The Writing of ‘Tin’ / Nuala O’Connor

‘Tin’ is a commissioned story and, therefore, I approached and wrote it differently to the stories that occur to me in a natural way. Firstly, the story had to be designed to be read aloud. BBC Radio Ulster and 14-18 NOW – the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary – asked a few writers to produce a piece of fiction as a creative response to the borderlands of Ireland. The story was to be broadcast on radio and used as part of a social engagement project in shared reading sessions with a wide variety of people ranging from young adults to community groups. Secondly, the story had to, in some way, have a connection to Word War One.

Most of my writing life is spent writing historical novels so I knew immediately that I’d write a story set in the war era. I’m a research fetishist, which may be the reason I love historical and biographical fiction so much; I love to get down and dirty in museums, archives, old books, online records, and so on. I picked the story’s location – the border county of Fermanagh in Northern Ireland – in tandem with the idea of setting it in the early years of WW1. I chose that county because I knew very little about it and a quick google of some of the musical, arresting Fermanagh townland names was enough to set me going.

Most Irish writers are obsessed with place and most of our placenames are Anglicised versions of old Irish names and, often, they’re very evocative. Going through the townland list, the name ‘Aghnagrane’ leapt out at me; I tweaked it slightly to ‘Aghnagrena’ and I had my characters’ homeplace: The Field of the Sun. The river in the story – the Owenbrean – is a real Fermanagh river and, in contrast to the bright field, its name translates as ‘the stinking river’. I like to include these sorts of things in fiction for those readers who’ll notice them but, mostly, I put them in for my own entertainment.

My characters came easily to me – uppity Kitty, her steady sister Patricia, and decent man Malachy. It’s an old fictional scenario – one man, two women – but the tension of such a trio works in a story because trouble becomes inevitable and all fiction is about things going awry for people, in unrepeatable ways. I like to write characters who are human, earthy, bad / good and eternally learning – Kitty, my main character in ‘Tin’, conforms to that pattern of being redeemably damaged.

My title, too, I had from the start – I knew I wanted to include the actual tin of the title in the story in some way. I’m interested in material culture – I collect various antique and vintage objects – and I’d been drooling over Princess Mary Tins on eBay for some years. Now I had an excuse to buy one. In 1914, seventeen-year-old Princess Mary of England arranged to send three hundred and fifty-five thousand tins, as Christmas gifts, to British soldiers fighting in the war. These brass and silver tins, engraved with an image of Mary, contained an ounce of tobacco, a packet of cigarettes, a cigarette lighter, a Christmas card, and photographs of the princess and her parents. Over two and a half million tins were gifted to soldiers by the end of the war. I’ve always wondered what a soldier might feel on receipt of such an item. He’d be grateful for the tobacco, no doubt, to smoke or to trade. And the tin itself would be handy for keeping things dry, presumably. But the photographs and card – would they truly provide comfort to young men in stinking trenches, witnessing horrendous slaughter hour after hour?

I also got Patricia’s downbeat love mantra – ‘If you perish, I perish’ – from an antique item. I saw the phrase engraved into a Georgian mourning pendant; it stuck in my brain and presented itself for use as I was writing the end of the story, the way things do.

As for the unfolding of the story itself, I mostly write organically, pushing forward, without plan, to see where I’m led. If I get stuck, I ask questions of my characters. This story’s ‘plot’, such as it is, came to me quickly and it was just a matter of finessing with language after that – saying it all as well as I could.

Commissioned stories are unusual – they don’t come from some notion or phrase that’s been tinkling around in the brain for months or years, there’s a somewhat forced element to the making of them. For me, this story coalesced and was helped along by the research I did and by my interest in ‘stuff’, material things. I’m fond of ‘Tin’; I don’t consider it a triumph of a piece, or any such thing. But I see the warp and weft of it, the weaving of my research and historical objects with the characters and place, and that, in itself, provides pleasure, and a feeling of safety in sending the story out into the world.

Nuala O’Connor lives in Co. Galway, Ireland. Her forthcoming fifth novel, NORA, is about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce. Her new chapbook of historical flash fiction, Birdie, is just published by Arlen House. Nuala is editor at flash e-zine Splonk.

Photos by Nuala O’Connor.