Hello everyone,

Research is a constant, ongoing process while writing historical fiction. Sometimes a fascinating tidbit surfaces that might be of particular interest beyond its use in a novel. As I continue to work in the historical fiction field, I will post those occasional points of interest here. Occasionally I muse on the writing process as well along with news to keep readers informed of what's going on with my books and other writings.

Please feel free to post comments--I'd love to hear from you.

The photo above is of Snowdonia in North Wales, which plays a large part in the setting of the Macsen's Treasure Series.


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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Part 1: Renditions of Camelot Online Discussion of Into the Path of Gods

The following exchange is excerpted from the Yahoogroups’ “Renditions of Camelot” reading and discussion group, which chose my first novel, “Into the Path of Gods” for its October 2007 selection. Because it covers a wide range of topics surrounding the book’s characters and creation, I thought it might of interest to blog readers.
Jacqui (moderator): Hi Everyone, today we start our new book for October - Into the Path of Gods by our own List member Kathleen Cunningham Guler. We are very lucky to have Kathleen with us for what should be an interesting month, as she has agreed to lead us through the reading & discussion of the first book in her Macsen's Treasure series. Kathleen is currently working on the last book - Book 4. Link to her website: http://kathleenguler.com/Over to you Kathleen:)))

Kathleen: Thank you, thank you, (wave to the cheering crowd...) Hope those of you who are reading enjoy it!

Karen: Hi, Kathleen, I don't know if this is a personal question or not, but may I ask: "Who was your inspiration for the character in your book Marcus ap Iorwerth?"

Kathleen: Ah, thank you for asking that question! Marcus, and indeed the whole idea for the series, originated from a dream. In fact the sequence from that dream is in the middle of this book. Characterisation (at least for me) comes from both instinct and conscious decision. Marcus is not based on any individual that I know or have known (in this lifetime). ;-) He grew out of instinct after asking: what kind of man in that time would risk everything to set things right and how would he go about it? He would have to be both physically and mentally tough, have a streak of daring that borders on suicide (and with a dark reason why behind that), and have a loyalty to an ideal that drives him. From there I knew he had to have cleverness, "street smarts", a fairly decent education for the time, stubbornness, political astuteness, a strong will to live and the ability to love very deeply. Some aspects of the character do come from observances of human nature in people I know or other characters, but the aspects are not directly based on any person. Some of his cleverness I attribute to watching endless MacGyver episodes--of course without the modern technology! There's a bit of James Bond, a bit of Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson's Lethal Weapon character) and just little nuances I've picked up here and there from all over. Sometimes I'll see something somebody does and it just fits, like--yeah, Marcus would do that, or say that, and I'll experiment with it to see if it really works.

Here's a thought: A long time ago, I posted a question on another email discussion group's list--one geared to historical fiction. I asked if anyone else ever sensed that why they wrote about a specific past era was because they had the feeling they had lived in a past life during that era. The response was amazing and sparked quite a long discussion. Many felt this could be the case. I've asked the same question in other places and received absolute silence. If it is true that we pass from one lifetime to the next, I've wondered if that's where the dream came from—that it's actually a memory that emerged. I still dream about Marcus a lot, seeing him in many different situations. They do seem to be like memories. Sometimes I'll be doing something completely unrelated and a sudden flash like a memory will come. I can usually see his face very clearly. So in this regard, it could be said that Marcus is based on Marcus! Perhaps he is not fictional at all???

I'm going to see if I can post a scan of the original artwork of Marcus in the photo section. It was on the original dust jacket from the book. An adaptation of the face was taken and used for the newer dust jacket as seen on RofC's homepage. A lot of people think he looks like my husband, but those people haven't looked very closely. They are very different, both in looks and personality.

Jacqui: What a fascinating idea! I agree about the passing from one lifetime to another but I’d never thought about seeing my past in dreams. Perhaps this glimpse of the past is vouchsafed to those who are of a creative mind:) I have found what I am sure are past life memories, are attached to places. Sometimes if I happen to be travelling in an area of the country where I have no known associations I experience strong, often quite violent emotions, sometimes euphoric, sometimes fearful, sometimes angry. Perhaps I’m wrong in my ideas but I can see no other reason why I have these experiences.

