Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Tag Archives: All the Walls of Belfast

A tour of ALL THE WALL OF BELFAST’s settings

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My debut YA Contemporary All the Walls of Belfast has been out a month now! So hard to believe. To learn more, check it out on Goodreads. In honor of that, I wanted to share pictures of the setting. Before and while writing this book, I had the opportunity to visit all the settings in the book; all the pictures are mine.

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To learn more about the pictures, and a deeper context of the book, check out my Instagram story--a tour of the settings featured in ATWOB

My research process for ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST

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The creation of my debut novel All the Walls of Belfast (out March 12th, 2019 by Turner Publishing Company) was quite an undertaking and would not have been possible without the help of many people and a ton of research. I am an American telling a story that is not mine. As such, I feel it’s absolutely essential to share the process I used to create this story.

Travels in Northern Ireland

I first traveled to Belfast as a part of a group with the purpose of understanding the Troubles and its impact in July 2011. While there, I had the opportunity to go on political tours of the Shankill and the Falls lead by former Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) members, attended several different kinds of church services, toured museums, and spoke with many individuals who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. I also was able to attend an Eleventh Night bonfire in the Tiger’s Bay area of Belfast and the Twelfth of July parade. I did the coastal drive to Giant’s Causeway/Dunluce Castle. Check out pictures of that journey here.

At the time, I had vague recollections of hearing about the Troubles when I was in middle school, but figured it was long over. And it is over. But I was shocked by the walls still separating working class Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast. Also, in talking with people, in a lot of cases, things still felt raw and the history is ever-present, especially because those who engaged in violence on both sides held high positions in government. For example, I was quite struck when talking to a woman about the Deputy First Minister at the time, Martin McGuinness, who was a leader in the Provisional Irish Republican Army during the Troubles; she’d had family members killed by the IRA and saw his face all the time as one of the leaders of Northern Ireland and being celebrated as a peace maker.

This trip left me wanting to understand both the history of the Troubles and how it shaped current events and peoples’ lives. I also found a story to tell around the transmission of traumas to the next generation who may not have even been alive during the Troubles. Author’s note: All the Walls of Belfast is set in 2012; the two main characters were small children when the Troubles officially ended in 1998.

As I was researching All the Walls of Belfast, I returned to Belfast again during late June 2015; this time, I stayed in a hostel run by a cross community agency that was on the Falls Road, because I felt like my first time in Belfast I got more exposure to the Protestant/Loyalist side and wanted a better understanding of the Catholic/Republican side. I met up with and worked collaboratively with one of the editor friends I made to explore various setting locations featured in the book. We also attended one of the flute band parades in the Shankill. I went on three personalized, 1:1 political tours of both the Shankill and the Falls, one led by a former UVF member from the Shankill, the other lead by a former IRA member from the Falls; the third was a Catholic black taxi driver (for a slightly more balanced perspective, with very specific sites in mind). This gave me the opportunity to ask whatever questions I wanted about the Troubles and the lasting impact and to get a variety of perspectives to integrate. I toured sites specifically mentioned in the book. I went to various historically/culturally important sites including the Irish Republican History Museum, the Crumlin Road Gaol, and the newly opened Museum of Orange Heritage. Traveling mostly alone, I had the opportunity to capture the perspectives of people everywhere I went, from taxi drivers to hotel clerks to museum workers to friends of my editor friend. I also walked all over Belfast and scouted settings in the book. Pictures here.

Then I returned to Northern Ireland a third time in late June 2016. It also happened to be the day after the Brexit vote. Pictures here.

During these trips, I went to every setting location in the book, even the bathroom of a bus station and inside a Loyalist bar. It was interesting to see how some of some of the murals in the Shankill changed over the years. While writing, I also was constantly Google Maps Streetviewing everything.

Historical, Current Event, and Cultural Research 

All the Walls of Belfast is set in post-conflict Belfast, but understanding historical context is absolutely essential. I spent several years researching the history of the Troubles and specific events such as Bloody Sunday, the Burning of Bombay Street, the Omagh bombing, to name a few. I also studied the history of the Irish Republican Army, the Plantation of Ulster, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer force and other paramilitaries.

As I tried to wrap my mind around the lingering impact of the Troubles, on a daily basis, I tracked current events in Belfast and Northern Ireland (particularly December 2013 through Spring 2016) in local newspapers with a variety of different perspectives, including the Belfast Telegraph, The Newsletter, Irish News, the BBC, and Irish Republican News. I catalogued both UVF and IRA activities from articles to ensure I was accurately capturing a sense of the paramilitary groups and activities. Several of the events in All the Walls of Belfast are based on actual events that happened in 2012, when the book is set, so I read numerous articles and watched newscasts to capture it. I also watched a multitude of videos of riots, bonfires, and flute band parades. I researched the history of things such as the Orange Order, the culture around Blood and Thunder bands, the philosophies of modern day dissident republicans, reports on the impact of paramilitaries on modern day youth (as of the early 2010s), and efforts at cross community engagement and reconciliation.

