Hi Michelle, great to be here!
1. Let's jump right in, shall we? You said on your website that you married your two loves--writing and history. I too am a history lover and writer. So I'm curious...do you believe a person must visit historical locales for research or can research of printed resources result in good--and plausible--historical fiction?
I believe that the fiction part of historical fiction is the most vital thing. If you can't keep people reading with an exciting story and engaging characters, then they won't get the benefit of those wonderful tidbits of history you have so carefully researched. So...focus on that, first and foremost. You do need historical research at early stages for many things: to decide on the characters and what their stories will be, to sketch out a compelling plot, and to work out what theme is underlying it all. But that kind of research can definitely be done from printed resources and your home base. The internet is, of course, a great source of information, but you should always follow up with books, either populist books written by credible academics, or more detailed information in academic journals. As far as visiting sites and locales after that, I think it depends on the type of historical fiction you are writing. For a detailed, hefty novel such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, where the history and politics are prominent, then of course you would need to be "on the ground" to get the detail right. But if you are writing primarily a romance, fantasy, or adventure story, where the history is more in the background, going to every single setting is not necessary. One of my heroines, Diana Gabaldon, did not visit Scotland before she wrote her epic-selling Outlander series. But that is because history was not the main focus of the book - the romance and adventure story came first. I think it also depends on the type of writer you are. I am very visual, so I really needed not just to see the settings for my books (the misty hills of Scotland and Ireland) but use all my other senses, as well. I now know what the peat bogs of Scotland smell like, what the air tastes like, what red stags really sound like when they are in rut, and what it feels like to sit inside a roundhouse or touch otter fur. I like putting these vivid impressions into my books, but not every writer is like that.
2. Many of the books you mention loving are also among my favorites, especially The Mists of Avalon. Do you believe that the myths and legends that these books are based upon contain some historical truth?
With my archaeologist hat on, I know there isn't any proof about the existence of King Arthur, or the Irish legends upon which The Raven Queen and my other books are based. But the romantic, mystical part of me (which definitely dominates) says that any myth so enduring and pervasive must have been based on a kernal of truth. In Celtic lands, history was passed on orally by bards. They would have focused on the adventures of heroes, especially those who were lauded ancestors of their current lords, because that would increase a ruler's reputation and power. So heroic deeds performed by real tribal ancestors would have been retold over and over, then embellished until they became the myths and legends we know today. I doubt that made-up stories could have had enough resonance in those early times to be passed on continually for two thousands years. Stories about a member of the tribe, which make everyone feel proud and triumphant, are more likely to be remembered by subsequent generations. So yes, I absolutely love to believe that somewhere in the past there was a real Queen Maeve, and I am bringing her to life again!
3. I am also one of those people who feel drawn to the Celtic culture and lands. What do you think is behind the draw of the Celts?
That is a very good question. When I correspond with readers, they say the same things that I felt before I started writing. I call us "The Lost Tribe". The Celts believed in reincarnation, so I like to think we have been reborn into other cultures, scattered all over the world, but we came from one place, spiritually. The landscape is part of it - it is every bit as beautiful, harsh, challenging, misty and magical as the Celtic legends themselves. History and myth oozes from the soil. There are other things we love about the Celts. Their veneration of beauty and soul, imbuing emotion and spirit into everything they made, from the handle of a pot to a sword scabbard. Their unassailable pride and outrageous bravery as they struggled so heroically to stand free against the invading Romans. Their myths, which are so beautiful and so tragic they hurt to read. Their respect for women: in their stories they are as brave and important as men, and their goddesses were more powerful than their gods. Most of all, I think aspects of their spiritual beliefs, such as we can glean, are appealing in this fast, technological, uncaring world. They saw spirit and soul in trees, springs, lakes, caves and animals. Their gods were so close they walked the earth with humans, hidden by an invisible veil. Every part of their life was ritual, everything was about paying respect to natural forces. I imagine that to them (leaving aside some of the brutal realities), the entire world was a mysterious, magical tapestry that enfolded them. Sigh...
4. You mention Braveheart (my favorite film). Many people have made a fuss about its historical inaccuracies. I am of the camp that believes that although all historical fiction--movies and books--have their embellishments, sometimes, for a good story, certain liberties have to be taken. Otherwise, we would always be reading non-fiction. What is your opinion on this subject?