Kathleen: Yes! Yes! Yes! When I visited Dinas Emrys, we had a picnic along Afon Glaslyn, just across the road. It gave me the most peaceful sense of homeland, like I've never felt anywhere in the world (not that I'm such a big traveller...) It's only a few miles from where I've envisioned that Marcus comes from. I've got an affinity for various times and places that is totally unexplainable. The past life theory just makes too much sense to ignore.

Karen: Well, I'd say the "past life theory" is quite possible.

Jacqui: The only other explanation that I can think of is that sensitive people can pick up the 'vibes' of the place.

Karen: The funny thing is, I would never have read any Celtic/Arthurian history or literature if I hadn't had the most amazing recurrent dreams as a 5-year-old kid. On many nights, I dreamed I was walking around this really massive circular wooden structure, about two storeys high, with a thatched roof & a central hearth. In another dream, I was walking around the stone ruins of an old building; only one wall was left standing. The memory of these 2 dreams remained with me & I began searching through encyclopedias & lots of books, trying to find out what these places were. It was only much later, when I was 15, that I realised the circular building was a Celtic structure, and the ruins from my other dream were those of Battle Abbey, Hastings. Remarkably, I'd never been to Britain as a 5-year-old girl.

Jacqui: Ahhhhhh Karen spooky:)))) I shall have to pay more attention to my dreams after hearing about yours & Kathleen's amazing ones!

Harry: I too feel a past life, since I was 7, not because of a dream though. I was in the second grade, and they took us to the school library, which quickly became my favorite haunt. (I was already reading before kindergarten) Of course the big coffee table books with all the pictures were fun too. One day I picked up a picture book about Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, and *immediately* knew that I had been there. As I slowly looked through it, and read the text, it was like coming home.

Kathleen: Here's something even more weird: I've had a few very frightening dreams, the type where you wake up sweating and your heart is pounding. They all had Marcus in them, they all had an extremely dangerous situation that he was trying to resolve, he was dressed in his Dark Age medieval garb, sometimes in full battle gear, but the settings, all different, were modern. Bizarre!

Jacqui: Oooeeerr Kathleen!!! Poor Marcus he has got a bit out of his time hasn’t he! - no wonder you wake up in a fright - he must be very anxious :((((

Harry: Sounds kind of Freudian, Kathleen.

Kathleen: Hee, hee!! I wonder if he's trying to tell me something?? LOL, I probably need my head washed out with soap soon... :-0

Harry: Nah, I'd never suggest that. Old Dr. Freud haunts us all. :)

Jacqui: Kathleen, were any of the sequences/characters in the book or any other of your books inspired by dreams??

Kathleen: Since that initial dream, it seems that most of the inspiration or insights are more like memories that come flashing into my head while awake. Sometimes it's visual, like seeing Marcus walk down a hill somewhere, leading a horse. That one came to me while I watched a man with long hair walking across a parking lot across the street where I live. It was like it jarred a memory out of me and I remembered having seen Marcus leading a horse down a hillside. Sometimes it's just words, like something he or Claerwen or somebody else would say. Uh-oh, voices in my head... Yikes!

Jacqui: It is an amazing feeling, that one of peace & homecoming isn’t it? Had you already placed him before you visited Dinas Emrys?

Kathleen: I think at that time I knew he would come from somewhere in Snowdonia, but not specifically where yet. It's been so long I'm not quite sure, but if I had already designated his home, I probably would have paid more attention while going over the pass. Of course it was in the clouds that day... Couldn't have seen it anyway.

Jacqui: One question I will ask Kathleen - why did you call him Marcus & not give him a British name? Or does that become clear later in the book?

Kathleen: It does become clear later. I won't throw out any spoilers here, but I can say he was given a Roman name because of an insistent half-Roman grandmother--part of that leftover, lingering Roman influence. :-)

Jacqui: Ah right:)) Thanks.

Kathleen: BTW, I was able to upload the picture of Marcus into an album in the photo section. Isn't he gorgeous? Sigh...