Additionally, I read research articles about the current status of peace walls in Northern Ireland, their physical structures and how they’ve been fortified over the past few decades; working class Protestant and Catholic youth perspectives on the post-Troubles situation and paramilitaries; educational achievement among boys from Protestant working class communities; and the activities of paramilitaries and their adherence to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Then I also researched things like the educational system in Northern Ireland, the process to enlist as a British army officer, clothing styles and brands popular with different classes in Northern Ireland, and even how to open a current (checking) account at Ulster Bank. I researched the meanings of commonly seen graffiti and several of the memorials in both the Shankill and the Falls.

Dialect Research

In addition to observations during trips to Belfast, I also did tons of research around dialect, starting with the subtle and obvious differences between American and British English, which are immense, and then taking it further and delving into specifically Belfast dialect. I may or may not have a dialect spreadsheet with over 1,000 entries. I used a variety of forms of media, including books, documentaries, movies, TV shows from Northern Ireland, and Facebook groups. I watched interviews with teenagers from working class Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods to get a sense of their world view. Living in Singapore, where British English is standard, and having many English and Scottish friends, helped tremendously.

I also worked very closely with two developmental editors from Belfast as well as three readers from Belfast to examine how I was capturing culture, language, and perspective (both historic and current). One of my favorite outcomes from this, which I mention in the Acknowledgements, was the “List of Suggested Swearwords” for working class Belfast boys.

Beyond the Book

Many interesting events unfolded as I wrote All the Walls of Belfast. The decision to fly the British flag over Belfast City Hall only on certain days in December 2012 sparked violent riots and protests that lasted months. In the summer of 2013, a Protestant Loyalist parade being re-routed out of a Catholic area lead to a protest camp being set up for 1200 days near a Catholic area, which also triggered attacks by dissident Republicans against police guarding this camp. In September 2013 Richard Haass (a former US diplomat) worked with Protestant Loyalist Parties, Catholic Republican Parties, and the smaller united parties to try and negotiate resolution around some of the biggest issues hampering the peace process: parades, flags, and the legacy of the Troubles. These talks ended without a deal, with flags and symbols being the toughest area.

Brexit happened. As I said, I was in Northern Ireland the day after the vote. Loyalist areas had signs saying “Vote Leave” and Republican areas had signs saying “Vote Stay.” In talking with a loyalist minutes after he found out, he was happy with the outcome, largely due to concerns around immigrants, but also worried about implications for the economy. Listening to the radio on the drive down the Antrim Coast to Belfast, questions were flying around the unique implications for Northern Ireland: their economic and political ties to both the UK and the Republic of Ireland and what would happen to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

In 2018 the power sharing power sharing  government between Republican and Loyalist political parties, created as a result of the Good Friday Agreement which ended the Troubles, also crumbled over disagreements between Protestant Loyalist and Catholic Republican parties. As of now (February 2019), power sharing has still not been restored.

If you want to check out a few of the videos I used while researching, swing by my YouTube channel.

 

 

Library Request Raffle: ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST

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My debut YA contemporary novel All the Walls of Belfast is coming out on March 12th, 2019. Less than two months!

Send me a screenshot of your request for All the Walls of Belfast from your local library, and be entered to win one of three swag prize packs.

Here’s a sample of what they will include:
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Each swag pack will include one coaster and two tea bags featuring Northern Irish slang. Both are direct from Belfast, Northern Ireland (coaster from Belfast Times and tea bags by Victoria Mae). The tea is also Danny’s brand of choice–Barry’s. The swag pack also includes a key chain featuring Bucky Badger, official mascot of the University of Wisconsin, where Fiona’s from. Additionally, it includes Fiona’s bracelets, an All the Walls of Belfast button, an autographed custom book plate, post cards, and stickers (see below).

As long as supplies last, everyone who submits proof of library request will receive a signed custom book plate, a postcard featuring pictures I took in Northern Ireland, and stickers featuring lyrics from Fiona and Danny’s favorite band, Fading Stars, and Danny’s mantra.
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Now through 3/11/19. US and Canada only. Sorry, All the Walls of Belfast is currently only being released in US and Canada. No purchase necessary. Email screenshots to sjcarlson@sjcarlsonauthor.com.

Stay tuned for more information about the pre-order campaign!

OMG my novel is now on Goodreads!

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Turner Publishing has now officially put my debut YA novel ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST up on Goodreads. Here’s a quick blurb: Pitched as THE CARNIVAL AT BRAY meets West Side Story, ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST follows two teens trying to understand their past and preserve their future in post-conflict Belfast–a Wisconsinite who learns she has a father and brothers in Belfast and a boy trying to escape an abusive home to pave his own way.

Check out the official Goodreads book page here! If you’re intrigued, please add it to your “Want to Read” list. Wow, now it’s all really starting to feel real.

And I’m excited to announce that VERY SOON will be the cover reveal. I’m totally in love with it and can’t wait for it to be out in the world.

