Romantic historical fiction series set in 13th Century Wales

Today, I’m happy to share with you a book review from my local paper, the East Oregonian.  I’d leave the link, but only subscribers can read it, so I thought it would be fun to share it with you in full …

Book Review of the After Cilmeri Series

by Renee Struthers

Pendleton author Sarah Woodbury has been living for the past several years in 13th century Wales — in her mind, at least.

Her five-volume “After Cilmeri” series, self-published in 2011 and 2012, follows Marged Lloyd and her children across time to medieval Wales, where they change the life of Llywelyn, the last Prince of Wales, and the history of Great Britain in a world parallel to our own.

The series is classed as romantic historical fiction, but these stories aren’t the bodice-rippers that generally come to mind with that genre. The books are suitable for teens as well as adults. Love stories abound, of course, but each of these books is also a history lesson on the realities of life and the political climate of the 13th century. Sex is alluded to instead of being a central theme, and while people do die (quite a few people, in fact) the violence is not gory or gratuitous.

Wales, at just about 150 miles long and about 50 miles wide, is a tiny region that has long been difficult to conquer and hold due to the rugged terrain and the rebellious nature of its inhabitants. A large part of the storyline is Llywelyn’s difficulty in holding on to his own land, forever betrayed by the Norman lords who hold the Marche, a no-man’s land between Wales and England, and his own people seeking wealth and power by colluding with them — including his own brother.

I must admit the continual backstabbing (both literal and figurative) and riding the length and breadth of Wales either defending castles or escaping from capture left me exhausted, but also kept me glued to the story. When almost every character is a potential traitor, new twists are always around the corner and the fortunes of a nation can turn on a dime.

Can a 14-year-old boy from 21st century Pennsylvania overcome centuries of strife and forge unlikely bonds between mortal enemies? Can three headstrong, independent modern women be a force for change in a time when women were, more often than not, seen and not heard? And will the legendary King Arthur return to recreate a united Britain? In an alternate world where Llywelyn survives the attempt on his life that vanquished Wales as a nation for more than 700 years, anything is possible.

My only gripe with the series is that, at the end of the last book, I said to myself, “Wait a minute — things were just getting rolling!” Woodbury assures me that new books with fresh storylines are already in the works.

Sarah Woodbury received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Washington in 1995. In addition to the “After Cilmeri” series she has written several other works of historical fiction and fantasy, with sales over 100,000 in the last two years. All her work is available at Amazon.com (both as printed books and ebooks), Barnes and Noble, iTunes and everywhere ebooks are sold, or you may contact her via her website, www.sarahwoodbury.com.

Writing Historical Fantasy: a Conversation with Jules Watson

Guest Post by Anna Elliott:  A Conversation with Jules Watson.   

Jules Watson writes amazing, lyric historical fantasy set in the Dark Age Celtic world.  Her newest book, The Raven Queen, will be out next month.  And she has an absolutely fantastic historical fiction workshop on her website.  If you write historical fiction or fantasy, go check it out immediately, it’s one of the best resources for writers in the genre I’ve seen.  http://juleswatson.com/fictionworkshop.html 

Where do your ideas for a book start?  With a known historical fact or myth?  A ‘scene’ that pulls you into a story? A particular character?  Or maybe none of those?

The Raven Queen and my previous book The Swan Maiden were inspired by the heroines of two ancient Irish myths. For The Swan Maiden, I had always adored the Celti story of Deirdre of the Sorrows, which is tragic, but so beautiful, too. Queen Maeve in The Raven Queen just sounded fascinating – a battle-queen who started the most famous war in Irish myth. Though in the original tales Deirdre and Maeve were very different  – Deirdre a hapless pawn, Maeve a bloodthirsty ruler – I immediately saw their similarities. They were both at the mercy of a harsh male world, subject to men’s desire and lust for control. They both broke free to forge lives of their own and wield their own power. I could imagine two complementary stories about women taking charge of their fates and following their hearts against immense odds.  My first series, The Dalriada Trilogy, was more inspired by history. I wanted to write books about the ancient Celts, and the Roman invasions in the first century AD provided a driver for the plot, plus lots of baddies to fight against my goodies.

All the research involved in writing historical fiction/fantasy can be overwhelming to contemplate when you first begin.  Firstly, how do you recommend the beginning historical novelist start the research process?  And secondly, how do you know you’ve done enough research and are ready to start writing?

