This story was longlisted for the 2016 Bath Short Story Award.


Olivia Kiernan

The driver keeps the horse steady. You collect your hat and fix it neatly to your head. A tuck at the back. A sweep of finger and thumb at the front. A breath. Your hand grips the worn canvas strap of your bag. You straighten. Soldier! Your foot finds the pavement but a thread holds you back, caught between the cart and a button on your uniform pocket. The horse moves away. Snap. The button shoots into the road. You are home.

            You’ve not told them you’re coming. You tell yourself you wanted to surprise. The truth sits somewhere in the heat across the small of your back and the stinking sweat gathering under your arms.

            You are moving down the single street. A group of children are kicking ball against the old barber shop. They seem like you might know them. The ball slaps against a rectangle drawn in chalk on the wall. Shoot! Goal! Shouts go up into the air like rifle fire. Your heels hit the pavement too hard; the ground rising to meet your boots. Hand over head, scramble through the noise. Avoid the barbed wire. Catch your breath.

            You lift your head from your knees. Stand Soldier! Hand over thumping heart. You are a foreign entity, a child walking through his toy village. A giant invasion. Both invisible and loud, crashing through the quiet, every movement tainting safe memories, safe futures with pain. The contrast is the killer.

            You seek out the neat skyline of the village, a skyline that’s both alien and familiar. Your gaze settles on the proud crown of the chestnut at the centre of the green. It seems that you spent all your life under the boughs of that tree. Seven. You won Deco Reilly’s prize conker. Ten. You climbed to the second branch; it cost you a broken arm and a chipped tooth. You touch your tongue to the sharp edge. Comfort. You are still here. Fifteen. Hail storm and a sweet, hot kiss from Flora Mullins.

            Mrs. Byrne’s nose is against the butcher’s window and there are faces coming towards you from across the road. Faces that you recognise, that you once smiled at, bantered with. It feels as if you are looking at them from a long way aways. As if you’re the one peering through a murky window.

Shur look who it is? Home at last. Isn’t it well for ye? Does your Mammy know yet?

            I don’t think so.

            Oh, she’ll be thrilled. Aren’t you the lucky one? Not an injury about ye.

            No injuries at all, Mrs. Byrne.

You are shrinking. Peeling apart from the inside, sucking inwards.

            Lucky. Fortunate. Poor divils. Let me shake your hand, son.

Your face smiles, you can feel the hinges of your mouth working, the nuts and bolts of your neck. The damp squeeze of your hand. Shake. Nod. Smile. You are already moving away.

            I’d best get going. She might have the tea ready.

            And you remember those words. The past is resurrected in front of you. Like a favourite coat or a sweetheart’s embrace, it closes around your chest. You’ve said those words many times. She’ll have the tea ready. Comfort. Home. Warmth. But then nostalgia dissolves, leaving behind the cold sludge of fear; a damp, hollow, chill. You are ruined you think, then banish the thought from your mind.

            Your eyes lift high to the curve of the countryside, where in the evening shadow the cross from St. Anthony’s church seems to project into the darkening sky from the top of the hill. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Lord save me.

            The peak of Molloy’s house is at the end of the road. You remember it as grand. You painted the eaves a dark blue four summers ago. Sixteen. Shirt off, even when it rained, the hard rung of the ladder pressing through your boots. Shy glances through the window at their bedroom; rose quilted with four wide, fat pillows. You had fantasised about resting your cheek on them, pushing your face into the cool lavender-scented down. You try to conjure up the desire now but it flops over in your mind.

            Three weeks ago you held a rare picture in your hands. The slimy, sagging walls of the trench pressed at your back as you stared at your home. Your village. Your family. You could not make your eyes believe them real. Ma and Da in the doorway, arms gathering children like a cherished bouquet between them.

            Your ma’s head is bent towards you and your face is upturned in response, a defiant scowl on your brow. Nine. A man from the local rag points the camera. You want to play football. You do not want to be still. You don’t smile. Even though it would have come without trying; without directing your lips over your teeth. An easy smile that would have lifted your cheeks and shone in your eyes. Click.