To stay up-to-date on all things ALL THE WALLS, and for stuff about the craft of writing and my random pictures, follow my blog, sign up for my newsletter, or follow me on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

The Dreaded Query

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scared

…really shouldn’t be all that dreaded, because it’s just a formula. And, honestly, writing a query letter is   is a very beneficial exercise: it forces you to boil your novel down to it’s very heart and soul.

Participating in the fabulous #WriteMentor as a mentor has helped me, as I’ve been trying to help others. It’s also been a great way to fill my time as my debut contemporary YA novel All the Walls of Belfast (Turner Publishing, March 2019) is locked away for edits. And, as I was prepping feedback for all the authors who submitted to me, I did notice a lot of common problems across entries. So, I’m launching a summer series with some tips around getting your submission materials query ready.

So, let’s start with the dreaded query letter. This is a struggle for most writers, because it is SO DIFFERENT from writing that novel, or even that synopsis. It takes a different part of your brain. Tons has already been written about query letters. I’m not going to reveal anything earth-shattering or re-write what experts have already written—I’ll provide some resources at the end. I’m just going to give you my personal thoughts, for whatever they’re worth. Because, who knows, it may work for you!

I think, first and foremost, it’s helpful to conceptualize it as what it is: basically a cover letter for your resume or CV you use when applying for a job. It’s a formal business letter, and it’s purpose is to give an agent or editor a tease about your book and leave them hungry to know more, while also revealing more mundane details like word count, genre, and a tiny bit about yourself. The ultimate purpose of the query letter is to highlight the uniqueness of your story and make the agent/editor sit up and want to read your pages. Because, the hard truth is most agents get hundreds of queries every week, and that’s in addition to all the hard work they’re putting in for their clients. Not all agents read beyond the query. So you need to make sure your query grabs their attention. It should be the unique concept of your story itself that grabs their attention, not fireworks or cheap tricks. Also, do NOT use rhetorical questions. General consensus is recent comp titles are good to have, as it helps categorize your book and is very useful in marketing and shelving it.

Your main goal in the query letter is to introduce the main character(s), central conflict, and show us what the main obstacle/barrier/antagonist. We need a strong sense of what’s at stake if they fail. Why should we care?

At the core of the query are these questions:

1)      What does the character want?

2)      Why do they want it?

3)      What obstacles are in the way?

4)      What’s at stake if they don’t get it?

It should also show how the character’s agency, their choices, will be what drives the plot. Focus only on the most essential characters and the main plot line, otherwise it gets convoluted and confusing.

A query differs from a synopsis in that it DOESN’T tell us the ending, just gives us a taste of the story. The synopsis lays out blow-by-blow what happens all the way to the end. The query shows the reader with the heart of the story, lays bare the central conflict, then teases the reader with an impossible situation, an impossible choice that must be made. The query should leave big questions in the air about what’s at stake and what’s going to happen, so the reader is desperate to know more.

In terms of the bio, it doesn’t have to be huge—just a few sentences if you’ve never published anything. Do mention any writing organizations you’re a member of, such the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Romance Writers of America, or the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This shows a level of commitment to the profession of writing. If you’re not a member of some kind of writing organization, consider it. They can be great ways to learn about trainings, get critique partners, or find other professional development opportunities. If you’ve been selected as a mentee in any writing programs (like PitchWars or WriteMentor), consider mentioning that, as that shows a commitment to craft.  Other than that, otherwise just briefly state your educational and current professional experience, and perhaps if there’s anything that might even tangentially qualify you to write this book. Like I always mention I’m a school psychologist with a professional focus around supporting children who have been exposed to trauma or toxic stress, as the books I write tend to incorporate elements of both.

We DON’T need to know every training you’ve ever attended or book on craft you’ve ever read or even how many books you’ve tried to write. We DON’T need to know that you’re in a critique group. Now, if you’ve organized one, particularly a large one, that could be relevant. DO NOT advertise that you just finished this book up in NaNoWriMo a few months back; this will suggest to agents that you may not have taken the necessary time to send your novel through critique partners and properly edit it.

Then there’s there obvious stuff like grammar and typos, being consistent with capitalizations. Again, this is a professional business letter. And if you can’t get it right in the query letter, it’ll leave agents and editors wondering about the editorial quality of the rest of your work.

Really, there’s a formula for writing a query letter. Here are a few resources about that formula:

www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literaryagents/pubtips-query

www.janefriedman.com/query-letters/

www.agentquery.com

www.queryshark.blogspot.com

For me personally, my writing tribe has been critical in helping me finally master my query back in the day; query letters are definitely instances where we as writers are too close.  Having a set of objective eyes is essential. They can make sure it’s stream-lined, focused, and makes sense. As with all things writing, I think critiquing others can only help you develop your skill for your own work as well, so exchanging query letters and helping one another will always be mutually beneficial 😊

Look for another craft post on the beastly synopsis soon. Happy writing!