Write Now with Francis O’Neill

How a trained historian uses their knowledge for novels

Write Now with Francis O’Neill
Photo Courtesy of Francis O’Neill

Who Are You?

My name is Francis Wallace Quale Aloysius Tyrone O’Neill. ‘Francis O’Neill’ will do. Of the rest, only Quale made it into my birth certificate or passport. For reasons too complicated to interest or explain my first three books were published as ‘Frank O’Neill.” I dislike ‘Frank,’ and since I would rather not dislike myself, this present and future books is and will be published as by ‘Francis.’

I was trained as a historian (Oxford). History is deep in my habit of thought, but I have never practiced it as a profession. For better or worse I am a professional novelist and occasional essayist. I have been a journalist, but that was long ago.

My wife and I are based in Salzburg, Austria (her delightful country) and in Florence, Tuscany. My family has messed around with Italy for well over a century (my great-grandmother was an American sculptor in Rome about 1900). I have known Florence since I was five. My home city in America is Charleston, S.C.

What Do You Write?

I write essays as and when a subject grasps me. Not all are seriously for publication. I am effectively a novelist. My novels are set in the recent past (my furthest reach backward is the very beginning of The Poet’s War, which is in 1915). The scene is usually Europe, usually southern Europe (France, Italy, Geneva). That is where I principally grew up, where I am most at home, and where my instincts seem to me sharpest. After my present work in progress, my next book may very well be American, but almost certainly ‘Southern’ — probably my own South Carolina or adopted Virginia. I would not go near a book set in California. Maybe New York, but it would be the New York I know, which is rather an old-fashioned one.

Where Do You Write?

I have had outside offices (once in Charleston, where my commute was three minutes on foot). I have written in the lovely members’ room of the New York Society Library. Mostly I write at home. In Florence I write looking down at a 16th Century formal garden (or in winter, by a huge fireplace). In Salzburg I am a little more cramped, but it works.

I write with a fountain pen into a bound, lined notebook (I particularly like Levenger’s, ‘Ledgers,’ beautiful paper for a nib and strongly bound). I write on the right hand page and leave the left for notes, amendments, jottings and what have you. I find that for ‘real’ writing only longhand and ink give the shape and voice and balance of a word (and, of course, allow for lots of spidery lines, crossing out, and reconnections). If I were much younger I might write directly onto a word-processor, but in my youth the alternatives were pen, pencil, or typewriter. I have never liked typewriters. I have heard it said that Hemmingway’s ‘new’ style came from typing. This would appear to be nonsense. Hemmingway wrote mainly by pencil (which he was quite particular about), and often standing up (his knees must have been better than mine). My present pen is a Visconti from Florence. Pelikanand Parker are both excellent. I find everything about Mont Blanc pretentious, over-priced, and over-hyped. My one Mont Blanc leaked.

Photo Courtesy of Francis O’Neill

When Do You Write?

I write in the morning. This is very nearly inviolable, and I am jealous of my mornings. (I never say, “I am not going to write this morning.” I might very well say, “Next Tuesday I’m shooting, fishing, visiting the Uffizi, whatever.”) In the late afternoon I type what I have written into a word-processor (Word, at present), which involves a little, quite a lot, a lot of editing.

I do not do ‘rough drafts’ (other than outlines, which I am notorious for straying from). What I put down on paper is the best I can do. Leaving something ‘rough’ would be physically painful. I am that way, I suppose. In my riding days, I could not quit after a less than correct jump. Certainly things get changed. Certainly things get rearranged or wholly struck out. Of The Poet’s War the original first eight chapters were deleted, by me. But a lot does stay just as it first came from the nib.

I end when I end, which is when the next matter is cloudy to me, or when it is so clear that it is better to save it to start the next day. A ‘word count’ seems to me complete lunacy, either delusional or obsessive. Anyone who tried to ‘set’ one for me would have to have courage indeed. When I am writing for periodicals, which is rare, I do respect deadlines (I’ve been an editor, and I know what ‘late writers’ can do).

Why Do You Write?

I write because…..? It is quite obviously my greatest talent. It is where my mind and spirit unfold. I was brought up in a society where literacy was highly valued, indeed expected (my ancestors in South Carolina took pride in the literacy of their journals and their essays, not at all uncommon, into law, astronomy, history). Reading was the most common entertainment. It was also a society in which story-telling was second nature and the spine of each Sunday lunch. It means I don’t punch a clock. And it lets the author advance his deepest convictions. Yes, I am slightly didactic.

How Do You Overcome Writer’s Block?

Do I suffer from writer’s block? There have been periods of a year at least when I have simply withdrawn from writing and turned to running a horse farm or hunting in Africa or qualifying as an instrument pilot or sailing the Atlantic. Yes, all of these, so quite a lot of time. Is this block, or a shift of interest? I am not sure I know. Short term ‘block’ — just can’t think of how to start the next chapter? — I usually start, contemplate, a private essay, something like that.

Bonus: What Do You Enjoy Doing When Not Writing?

At my age, what ‘do’ you love when you’re not writing tends to conflate with what ‘did’ you love. I still love fly-fishing, river or salt flats. I still love shooting (but I think I may have shot my last stag, antelope, buffalo). Skiing (Switzerland) was a true passion for years. Flying and sailing lasted longer.

Opera is certainly good for the long-haul. And chamber music. Salzburg, of course, has the magnificent annual Festspiele, of which my dear wife is honorary secretary. That is a month of glory. La Scala is not too far away. Vienna has music to burn.

And Bernini, Rubens, Rembrandt, Fragonard, Tiepolo, all gods with their courts of lesser gods.

And then books all the way from Homer to Robert Musil and Flannery O’Connor. God, does somebody want more?

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!