            At the door, you clear your throat. Emotion is squeezing across your chest. Spine poker straight. You lift your hand, form a fist and go to knock but fear clings to your elbow; pulls your arm back. Don’t touch. There is sweat stinging the rims of your eyes. Or tears. The door blurs. You blink. The war rages against your temples. Reality seems like it’s sifting away, as if with the first strike of your knuckles, your home will collapse into a heap of sand then drift off on a breeze.

            You glance back from where you’ve come with a strong sense of longing. You can’t want to go back? You don’t. Run. Shoot. Shiver. You don’t. But it’s sank into the soft parts of you, made you deformed, filled you with horror, terror and shame; secret monsters of war that wake you at night drowning in sweat and piss. You struggle to find the parts of you not shaped by panic. A wedge of flesh or an unoccupied cavern between the angles of your skeleton untouched by the sight of blood-stained mud, or shrivelled by the dying moans of Paddy Tierney; the whimpering sleep of Jimmy Sullivan, the stench of your own foot rot and the acrid stink of gun powder. Somewhere between heart beats, you feel it. Beneath your shoulder blades. A shiver. A chance. You. It is such a vulnerable smudge of hope, it makes you nervous.

            The door is opening. It sticks then shudders inwards. Against the gloom of the living room, she’s standing. Hand pressed over closed mouth; fingers bent white against her chin. You search for signs of change first. She is smaller or you are bigger. Her hands drop. Palms sliding over apron.

            Hi Ma.

Her lips twitch.

            Your Daddy’s at work.

            I know.

Your eyes are stuck on hers. Held. Locked. Safe. There are tiny flickers of movement in her gaze as if she is cataloguing your hurt. You can feel your insides curling around that vulnerable particle of flesh.

            Her hand moves from her side. White flash. Blood rush. You flinch. Head down, Solider.

            Welcome home, son.

The cool of her palm is soothing against your hot cheek.

            You are being led inside. Each step brings you further into before. Five. Sitting on the icy floor, new shoes. The bunny runs round the tree. Jumps in the hole. Close it up tight. Twelve. Loading the aga with turf. A perfect imprint of the handle branded into the pale blue skin of your forearm. Sixteen.

            Doesn’t he look smashin’ now in his uniform?

            Ah, that he does. You’ll take care now, son.

            I will yeah, Ma. Don’t worry.

There is tea on the table. A half loaf, a pot of jam and a cup of pale brown tea; milky with half a sugar. You remember.

            Let me take a look at you.

You are still as stone.

            Her hands cup your face; fingers trembling against temples. Your skin aches, your breath trips. You reach up to settle her touch. To show her you’re okay. Be a man. Get up, goddammit. Fire! A burst of air spits through your lips. Your teeth bump together and you feel a sharp pinch at the back of your tongue. Panic rises through your feet, your guts twist and tighten, pull high under your ribs. Your ma is a watery presence before you but her hands are sure and firm against your skin.

            Tis alright, son. You’re alright.

            Cool hands glide down your arms. A tug on the cuff. A sweep over the shoulders. You are not sure when you came to be sitting. The chair feels too narrow, the seat too low. You do not fit.

            We’ll fix that, shall we? I don’t have an exact match, but nearly is next to there, isn’t it son?

The thread from your pocket is captured between her finger and thumb. You’re nearly there. Nearly here.

            Yes, Ma.

She spills a number of buttons into her palm and selects a brown knobble of wood.

            She hums as she works. The tune weaves under your arms, around your back. Holds you in the past. Eleven. Ma’s lips on your forehead. You are ill, lying under hot, sticky sheets; at sea in your childhood bed. Your friends call out from the green, laughter streaming in through the window.

            You are not sure when thought becomes words, but from nowhere you are speaking.

            Will I feel myself again, Ma?

She wraps the excess thread around her index finger and tugs. Snap. When she looks up, her eyes are pools of compassion. Your mouth seals tight. She twists the button, adjusts it so that it rests neatly against the stiff fabric.

            A different self, love. A different self.




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How to Write a Novel 7: The Truth, The Lies And The Empathy


“Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

Stephen King. On Writing


To have your reader empathise with your character is a job well done. There is nothing better for a reader than to be moved to smile, laugh out loud or cry when reading a novel. To write with some degree of empathy the writer needs to come from truth. Be convincing, take your grain of truth then build on it with all the embellishment you need to take that reader right into your prose. Make them wince with pain when the knife twists, make them feel the brush of wind on their cheeks, the sting of hot tea on their tongue or the soft hazy scent of lavender on a warm spring day.

