A few years ago in West Cork, on the cusp of winter-spring, I took my son down to one of my favourite places – a mountain valley with a lake that feeds into the River Laoi.
It was a typical winter’s day for that part of the country; cold showers, low lying cloud, intermittent patches of watery sunshine between the wisps of mist. At the same time, there was something very unique about the quality of the illumination. The damp sunlight combined with the black rock, the black water, the black clouds – black on black on black – to create a kind of monochromatic landscape softened only by burnt patches of withered fern on the surrounding hills.
The sight was beautiful, in the same way that photos of the moonscape or a desert at night are beautiful; bleak, remote and melancholic. All of a sudden, a single swan appeared out of the gloom, a blaze of white on the still black waters like the prospect of joy on a dour day and it was as though the valley had released a sigh.
I was lucky enough to capture the latter parts of the swan’s approach moment on a shitty camera (see the clip above). On the clip you can hear my son saying “Oh, do chuaigh se faoin uisce!’ – ‘Oh, he’s gone under the water!’ when it finally disappeared beneath the causeway and out of sight.
Such moments are rare but they tend to stay with you. Last week, the memory resurfaced – unlike the swan – for some reason, and in a fit of creativity, I drew on it to write a short but important character development scene from the third book in the Fionn mac Cumhal series. This is a rough, unedited first draft so bear with me:
From her refuge in the ferns, Liath Luachra had been observing a fat pair of wood pigeons that were oblivious to her presence. Now, her belly growled and her fingers tightened unconsciously about the leather thong of the sling curled about her right hand.
I could strike one. I could strike one easily at this distance.
She scowled and took a deep breath before turning her head. Hunger was making her careless.
Averting her eyes from the feathered temptation, she rested her cheek against the rough bark of the tree and reverted to that old occupation – daydreaming – she often used to pass the long periods of inactivity while in the Great Wild.
She drew up a mental image from the past, a memory from a period when she’d still been with the mercenary group, Na Cinéaltaí. At the time, she’d been travelling through rough territory, bound for a gathering at some distant tribal stronghold. The day had been uncharacteristically mild for the winter-spring cusp but, weary from the sustained effort of hard trekking, she’d paused to rest in a deserted valley at the foothills of an isolated mountain range.
The valley, a barren and lonely passage wandering between two steep hills of jagged, grey rock and had a deep lake at its centre. Although it must have been a harsh and bitter place at the best of times, at that particular moment the watery quality of the sunlight and the overhanging cloud had combined to imbue it with a colourless intensity she’d never encountered before. Sitting quietly, she’d tried to absorb the sight but the beauty of the landscape seemed almost too much for her swollen soul to take in. Just when she thought it couldn’t possibly grow more beautiful, two swans had suddenly appeared, winging their way down the valley to alight gracefully on the waters of the little lake.
She’d watched in rapt silence for a long time as the elegant birds drifted noiselessly, their white shadows forming perfect mirror images in its still black surface. The moment couldn’t be sustained however, of course. Despite a deep desire to continue absorbing its soothing beauty, she had places to be and people depending on her. She’d left the valley shortly afterwards but she’d never forgotten what she’d seen.
A year later, when she was passing through that region again, she’d spent days criss-crossing the terrain in an effort to relocate the valley. After many frustrating and unfruitful attempts, she’d finally understood that she would never find what she was looking for. Although she’d located several valleys with lakes, none of them looked like the one she remembered. In different light, at a different time, the valley was just another valley in another forsaken piece of land. The valley that she’d experienced was gone, an element of time, of circumstance and of nature, existing now only as a ghost of what could have been.
This is just one example of how you can use old memories or sensations when you write. Generally speaking, its much easier to write a description of a place or of an emotion if you’ve actually been there or felt it. Because I come from Ireland and I write about events taking place in Irish landscape I my writing tends to be very – well – Irish.