Jacqui: Each to her own mi'dear:))) Wouldn’t like to meet him on a dark night (as we say) LOL – I’m only teasing:)

Kathleen: Ooo, I would! LOL--when my mother first saw that painting she said he looked mean. My husband thought he belonged on a Harley Davidson...

Jacqui: Actually, 'the man of your dreams' takes on a whole new meaning after reading your posts:))

Kathleen: Absolutely!

Karen: Uhmm...why, yes, he kind of resembles Tom Selleck striking a classic "Timothy Dalton as James Bond the Debonair Spy" pose...Just teasing. :)

Jacqui: My copy of the book has that artwork on the cover - it comes up clearer & better in your pic than on the jacket I think. Do we ever get to see Claerwen?

Kathleen: They printed the original cover on cream-colored paper, which gives it a duller look. Wasn't a good choice. Haven't got a pic of Claerwen and I haven't been able to draw her though I've tried. I've got one sketch that's really bad. Can't seem to capture her except in my head. I do have some other sketches of Marcus including a couple of his disguises from the second book.

Jacqui: Do you find that your characters 'live with you' or can you set them aside to continue your daily life? Do you identify with them or are you detached from them as you write?

Kathleen: "Live with me" is dead on. A writer friend who visits my critique group a couple of times a year has said more than once that when she listens to me read from my work in progress that I "just about breathe the characters." I think about them all the time and often think about what they would say or do in reaction to something I do in the daily drudge. Example: I bought a package of sea salt lately and was thinking, don't let Marcus see this because he hates the sea. (an issue from the third book) Or once in a while we get people dropping of religious flyers in our office. I try to think in what dignified way Claerwen might brush them off. (I wish I had her guts.)

Jacqui: Will you miss them at the end of the series?

Kathleen: Immensely!

Jacqui: How long did it take you to write Gods?

Kathleen: It took 16 years from start to publication. I started thinking about writing a novel around 1982 and experimented with different periods and characters for quite a while before settling on the Arthurian period. Marcus and Claerwen had several name and venue changes before finding the right niche. Then the whole project sat in the drawer literally for about twelve years. Finally in the mid-90's I took it out and decided: now I'm ready to get on with it and finish. Which I did. And then once Gods was on the road to publication, the project went from one book to a planned series of four. The other three haven't taken nearly so long because I'm much more focused than I was before.

Jacqui: How did you develop the storyline? Do you have a rough idea of where/what/when happens or do you write & see where the characters take you?

Kathleen: I've approached the development of each of my books differently, mostly because of the learning curve. That's another reason it took me so long to write Gods was because I started out with no outline or other sense of how to structure a novel. That book started with the sequence from the dream and then I just kept writing and writing in both directions, forward and backward from there. It was "learn as you go" but was like groping in the dark at first. Eventually, after studying the craft for so long, the structure finally came. The good thing was that I've never been afraid to cut stuff that was bad and I learned to get a feel for what works and what doesn't. I was still learning to do research properly at that time as well, so I'd write something, then research and find out it was off, then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite! Experience has changed much of that.

Anyway, to really answer your question, it's the characters who find the story. Their actions have to be embedded in the timeline of the history, but they drive the story. There are times when I'm going along and either Marcus or Claerwen or both keep dragging me off in a different direction. Usually they're right!In each of the first, second and third books, I did have some scenes in my head that I knew had to go in. It was like I "knew" this happened, I just had to figure out what came before and after. For the second and third ones, I did an outline, but only after the first drafts were done to see if the storyline worked. The fourth book is the exception (the one I'm working on now) I had the concept for it, knew who was going to be in it and that was about all. With this one, I started with an outline for about half the book, got stuck, then started writing until I got stuck with that, then went back to the outline until I had the whole storyline. This one has come to me more organically, just flowing along where the characters take me, as long as they hit the benchmarks they need to. The scary thing is that this one keeps having the pieces fall into place so nicely, one after the next. Gods was a constant rewrite, Dragons (book 2) had its ending rewritten at least six times, and Anvil Stone (book 3) was started over after a third was drafted. Maybe I'll have to rewrite book #4 completely... Yikes!

