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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Thursday, February 24, 2011

A New Journey

I’m heading out on a new journey! No, not a vacation—I wish! Having finished my fifth century Arthurian series, I am in search of a new adventure to write about.

Where to start?

Photo of torque
courtesy of
Canadian Museum
of Civilization

Many historical novelists take up a new story related to others they have already written. For example, say an author has written a novel about Eleanor of Aquitaine. Since the research done for the Eleanor book would also touch on many of the queen’s relations, alliances and enemies, an author is very likely to choose one of those folks as the subject of the next book. Makes sense—it shortens the time needed for additional research and the author already has more than a good sense of the time and place.

In writing the Macsen’s Treasure Series I discovered a lifelong love of Celtic history, especially as my ancestry hearkens from Wales and Scotland, so most of what I write has some connection to Celtic heritage. Research for the series also put me in contact with many of the theories that swirl around the idea that the legendary King Arthur may have been based on some other historical figure’s exploits and the stories raised his status to something out of proportion from reality. One of those theories claims that Arthur was actually a Roman military commander in the second century AD assigned to a post in northern Britain, and that he and the men he led may have originally come from the Eurasian steppes. Allegedly, the folklore of these Eurasian men created the essence of Arthur’s legend—including the grail story, the round table and so on.

Personally, I do not buy into this theory—doesn’t fit the historical evidence—but the authors mention the nomadic Scythians of the Eurasian steppes as having been predecessors of the men stationed in Britain. (actually Sarmatians, who conquered the Scythians around 300 BCE.)

The Scythians, indeed, are an intriguing bunch. In the last few centuries BCE, around the fourth and third centuries BCE, they moved westward into eastern Europe, particularly in to the Hungarian plain, Transylvania and the Balkans. A few of their artifacts have been found even farther west in Germany. During this time, the Celts expanded eastward into the Balkans, the Danube basin and even beyond with some settlements established in the Scythians’ main homeland of the steppes north of the Black Sea.

Here comes the most exciting part. Both the Celts and the Scythians are known for their artwork, the Scythians primarily for their fabulous gold decorative pieces that adorned both themselves and their horses’ trappings. In particular, animal figures were most prominent. The art that the Celts began to produce during this period, called La Tรจne, indeed not only incorporated similar figures, but animal figures that very closely resembled those of the Scythians. Having studied art, this thoroughly captured my attention.

Certainly there is a story to be discovered here. While the contact between Scythians and Celts is well established, as I go forward with research, I plan to take this a few steps further and dig into how this influence was transmitted. I have already discovered that itinerant goldsmiths moved about in this region. There was also a tremendous slave trade, as well as the ever present and inevitable war and quite a number of other possibilities. The more I research, the more ideas come to me for characters and plot. What a fascinating time and place on which to hang a new story!

Hmm—a vacation back in time—right now it’s the only kind I can afford…

Canadian Museum of Civilization


Friday, February 11, 2011

From Little Doward to Another Battle

In 2007, I posted two blog articles about the twelve battles King Arthur allegedly fought and led to his consolidation of power. They are listed in the ninth century document, The History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum), attributed to a monk called Nennius. I offered my conjecture on the location of the first battle, on the mouth of the river Glein, and the sixth battle, on the river Bassas. (See the articles: Part 1 and Part 2.) Since posting the articles, I’ve been intent on completing both my fourth book, A Land Beyond Ravens, and the overhaul of my first book, Into the Path of Gods. I got away from looking any further into the battle list as none of them pertained to either story.

Nennius tells us that the second, third, fourth and fifth battles all allegedly took place “on another river, which is called Dubglas and is in the Linnius region.” Like most of the other locations, historians have never figured out where the river Dubglas is. The only river in Britain with a similar name is in Scotland and called the Douglas. Linnius, however, is usually considered to be either the area in the east around Lincoln or, alternatively, Lindinis, the Roman name for the town of Ilchester in Somerset. However, no rivers with names similar to Dubglas exist in either region.

But … one of those odd things that happens in research came out of the blue. During the re-edit of my book, I needed a little more information about the place in which the fifth century high king Vortigern allegedly met his end. According to legend, Vortigern was trapped in a stronghold called Little Doward and burnt alive when Ambrosius, his successor, chased him there in his successful quest to take the high kingship.

In the original version of Into the Path of Gods, the mode of Vortigern’s death was only noted after it happened and no more mention made. In the new version, I have added a scene where my main character, master spy Marcus ap Iorwerth, spends a night camped in a hillside cave and has a fitful dream about the refortification of a stronghold. The hill in question is Little Doward. I spent some time researching the hill’s history (click here for more on this), and checked it out on Google Earth to get a feel for the surroundings. I also wanted to find an older name for the location because Doward sounds too modern and Anglicized for a book set in the fifth century. I went looking in my trusty book, Place Names of England and Wales. [1] There is no entry for Doward, but the following note was made in the entry for a place called Dowlais:

“The Little and Great Doward Hill, lower Wye, were old Dougarth, which is O.W. for ‘two garths’ or ‘enclosures.’ ”

Well, there’s a plausible older name for Doward—Dougarth. The enclosures mentioned probably would have been dark age hill forts. Wonderful!

But wait a moment. This is the section preceding the note about Doward:

“DOWLAIS (Glamorgan). Pron. Dowlish. Disputable; perh. O.W. dau, mod. W. dou glais, ‘two streams’; but prob.=DOUGLAS. The Dewlas, trib. of Nthn. Dovey, is sic 1428 and locally pron. Diflas, clearly ‘dark (W. du) stream.’ DOWLISH WAKE (Ilminster) should be the same. Cf. DAWLISH.”
The reference to Dowlais possibly meaning “two streams” and probably equaling “Douglas” stopped me in my tracks and left me speechless. Then I got excited. Dowlais is a village in Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan, southeastern Wales. As noted in Part 1 of my earlier notes, the frontier in the fifth century between British territory and the westward-encroaching Saxon territory, as suggested by historian Christopher Gidlow [2], may have been roughly where Wales now borders the English counties of Shropshire and Cheshire. Gidlow proposes that some of the battles could have taken place along or near this vague line. Dowlais is not that far from the line or from where I theoretically placed the sixth battle of Bassas.

In addition, Dowlish Wake, also noted in the entry, presents another possibility. Guess where it is? Near Ilminster, which is near Ilchester. Lindinis, the other possible location of Linnius. Could either of these possibly be the location of the four battles on the river Dubglas? Perhaps. This is still simply conjecture as there is no proof.

I’m curious as to why the Arthurian community of scholars has not picked up on these clues. Perhaps the notion has been considered but ended up dismissed out of hand so quickly that no one has ever presented the theory. Perhaps I simply have a different way of looking at place names or just had a moment of plain old luck to have discovered two possible connections. Maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about.

And now…am I bold enough to stick my neck out and let the Arthurian historians get a whiff of this idea? They are excellent at hacking theories all to pieces. Or should I quietly approach one—like Christopher Gidlow—and ask what he thinks while I hope he won’t ignore or scoff at me? Regardless, the discovery sure sent the chills rippling. To know if it holds any water with other Arthurian enthusiasts would be even more exciting!

[1] Johnson, James. Place Names of England and Wales. London: Bracken Books, 1994.

[2] Gidlow, Christopher. The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2004.


Saturday, February 05, 2011


Great news! The entire Macsen's Treasure Series is now available in most ebook formats!