr. E. Grey Dimond, a most astute man that I had the great pleasure of meeting while I was a newly-emigrated, 20-something reporter.  Such was E. Grey’s influence on me as both a close personal friend and an educator, I used his persona for one of the lead characters in my novel – a kind-hearted doctor concerned about the health and well-being of ordinary people.

The second person is Cuban-born Felix Sabates, a leading ophthalmologist who founded the Eye Department at the medical school, the Eye Foundation and also the Sabates Eye Centers. I knew very little about the complex internal workings of that most important of human organs until I interviewed Felix many years ago. The valuable knowledge I gained then came in very useful as I began to write ‘Pretty Ugly’ and decided the eye would be the crucial organ that is badly affected by toxic nanoparticles in cosmetics in a key female character.

Warm thanks must also be given to Nancy Hill, the center’s president, without whose tireless organizational skills the whole evening soiree could not have taken place and to Phil and Kathy Chaney for being such kind and generous hosts.

As for Fredericksburg, full credit there goes to Dr. Stephen Farnsworth, journalist, political commentator, Fulbright professor, author of multiple books and founder of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, who arranged my talk before students, staff and member of the local community. I was delighted that so many of them wanted more details from me after the lecture about this ongoing healthcare controversy and were puzzled and concerned that US politicians hadn’t done more to protect peoples’ health from such potential dangers as nanoparticles about which few clinical efficacy tests have been conducted.

All in all, my three-week US tour was not only a most gratifying one but one that helped me as an author strengthen my skills in presenting my novel in an interesting and attention-grabbing way, a challenging task for any author and one I hope to talk more about at this year’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ in west Donegal, the very place where much of the action of ‘Pretty Ugly’ happens.

Also, I’m delighted to announce that I have been asked to teach a practical workshop – IQ (I Question) for Creative Writersat this year’s Belfast Book Festival linking techniques in journalism to creative writing, particularly the art of asking questions

I hope to see you there.