Start with the general, and narrow down to the specific. If you dive in too far, you might drown in academic papers and never write anything. Also, you might do a whole load of research you don’t use. I studied archaeology at college, so had a general knowledge of the Celts. Once I decided to set my books in Scotland, I got more specific with research, narrowing it to the UK. Once I decided on the Roman invasion, I went after specific information about the Roman Empire and Scotland at that time. How much? Only enough to get an idea of the era, main characters and plot – then start writing, or you will procrastinate. Research triggers off plot ideas, and you do need to know the “daily life” of your characters, so that you don’t break the flow of a scene to check what food your heroine grabs while rushing out the door. However, once past that baseline…jump in! Get going on a great plot and engaging characters, because that will make the book a success. This saves time, too, because as you write, you discover the facts you need to finish a scene, and won’t get stuck on irrelevant details.  The characters should not be actors in a play, walking about your beautiful, perfectly realized setting. History can drive the plot from underneath, but historical details should only be there to support an emotional roller-coaster of a story.

How do you set about creating characters who are authentic to your historical world?

Confession…I don’t try to! My previous characters sprang from themes I wanted to explore about love, lust for power, or forgiveness. One reason I wrote about first-century Celts is that we know so little about them, so I could (mostly) make them behave as I wanted them to. I therefore made my first heroine Rhiann a noblewoman and priestess so she had enough freedom to get into some risky and exciting scrapes. I molded her to fit my book, not history. In the Irish books, I did need to work around what is set down in myth. In the old tales, Maeve from The Raven Queen is a warrior, but a real woman would not be as physically strong as the men around her. To believably win sword-fights I had to make her rely on her intelligence and agility instead. She is a ruling queen, but that would have been rare in the Celtic world, so I had to figure out good reasons why her people might choose her. This is not as easy in well-recorded time periods, but the most compelling characters flout the rules, anyway. Rebellion and conflict maketh a plot – toeing the line does not.

Your books have such a rich wealth of historical detail and yet completely avoid the dreaded info-dump.  How do you manage the balance?

Thanks! The thing to remember is that you are an author, not a historian. You are hoping to entertain people with a great yarn, so the story comes first. Despite your reams of research, only put historical details in if they advance the plot or develop the characters. Keep the pacing up and slip bits and pieces of historical detail in among exciting action. Have your heroine stomp into her father’s chamber and get involved in a terrible argument, whereupon she grabs a paperweight off his desk and throws it at the window. Her mother puts down whatever she is doing and gets up, nervously smoothing her dress. The focus is on the argument, but as your heroine storms about you get to describe what she is wearing, what her father has on his desk, and even what kind of windows they have (glass she shatters; shutters the paperweight bounces off; or stone openings through which the paperweight soars?).

You also show your readers, without pausing to describe them, that your heroine is fiery and unafraid of her father, and that her mother is timid. Take the minimum amount of historical information readers need to engage with the story, and drip feed it in when something else is happening, so they hardly notice: they just absorb.

Celtic Britain is one of those periods about which we know comparatively little for certain, which means that the historical novelist is forced to fill in the blanks at least bit.   What strikes me most about your books is how seamlessly you blend the historical facts with your own expansion of the known details.  How do you pull that off? How do you make that leap from the often scanty historical and archaeological record to a fully-realized historical world that lives and breathes?

The key is to immerse myself fully in the details of the Celtic world I am evoking.  In every scene, if I can see, smell, taste, and hear everything around my characters, then history and fiction will merge – because I believe it, the reader will. If you can’t “feel” that, then you may need to do more research, or try another era. I also use logic to extrapolate from fact to fiction. For example, in poor, rural areas of Scotland, the way of life did not change much from the first to the nineteenth centuries. A native herb used by a farmer’s wife on an isolated Scottish island in the nineteenth century was most likely used by ancient Celtic housewives, too. Of course, in the UK, some plants and animals are native, and others came with the Romans, Saxons, Normans, or later peoples. You need to know those things when working backwards, but you have more information than you think you do. There are only so many ways to skin a cat – or a sheep!

Writing Historical Fantasy: A Magical Balance

Today, Anna Elliott, the author of the wonderful Twilight of Avalon (Touchstone:  May 2009) is here to talk about blending history and fantasy when writing historical fiction.  Welcome, Anna!

——

Ever since I wrote Twilight of Avalon, based on the Trystan and Isolde legend in the larger cycle of Arthurian tales, I’ve often been asked for thoughts on the enduring appeal of the King Arthur story. Why should that legend, perhaps more than any other in Western culture, have captured our imaginations for more than a millennium, have engendered countless retellings and reworkings of the old tale?