All writing has some truth in it and I don’t mean simply well researched facts. I mean truth that comes from the writer. From their emotional experiences: their past, their outlook on life; their expectations of others. At the most basic level this truth relies on writer and reader empathy. The writer’s job is to make the reader empathise with the character and to do this the writer must dig deep into their reservoirs of experience, their truth.

For example, you might not feel as strongly as your character does about botany but you’ve felt strongly about another past-time. You know what it’s like to feel passionate about something that others might not ‘get’. Even down to how you imagine a hedgerow smells on a damp summer’s evening will lend truth to your narrative. Maybe you recall walking on such an evening after some grievous life event. Did that colour your experience? How does it feel to be in a place that’s at odds with your emotions?

There is a deeper truth. A truth that comes from a writer’s perception of pain, love, happiness, sorrow or hope. There isn’t anyone who has not experienced something of each of these emotions and the writer needs to tap into those memories, syphon away the emotion to be used in their writing even if their character’s experiences and actions are completely different. Somewhere underneath all the drama in a narrative is a thin bedrock of truth.


Follow on Twitter: @LivKiernan


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How To Write a Novel: Episode 6

Bang head jpg

Have you taken a peek back at what you’ve written? Are you horrified by the lack of cohesion, the overuse of the same verbs, the same adjectives? Are you cringing at the unhealthy scattering of cliché that has erupted across your prose?

Fear not! Look beyond your rough first draft. A few months ago, you had no story. Your idea was a tiny breath of air against a hurricane, a grain of sand in a desert storm; another lost dream. Now, beneath the your rough draft, there is a story. You have a character! You may even have a complex plot twisting across your page. One thing I have learned over the years is that there are many different ways to write a novel.

Maybe you have been labouring over the first few pages. Maybe you can’t bring yourself to move on with the story until each sentence is right. Some might tell you that this is a dangerous way to compose your novel, that getting mired in perfection so early on will stifle your creative flow and prevent you from ever completing your first draft. And this might be true but maybe, for you, this is your way forward. This is your creative flow.

Zadie Smith writes one draft of her novels, she edits aggressively as she progresses so that when she types those words: THE END, she means it, there is no going back for further editing. However, Ernest Hemingway said: “The first draft of everything is shit.’ And who are we to argue with his experience?

As I said, every artist has their way. The only rules you have to follow are your own. Even with my own writing, I find that some scenes require detailed plans and rewriting, others come fast and finished. So don’t sweat it if you’re staring at a hot mess when you look at your growing novel. Conversely, don’t worry if you are still drawing out your first chapter, getting each sentence just right before moving on. You are writing to no one’s rules but your own. I’ll leave you with a great quote from W. Somerset Maugham:

“There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

 On Twitter: @LivKiernan

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How To Write A Novel: Episode 5


One of my favourite creative gurus and writers, Liz Gilbert, suggests that in order for the ‘Big Magic’ of creativity to hit us we have to be open to it. She postulates that ideas are not mined from our subconscious or conscious but rather exist in the universe; glittering entities that choose their maker.

Those who have spent significant time creating works of art and capturing moments of inspiration will find this idea non-too-strange. It’s not unknown for an author to struggle with a character or a plot point for hours, days or weeks only for a solution to strike us in midst of a mundane task or at three in the morning. Don’t all epiphanies arrive this way? Wasn’t Archimedes in the bath when he had his Eureka moment? Isaac Newton was relaxing under a tree when inspiration literally struck him on the head, in the form of an apple.

Liz_GilbertOn BBC’s Desert Island Discs, song writer, Noel Gallagher describes his creative process similarly: “If I think about it too much then I’ll ruin the magic (speaking about creativity). I still believe that there’s someone up there just dropping ‘songs’ all over and if I’m not ready to catch them, Chris Martin will get them.”

Gilbert expands on this idea, saying that some ideas will stay with us for a while but if we’re not ready for them, they move on to the next willing artist.

So this week’s novel writing advice is to carry a notebook, tuck it in your handbag, your pocket, your shoe! You could use your phone but I believe there is something that encourages the creative centres in your mind when you move your hands, particularly when writing or drawing. When that bolt of inspiration strikes, jot down a few trigger words that will lead you back to your brilliant idea later. Catch those creative ideas and stir up some Big Magic.

