GENERAL WRITING QUESTIONS
Where do you get your ideas from?
Writers get asked this a lot, especially fantasy writers, I suspect. There's no easy answer. I think my ideas come from life, from things I observe people doing and ways I see them reacting and interacting: human behaviour, I guess. That doesn't mean I put real people into my books as characters, but I do use all sorts of ideas my experience suggests to me. I'm influenced by traditional material - I've loved fairy tales and folklore, myths and legends since I was little. I read a lot of history books, and I travel to places I'm interested in - that's a luxury I've only been able to afford since I became a published author! There was a really long period in my life when I didn't write at all - about 20 years. During that time I made a lot of mistakes and found out a lot about real life. Because of what I learned during that time, I write very differently now. I hope I'm wiser.
Do you do a lot of research?
Heaps. Because my books are set in an exact historical period I need to research the details and get everything at least reasonably correct. It's a little easier because the periods and places in which my adult books are set have few contemporary written records (that's 9th century Ireland for the Sevenwaters Trilogy, 8th century Orkney for Saga of the Light Isles and 6th century Scotland - before it was called Scotland - for The Bridei Chronicles. ) That means there's room for some imagination. My books are fantasy, not history, so readers shouldn't expect perfect historical accuracy. Usually when I get things 'wrong' it's done on purpose - usually it's in order to tell the story better.
My research has taken me to some interesting parts of the world recently: Transylvania for Wildwood Dancing and Turkey for Cybele's Secret. And, of course, I made a trip to the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, complete with helicopter rides, when writing Foxmask.
I also research background material such as plants, animals and geography (for instance, at the time of the Sevenwaters books there really was a big tract of forest at the Ring of Gullion in County Armagh, but there's not much of it left now). And I have to read a lot of mythology and folklore.
What kind of books do you enjoy reading?
Usually I'm too busy to do much recreational reading these days, so it's mostly research-related. When reading for pleasure I enjoy literary fiction and historical fiction, and I read quite a lot of books on pagan spirituality. One of my favourite authors is the celebrated Portuguese novelist, Jose Saramago. I read a very small amount of fantasy - I enjoy Neil Gaiman, Jacqueline Carey, Terry Pratchett and Guy Gavriel Kay.
What are the main influences on your writing?
Definitely traditional folklore and fairy tales, which I've never stopped reading. I'm sure that's why there are folk motifs woven all through my writing. My interest in pagan spirituality has a strong influence on my approach to story telling as well. Apart from that, I think I've been influenced by memorable people in my life, especially women of strong character and courage. Daughter of the Forest is dedicated to my mother, sister, and daughters. You'll find women as protagonists in all my books, with the stories often structured around their journey to maturity or self-knowledge.
I can't say any particular writers have influenced me although I do have a number of books which are special favourites, the ones you read over and over. These include the Lymond Chronicles (Dorothy Dunnett), John Crowley's Little, Big, a young adult book called The Catalogue of the Universe by Margaret Mahy, and Women who run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, which examines the power of story in terms of women's psychology. And Tove Jansson's Moomintroll books!
I want to be a writer. How do I get started?
You need to be writing because you love doing it and because you have a story, poem or whatever just bursting to get out. You need the passion for it first, then you develop the techniques and the stamina to keep going.
Then, just write, write, write. I started when I was a little kid and didn't get a novel published until I was middle aged. Read a lot, and read widely. Experience life, because that's your raw material. Grab any opportunity you can to get your material into print. There's nothing wrong with the school magazine, the college newspaper, or the community gazette. Enter competitions. Try stuff out on your friends and family but don't take their opinions too seriously.
Some people say you should practise your craft by writing short stories first. Certainly, you need a lot of self-confidence (or insanity) to start penning a 200,000 word blockbuster with no guarantee of ever seeing it in print. Still, I can't tell you not to do that, because it's exactly what I did with Daughter of the Forest. Some people have the gift for short stories and some haven't. They are good discipline - you need to prune down to the best words and the tightest structure. The same thing applies with poetry, only even more so.
If you want to submit something to a publisher, make sure you comply with their rules (most publishers have a web site showing their submission guidelines.) There's no point in sending your bug-whomper fantasy novel to a publisher who only publishes gardening and craft books. And you must get the basics right: spelling, punctuation and grammar need to be OK, and the presentation should be professional. Some publishers won't even look at unsolicited manuscripts. The sad truth is, they get vast quantities of stuff every single day and most of it gets rejected.