The answers are legion, of course. But for me, the unique enchantment of the Arthurian legends lies in their blend of fantasy and history. The world of the legends is a recognizably historical one, part of our own past. Many scholars have explored the possibility of a real, historic Arthur–who, if he existed, was most likely a Celtic warlord of the mid fifth century, a warrior who led a triumphant stand against the incursions of Saxons onto British shores. Trystan, whose existence as a real historic figure is suggested by a memorial stone in Cornwall, was likely a roughly contemporary warrior, possibly the son of a Cornish petty king, whose cycle of tales were eventually absorbed into the legends growing up around Arthur and his war band.

And yet the world of the Arthur tales is one steeped in magic, as well. It’s a world filled with the voices of prophecy, with enchanted swords and Otherworldly maidens and the magical Isle of Avalon, where Arthur lies in eternal sleep, healing of his wounds, waiting to ride once more in Britain’s greatest hour of need.

That combination of historical truth with the wonderful potential for magic was what most of all drew me to the Arthur stories when I first studied them in college.  And it was what delighted me about living in my own version of the Arthurian world while writing Twilight of Avalon and the next two books in the trilogy.

The fifth century, when scholars agree a historic Arthur might have lived, was a brutal, chaotic time in Britain. Roman Britain had crumbled; Rome’s legions had been withdrawn from this far-flung outpost of the empire, leaving the country prey to invading Pictish and Irish tribes from the west and north and to Saxon invasions from the east. It was in many ways also a crucible in which the British identity and sense of place was forged. And it is against this backdrop that Arthur appears, a war hero who led–or at least may have led–a victorious campaign against the invaders, driving them back for perhaps the space of a man’s lifetime and so inspiring the roots of a legend that still captures our imaginations today.

I was fascinated by this possibility of a real King Arthur, and fascinated by the world in which he might have lived. So I decided to set my story there, to make my particular Arthurian world grounded in what scraps of historical fact we know of Dark Age Britain. And yet I wanted, too, to honor the original stories and their magical, legendary world–a world that after centuries of telling and re-telling, is as real in its own way as historical fact.

It was a bit of a balancing act, I discovered.

My Isolde is the granddaughter of Morgan (sometimes known as Morgan le Fey in the original Arthur stories; a healer and enchantress of great renown). Isolde is gifted through Morgan with both the knowledge of a healer and with the Sight, which enables her to receive visions and hear voices from the Otherworld. All of which fitted in with what I’d read of both the legends and historical accounts of Celtic spirituality, pre-Christian Celtic belief, with its emphasis on the powers of herbs, on trances and dreams that transcend physical boundaries and touch an Otherworld that is separated from our own by only the thinnest of veils.

And yet, too, there were those elements of the original Trystan and Isolde tale that were harder to fit in with any degree of historical verisimilitude. There were those cases where I could take a more symbolic approach to the legends—as with the famous love potion, which in the original legend causes Trystan and Isolde to fall helplessly in love.

I decided that a love potion like the one Trystan and Isolde accidentally imbibe can be viewed as a metaphor for the overwhelming, all-consuming nature of passionate romantic love. So in the second book of the trilogy, Dark Moon of Avalon, Trystan and Isolde do journey together by boat, as in the original tale, and it is over the course of the journey that they deepen and develop their relationship, which again is true to the original legend. But the purpose of their journey is based on what scraps of historical fact we can gather about the shaky political situation of sixth-century Britain. And they don’t need a literal draft of a magical potion to fall in love–only the magic of their own powerful emotional bond.

But then there were other cases when honoring the legends seemed to me to demand a factor that simply did not exist in 6th century Britain. For example, the fortress at Tintagel, where Twilight of Avalon is largely set. The Tintagel of my novel is pretty much purely anachronistic. Recent archaeology suggests that there was some sort of important fortification there during the 5th century–one belonging to a powerful Dark Age chieftan, to judge from the remnants of expensive imported wine jugs that have been found. But that the site ever had the remotest connection to Arthur is unlikely in the extreme. And certainly that Dark Age chieftan’s fortress would not have resembled anything in the nature a castle as we think of such places today.  But one of the elements of the Arthurian stories I found I simply couldn’t do without was a brooding, majestic castle perched on the crumbling edge of Cornwall where the land meets the sea–and where Arthur, son of Uther the Pendragon, was conceived and born. An authentic Dark Age wattle and daub and thatch dwelling just didn’t feel the same to me, and so I allowed the anachronism to creep in.

Again, it’s a balance. I try to be honest about the historical liberties I take in my author’s notes at the backs of the books and on the FAQ’s on my webpage. And I try to do my utmost to limit those historical liberties to cases like the above when it’s a matter of being true to the legendary basis of my story. I hope it’s a blend that works, one that echoes, a bit, the mixture of history and fantasy that first made me fall in love with the legends and the Arthurian world.