Jacqui: When you are describing a scene did you draw on memories from your trip to North Wales or did you 'make it up'?

Kathleen: I try to draw on memories of North Wales and other locales as much as I can. I'll look at the photos I have (except I'm the world's worst photographer) and if I don't have a view of the right place, I'll track down other photos in books or on the internet. Admittedly, sometimes it's necessary to make things up when places have been built over or we don't know how much has changed in the natural landscape. Natural histories are very helpful for knowing what kinds of animals or plants existed in the right time.

Jacqui: Thanks Kathleen for sharing that with us - fascinating insights into how an author works. There must be an incredible amount of research to back up your stories. How long does it take you to prepare a book? I suppose it’s easier with the later books as you have all the relevant historical detail in place.

Kathleen: Yes, the research never ends, but it does get easier with a series and I've gotten much more proficient at it over time. You should see the collection of research books I have. I've never counted how many there are--too scary. Living in a small town, the library is rather limited and university libraries are way too far distant for me to use, so I built my own collection. Many of the books cover longer periods of time so that I can use them if I eventually migrate to a different period in my writing.

If I didn't have to work to make living, I could probably write a book in a year, provided the basic research was already done. That may entail travel or tracking down experts to interview or tracking down translations of old documents. Very time consuming. There's always more research to do as you go along, because you never know what the characters are going come up with. Also, research usually breeds more research--find out one interesting thing and without fail more questions will arise. That's the fun of it.

Karen: A question about "the writing experience". Do you actually "become" the characters - that is, do you "turn into Claerwen", or "Marcus" when you write? Just curious, because that's the way I normally write, by trying to see through the eyes of different characters.

Kathleen: Yes, I do "become" the characters. I think most of us who write do that. I've been known to have a "conversation" with one or the other of them while folding laundry. [uh-oh, she's talking to herself again...:-))] It's the best way to get inside a character's head, I believe. Some of my best thinking is in the laundry--it's one of the few places I don't get interrupted so much.

Karen: And thirdly, did you base your "villain" on a person that you've actually met in real life? Sorry, I just had to ask about the villain - LOL! :)

Kathleen: Hmm, well, let's see, I don't know how far you are in the book, so I'm assuming you mean Drakar? Drakar wasn't based on anyone in particular. He's probably a combination of baddies from the news and tv. I find it more difficult to write a bad guy--it's so easy to make them over the top, like creating a caricature rather than a character. I've had to tone down more than one. I think I mentioned that about a bad guy in one of the other books we've read here, but I can't remember which right now.

Karen: Yes, it is frustratingly difficult, isn't it? I'd like my "villains" to have a good side, possibly make them "antagonistic" to the leading protagonists, and give them several valid reasons to oppose "the good guys". On the other hand, most YA bestsellers have a central theme of"good vs. evil", which usually means "good guys vs. bad guys". I suppose we have to find some sort of "balance".

Kathleen: Yes, I'm working in that direction with the fourth book now--more of a situation of circumstances than straight-up good guys vs. bad guys.

Karen: Malory & the Vulgate were giving me such a headache because they painted Carados & Turquine as a couple of evil cads – typical "cardboardy" villains - while Arthur & Lancelot came off as being more human, and Galahad way too holy... :)

Kathleen: Hmm, I would like to see more YA books move away from the stark "Good vs. Evil" plot and portray the dynamics of a situation more realistically--the shades of grey that we all live in. Just my opinion, as I'm not a YA expert at all, but I think young folks are astute enough to understand something more than an overly simplistic storyline.

Jacqui: Could you tell us how you developed the character of Claerwen? I think she is quite unusual for an Arthurian heroine as she is neither overly submissive/dumb nor is she aggressive. Although she is a women of action as witness her searching for Marcus she is also thought of as shy by the members of the Clan, quite a combination!!

