Kith and Kindle: Self-Publishing a Century-Old Family Story

Debut author Aileen Bartlett on piecing together a true tale of childhood in WW1 Belfast and the importance of celebrating our predecessors

English teacher Aileen Bartlett always knew she wanted to tell the story of the woman who inspired the name of her part-time cake business, Cassie’s Cake Room. And, with self-publishing taking off in recent years and inspiring writers around the world to get their books into readers’ hands more quickly, she knew exactly how she wanted to do it.

The result is Buckle My Shoe, a novel available to download on Amazon Kindle, which narrates the story of Bartlett’s grandmother, Cassie, and her aunt Alice, when they were girls. Keen to capture their story for future generations, Bartlett's digital-only debut is rooted in the real-life events of these two Belfast girls, who lived through many landmark historical events.

Describing it as 'perfect for fans of historical novels, coming-of-age tales and new Irish fiction', she tells Culture NI about her writing journey to date.

What's your writing background?

Aileen Bartlett: I’m an English teacher and a number of years ago I studied creative writing with the Open University. I’ve always wanted to write and while I’ve written short fiction in the past for my English classes and a Literacy Club I started a few years ago, this is my first novel. 

How would you describe Buckle My Shoe to readers?

Buckle My Shoe is a new and truly heart-warming story of a Belfast family changed forever by the events of the First World War. It gives readers a glimpse into the past, which focuses on the unbreakable relationship between Alice and Cassie, two young sisters at the outbreak of WW1.

Based on real-life events and vast genealogical and historical research into my family, the story follows Alice and Cassie through the most difficult period of their lives, giving a Belfast child's-eye-view of the First World War, the Easter Rising, the Somme and growing up in a busy industrial city.

Buckle new.jpg

Why did you decide to write a novel, and why was it important to you to tell this particular story?

I’ve always been drawn to true stories and I’m intrigued to know how people survived during times of real struggle. My granny and her sister, Cassie and Alice, lived their whole lives in Belfast and faced many struggles, but they were strong women and in a lot of ways, they were fearless.

When I was young we’d visit my granny, and the days Aunt Alice was there would be extra special. They would banter back and forth, calling each other ‘girl’; they’d break into song without warning and if we were lucky they’d get up out of their seats and do The Slush!

I remember being told bits and pieces about their lives and was fascinated by the history and the circumstances of their childhood. I wanted to tell their story and in the beginning, I wanted to write it for the family so that it would be preserved for future generations. It’s always good for a girl to know you have really strong women in your family.

How did you go about researching/writing the book?

I started working on Buckle My Shoe a few years ago and during the early stages I planned a short novella with about ten chapters. I spoke to family members and gathered bits and pieces of information that had been passed down through the years. The story was sketchy in places and it was really like fitting the pieces of a jigsaw together. In late 2013, after a lot of searching, I discovered that Alexander Brennan, my great-grandfather, had served with the Inniskilling Fusiliers and this sent me to the Inniskillings Museum to find more information.

Having decided to incorporate newspaper clippings from the time, I spent quite a bit of time in the Newspaper Library in Belfast, scouring through microfiche reels of the Belfast Morning NewsIrish News and the News Letter. Researching the newspapers gave me a real sense of the time. I also carried out some research in PRONI, which was absolutely fantastic and I made some great discoveries about the family there too. 

My research took me all over Belfast – from St George’s Market to Queen’s University and Botanic - and from the Poor House at Clifton Street to Milltown Cemetery. Even though I have lived my whole life in Belfast, I was trying to look at it through the eyes of Cassie and Alice.

Why did you choose self-publishing over traditional publishing?

I finished writing Buckle My Shoe last summer and while I considered self-publishing at the beginning, I thought I’d try the traditional publishing route for a few months. This is a very long, drawn-out process and this is a story I wanted to share, so I decided to self-publish through Kindle. I’ve received quite a bit of positive feedback and I’m delighted to say that it is selling quite well.

Aileen Bartlett

Author Aileen Bartlett

Declan Bartlett, my younger brother, is a technology teacher and lives in Somerset. He designed the logo for Cassie’s Cake Room and I asked him to design the cover for Buckle My Shoe too, because he’s a great artist.

What challenges did you face during the writing and pre-publication stages?

I’m a teacher in a boys’ secondary school in Belfast and, with work commitments, sometimes I had little or no time to write. So, I did all the research and wrote Buckle My Shoe in my spare time and during school holidays.

Do you think it's important for old stories like this to be recorded before they’re forgotten?

Yes, I think it’s important to share these stories and preserve them for future generations. I uncovered a fair bit of the story through my research and I wonder how much more will never be found. I think we take things for granted and we are spoilt with modern technology.

I believe it’s important to remember and celebrate the strong, courageous people who went before us and made us who we are today. This was a challenging period in our history and through all the difficulty, Belfast survived. I like to think that Belfast is a main character in the novel; a reliable friend you can count on and the place we love to call home.

In the novel and in real life, my Granny Cassie always wanted to own her own bakery. She started working part-time in a local bakery when she was in her late sixties and she loved every minute of it. A few years ago, I did a cake decorating course and family and friends started asking me to bake cakes for them. Last year, I started a part-time home bakery and decided to call it Cassie’s Cake Room after my granny. I like to think that she finally got her own bakery.

 What are your plans for the future?

At the minute, I’m putting the finishing touches to a book of recipes which accompanies Buckle My Shoe. It’s based on tried and tested family recipes and recipes that Cassie and Alice would have used during WW1. I also write short and flash fiction, which I hope to publish in a collection soon. I’ve started working on two different novels, which are both set in Belfast. One is another historical novel and the other is set in the present day.

Buckle My Shoe: The true story of a Belfast family torn apart by the Great War is now available to download from Amazon's Kindle Store.