Joe Joyce talks The Third Way: historical fiction

Joe Joyce's gripping historical thriller Echoland is being launched in Hodges Figgis this Wednesday at 6.30pm with Conor Brady (author and former editor of The Irish Times). As a journalist, writer and playwright Joe has lots to say on the subject of writing – read his take on historical fiction... 

I'm sure that the thought occurs to most journalists now and then that it'd be so much easier to make up whatever story (i.e. journo speak for a report or article) you're trying to write. Not to mention more interesting. Instead of waiting for meetings to end, communiqués to issue, or chasing someone who'd rather stick needles in their eyes than talk to you.

Echoland cover, Joe JoyceContrary to what some may think, very few journalists ever give into the impulse – in my experience. Instead, we think of turning our hands to fiction, where you can write anything you like, where the bad guys as well as the good guys will do your bidding, and everything will come to a conclusion, whether that ending be satisfying, redemptive or just realistic – where there's a totally blank page/screen to fill as you wish.

But there's the rub – the blank page or screen.

There's nothing quite so intimidating, even if you already know the outline of your story and the characters who'll people it. What if you take a false step now that may not become apparent until you've written 90,000 words? Or realise, too late, that the first page – indeed the first sentence – has set a tone for the whole work that is all wrong? It's not the book you intended to write at all. And, anyway, it's never going to turn out to be as perfectly formed as it was when the idea first came to you at 4.00 a.m. on a sleepless night.

Maybe it's better to leave it blank and phone somebody about a real story they might like to share for tomorrow's paper. Or just click on what's happening in the world.

But there is a third way between journalism and fiction – non-fiction books – with definite advantages over both. The story is already there; all you need do is flesh out the details and uncover some new ones. You can spend oodles of time doing research and talking to people, many of whom, surprisingly, will turn out to be much more willing to meet you than if you were working for tomorrow's newspaper.

But there's still the problem of actually getting words onto blank paper or screen, as distinct from the copious notes and photocopies that are now all over laptops, desktops, iPads and phones – as well as the crucial bits of information that never made it into e-land but remain on the backs of envelopes. Which, I could have sworn, were in that jacket pocket ...

I've bounced from one to the other of these mediums over the past few decades, from daily reporting for The Irish Times and The Guardian to non-fiction books (The Boss and Blind Justice with Peter Murtagh) to fiction (Off the Record and The Trigger Man), back to journalism (The Sunday Tribune) and onto non-fiction again (The Guinnesses), with a diversion into plays (hey, do you know how few words can make up a full length play?).

They all have their pluses and minuses. Daily journalism is great fun and provides instant gratification. Non-fiction can also be fun, with slower gratification but a longer shelf life. Fiction is the most demanding but also the most satisfying, creating a self-contained world in which, hopefully, a few readers will lose themselves in for some enjoyable hours.

I think I've finally found the perfect synthesis of these mediums – historical fiction. You can do as much research as you like, talk to as many experts as will talk to you, and when you tire of all that, or find yourself in the inevitable research dead-end, you can just make it up.

Welcome to Echoland ...

Piqued your interest? Why not come along to the launch on Wednesday 14 August.  

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You can also find out more about his book on the Liberties Press website or check out a fantastic review of Echoland from Saturday's Independent