Kathleen: I wanted to make Claerwen a woman of quiet determination who would make a good match to Marcus. So many times I've seen a loud-mouth woman paired with a hero, but to me a really good hero would blow off a noisy type because she'd drive him nuts. Claerwen doesn't always do what Marcus wants, but she is smart enough to not be reckless. In old Celtic law, women were considered pretty equal to men in their rights, so she doesn't need to feel submissive and Marcus treats her as an equal most of the time. Her shyness comes from the way her family was decimated when she was twelve, then the way her mother tried to pass her off in marriage to Drakar. It is only when she bonds with Marcus that she starts to feel safe again.

Jacqui: I find the way in which you have given her 'the sight' i.e.: 'fire in the head' interesting as it develops her character in a spiritual way, however she keeps her feet well & truly on the ground with her understanding & use of herbal remedies.

Kathleen: Fire in the head was another of those fun research things. I wanted to call "the sight" or "second sight" something different and when I came across "fire in the head" in a line in the ancient poem, Song of Amergin, it just seemed to fit. Fire in the head can mean a lot of things, from inspiration (awen) to shape-shifting to "seeing" into the past or future. I took it as part of the "old religion" that Myrddin and Claerwen still belonged to and that Marcus believed in.

Jacqui: Do you personally have any interest in the use of herbs or was it an expedient for the story?

Kathleen: Herbalism is a vast, fascinating field. I do have an interest in it, but I've only had time to study enough with regards to the books. Someday, maybe I'll have time to learn more.

Jacqui: All together I think you have done a great job of making Claerwen a well rounded, likeable & more to the point - believable character. Does she develop more as the series proceed?

Kathleen: Thank you! She does develop more in the later books because she becomes more involved in Marcus's work, sometimes to her own amazement. :-) Marcus had two great passions he is loyal to--her and his ideal of a free Britain. If he had to choose, he would have a very difficult time deciding, although he would probably ultimately choose Claerwen. And while Claerwen comes to believe in his ideals as well, she would never hesitate to choose Marcus first.

Karen: Wow...I don't know how you can manage it, juggling your day-job with your household chores, and writing a book...How much time do you set aside everyday for working on your novel? Do you write a chapter a day?

Kathleen: Oh, gosh, a chapter a day? That would be such luxury! So would setting aside time. :-) We have a family business that deals with the public--so interruptions are constant. I write when I can, in between everything else. All those "experts" who preach that a writer has to find a quiet place with no interruptions never had to run a business. LOL! The good thing is that it's taught me iron discipline.

Karen: Aaaah...that would be pure luxury for me as well. :) Don't you wish we could hang out in the garden, sipping tea, all dressed up in a nice pink dress & a floppy hat, dictating our novel toa personal assistant, just like Barbara Cartland used to do? :)))

Kathleen: Ahhhhhhh!!! Put some scrumpy in my tea, please?? Scenes run in my head all the time, which is actually an advantage because it's easier to write a scene once it's first been visually developed in my head. I've heard other writers say that, too. Do you do this, Karen?

Karen: Why, yes, I'm always "day-dreaming". :) The trouble with me is that I'm hopelessly fickle. I'd write a scene one day and be unhappy with it the next - because by then, I would have either come up with a new direction for the storyline, or completely changed my perception of certain characters. I've done countless re-writes - which is probably why I'm still stuck at Chapter 5 after 6 months of my 3rd. full rewrite!!!

Kathleen: It took me three weeks to write one paragraph this summer. Just couldn't make it work. Finally it came out good enough to read to my critique group but I have the feeling I'm going to rewrite it again...

Karen: What was your inspiration for "Macsen's Treasure", the holy regalia of the High Kings of Britain? Did you base them on the mythical 13 Treasures that Merlin took with him to Ynys Enlii, or the Treasures of the Tuatha de Danaan?

Kathleen: It was more just plain logic, although the mythical treasures probably had some influence. I knew Excalibur and the grail had to be two of the pieces. I thought a torque was appropriate because it's a well known item worn by Celtic nobility, and spears were important to warriors. And of course the crown that binds them all together. Hmm, if I'd gone with the 13 Treasures, I'd have to do 13 books in the series? Yikes!

---Continued in Part 2---

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