I totally agree with you. The only historical fiction that ever interested me was when it was wrapped up with exciting adventures, or a wonderful love story, or imbued with some fantasy elements, such as my books. My husband, in contrast, read non-fiction history. The person who retained all the historical information...was me! Because the history was woven in with things that excited me as a reader, I absorbed it so much better than he did. He was wading through something he found dry and boring, and his mind switched off. I learned so much from novels! Think how many people now know about William Wallace and the Scottish uprising, whereas before Braveheart they probably didn't know, or care. Mel put a human (and sexy) face on something that was previously hidden in history books. The vast majority of people need that personal connection with history, to see someone's face and root for them through danger. That's where historical fiction comes in. The tricky part is knowing how much is real, so you don't form your view of history from the wrong facts. I try to put as much of that guidance as I can in my author's note, because it's important. And as a reader, don't take something in a novel as gospel - do your own research. Then, that novel will have got you reading non-fiction, and finding out more. It's a win-win. So, I am all for it, and have no snobbery in that regard!
5. Your new book, The Raven Queen, is about the legendary Celtic Queen Maeve. What made you decide to write about Maeve and how difficult was she to research? Any interesting tidbits you can share with us here (without spoiling the book, that is)?
When the time came for new book ideas after the Dalriada Trilogy, I realized I had always been in love with the beautiful, tragic Irish myth of Deirdre of the Sorrows, which became my previous book The Swan Maiden. As soon as I decided on Deirdre, I realized that Maeve would be a perfect foil for the second book (they both stand alone, but their plots intersect). Deirdre was similar to my other heroines: beautiful maidens with a strong spiritual life as seers and priestesses. Maeve appealed because, not only was she unlike my previous heroines, she was unlike just about any other woman in myth or history. She is a ruling queen in her own right (not because of a husband), and she is a warrior (my first girl-warrior!) She is older and more experienced than the other women I have written about, and all this made her totally fascinating. She is complex, and has so many sides to her: a mother, a ruler, a lover, a damaged soul, a fighter. So juicy! There was not one myth I could research about her, as there was with Deirdre, so I had much more leeway as a writer. I did follow the basic plot of The Tain, which is the great Irish heroic epic also called The Cattle Raid of Cooley, but she only crops up in snippets of other legends, so I was able to delve into her in a way the myths never do. The most interesting thing about her, that really got me passionate about writing her, was the history behind the Irish myths. Originally, the stories were passed down by word of mouth. The legends were not written down until many hundreds of years after they were created. The only literate people in Ireland in medieval times were monks, tucked away in monasteries. They were establishing a new order in terms of religion and political power, and stories about a powerful, sensual, take-no-prisoners pagan woman was a threat to that new order. There is a theory that she was originally a goddess, and early writers "demoted" her to a mortal, fallible woman. One clue is that she was said to have had many royal husbands, which could be an echo of the practice of a king "marrying" the local goddess of the land to ensure her blessing. Even if she was human, the scribes exaggerated what they saw as abominable traits in a woman, and so she is portrayed as a bloodthirsty war-monger, sexually promiscuous, and a heartless manipulator of men. However, even after this hatchet job, her strength, intelligence and bravery still shone through the original myths. Grasping at that. I just knew I had to resurrect her from this misogyny, and re-imagine her as she really was, without the bad press. Of course, I needed to roughly follow the myth, so I had to work out how to have her commit questionable actions that would give rise to these terrible accusations, while keeping her sympathetic. I wanted readers to feel they were seeing the "woman behind the myth", so they could understand why history treated her this way. And of course, to do that I had to give her a heart, and make her realize that love, of herself, primarily, and of a man and family, was the one great power she had always underestimated.
6. Now, I'd like to ask you just a few impromptu questions about favorites. Hope it's okay?
Favorite historical fiction novel of all time? of the moment?
For sheer writing beauty, I will veer away from the Celts and Mists of Avalon and
say Year of Wonders, about the plague. That book is a masterclass for any HF novelist, I think.
Favorite historical film?
Sorry to copy you, but got to be Braveheart. Love, love, love.
Favorite Celtic music and/or artist?
Oooh...my husband Alistair? (He sings Celtic traditional songs - go to my website http://www.juleswatson.com/ to listen to one of them!) Seriously, the uilleann pipes of Davy Spillane. Youtube his song Caoineadh Cu Chulainn. Shivers! I also love the soundtrack to Braveheart, and the band Capercaillie were my introduction to Celtic music when I first went to Scotland.
Thank you so much, Jules, for answering my questions today. I'm currently reading The Raven Queen and enjoying it immensely!
Wonderful! Thanks for having me!
Jules is the author of the new novel, The Raven Queen. Her other novels include The Swan Maiden and The Dalriada Trilogy (The White Stag, The Dawn Stag, and The Boar Stone/Song of the North). You can read more about Jules and her work AND get advice on writing at her WEBSITE.
Watch for my review of The Raven Queen coming this Friday.