Happy Writing!

On Twitter: @LivKiernan

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How to Write a Novel: Episode 4


Making the most of your setting can really lift your story. But your narrative shouldn’t be weighted down with super lengthy, trudging descriptions. There’s a time for detail and there’s a time for broad strokes.

BrusselsA few words of detail can really lift a description and put your reader firmly in your characters’ world. For example, if you’ve started out your scene with a hot day, don’t forget to have your character react to this throughout your scene. Sometimes it’s all too easy to set your character up in an environment and leave all the work there. But if your character is moving through a hot day, they should feel that; they should sweat, squint at the sun, delight in a light breeze. IMG_Ireland It can sometimes be difficult to describe your setting with freshness and originality. Photographs can really help you when re-imagining your setting. Next time you’re out for a walk, take the time to snap some shots of the hedgerows, the riverbanks, the city streets. Don’t be afraid to use real places to ignite your imagination and help you really nail your setting.


Follow on Twitter: @LivKiernan

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How To Write A Novel: Episode 3


At this point in your novel writing career, you’ll have undoubtedly settled on who your story is about. Your main character can be shy, bold, confident, anything you want them to be but there is one thing that they absolutely must be and that is memorable. Think of the great books that you’ve read, it’s often the case that you can’t recall exactly what happened in the plot but readers never forget who a book was about.

character_see_worldYour job is to ensure your character is original and exciting enough to be absorbing, even if they’re doing something as mundane as eating a packet of crisps. If you’re not convinced a scene about crisp eating can be riveting, read Ian McEwan’s Solar.

To get started, try out a simple writing exercise. Have your character tip out their pockets or their handbag. What items fall across the table? Do any of these items have a story to tell? How did your character come by them?

A simple exercise like this can open the doors of your character to you. Remember your character’s actions depend not only on who they are but also how they’d like to be and where they’d like to end up in life. They’re no different than us in this, and like us, depending on the situation, one of these drives will take precedence over the other.

Think of how our character views their setting. An archaeologist might look on a landscape with very different eyes than an architect. Think of how they might react in scenes of confrontation. Do they jump in, or do they back off? Consider deeply how a character views the world you’ve created, with every scene and you’ll soon have a three dimensional protagonist taking over your story.

Happy Writing!

Follow me on Twitter: @LivKiernan

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How To Write a Novel: Episode 2

start_Image_BlogHave you started yet? 2016 is not waiting for anyone so if you’ve been hanging back, thinking that novel is going to write itself – don’t!

A person gave me some very plain and solid advice this week. They said:

‘If you need something to change, something’s got to change.’

I know it seems simple but this statement came at me at just the right time and it was like an epiphany. Of course! If we want our lives to change, we have to change something. Wishing and willing are not going to cut it. So if you’ve been putting off getting that novel started, now’s the time to make that change in your life and get going.

Once you’ve got some ideas down and have begun the exciting process of developing your story (see previous post here), you might want to choose how you tell your story. A lot of writers reach straight for a first person narrative (e.g. I threw the book, I wrote the book) in the first instance. This skin might feel more comfortable but there are certain traps that can suck your story down before it’s started. Namely, too much introspection and not enough action. One of the safe options is to choose a third person narrative (He said, She said) and let your story trickle through the mouth of your narrator, who will manage all that the reader hears, sees and importantly, believes. If you’re nuts, write your novel in 2nd person (You walk, you talk). It can be done and very beautifully, so if you feel up to the task don’t hold back. One of the most enjoyable books I read last year, was written in 2nd person: The Gift of Looking Closely by A L Brookes. So anything is possible.

My feeling is, that if you’re starting out, indulge yourself and reach for what feels natural to you. This is often the best way to explore your unique writing voice. This ‘journey’ is a long, learning process and creativity shouldn’t be hemmed in by rules. Besides, you’ll pick up enough rules along the way without imposing them on your writing from the get-go. Revel in the newness of your novel and let that energy onto the page.

Have you already written a novel? If you are further down your writing path you might like these posts: 

Straight Talking Tips on Writing Dialogue

Show, don’t tell. Is this the worst advice given to writers?

What is Writer’s Voice? And How can a Writer Develop Theirs?

On Twitter: @LivKiernan

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