If your manuscript is really good you may be able to get a literary agent to represent you. An agent will take a percentage of what you earn, but they are able to get a publisher to read your work, and if they believe in you they will lobby on your behalf. An agent should not ask for payment to represent you. As an alternative, you can pay for an assessment of your manuscript by a manuscript assessment service. With a positive assessment attached, your work is more likely to be read by an editor.
Don't be too discouraged if you get rejection slips. Everyone does. Keep trying, but seek advice as well, from teachers or other writers. Take creative writing classes if you think it will help, at least it's a forum to have your work critiqued. Have faith in your own ability; without that you will get nowhere.
If it stops being fun, give yourself a rest. Even writers have to get a life sometimes.
(any obvious errors in my books will be addressed here as they come up)
Warning: may contain SPOILERS
One of Johnny's warriors, Mikka, is killed in the battle at the end of Child of the Prophecy. He reappears, alive, in Heir to Sevenwaters.
Oops. And I thought I had been so careful to check who survived that battle and who didn't. My mistake. This character is re-named Jouko in later editions.
In Heir to Sevenwaters, Clodagh several times mistakes Mac Dara for Cathal, though only briefly. Like all Johnny's men, Cathal has a facial tattoo. Wouldn't that make the difference between him and Mac Dara obvious?
Clodagh usually does this at a distance, in dim or deceptive light, and sometimes when Mac Dara is wearing a hooded cloak. Don't forget that Mac Dara is one of the Fair Folk and can change his appearance at will, using the Glamour. And he's a trickster by nature.
The other thing to note is that, as indicated in Child of the Prophecy, the tattoos worn by Johnny and his men are quite minimal in design, just a few suggestive lines or patterns around one eye and perhaps onto the brow or upper cheek. The second generation of Painted Men is not as flamboyant as the first!
In The Dark Mirror, why are Bridei's eyes referred to as 'blue as celandines'? Celandines are yellow.
So they are. My error, for which I have been taken to task by various readers. Usually I am more thorough about checking these details. I've asked my publishers to make a correction for future editions, but I can't fix this in all the copies that are already out there.
If the Druids are still active in Ireland, wouldn't the period of the Sevenwaters Trilogy be before the Norman conquest? If so, why do the British characters have Norman names (Hugh, Richard etc?)
I've addressed this in the Sevenwaters section below. The historical period for the Sevenwaters books is pretty vague, since I set out to write a fairy tale / family saga, not a historical novel. If I were writing the book now I would give the English characters Saxon or Welsh names. I would also be more careful with the Irish names, some of which are wrong for the period. In its early drafts this book was set in an imaginary world. It 'grew' its Irish framework later.
I often get asked questions like 'Why happened to Padriac, and why isn't he in Book Three?' Some of these questions, and their answers, are shown below. If you have any you want to add, send me a message! Of course, just as in real life lots of things are not neatly explained, so in books... There are times when I prefer to leave a bit to the reader's imagination. Note: there are spoilers for Son of the Shadows and Child of the Prophecy here, so if you haven't read them, you may not wish to read on.
On the Sevenwaters Family Tree shown in Seer of Sevenwaters, it seems to suggest that Finbar and Conor were married and had children. How can that be?
If you look closely, you’ll see a dotted line connecting Padriac in turn with Samara, Maria and Mercedes. He was married three times and all those children belong to him. In the novella ‘Twixt Firelight and Water, published in my short fiction collection Prickle Moon, we meet Padriac as a much older man, along with his eldest daughter Aisha. The confusion arises because in some editions the family tree is rather cramped.
Is any of the Sevenwaters story true? Do you believe in the Fomhóire and the Tuatha Dé Danann?
Daughter of the Forest is based on a very old story, and although it's a fairy tale, I do believe most such stories have their origins in some kind of truth. I guess you can believe it or not! Once you go back far enough in time, history gets blurred with mythology and story-telling, and it can be very hard to work out where one ends and the other begins. That means I couldn't say I don't believe in the Fomhóire and the Tuatha Dé Danann, or that something quite like them once existed in Ireland (or possibly still exists.) I like to believe there are still realms in the world that can't be explained by science.
Why do so many of the good characters die?
In those times people led much shorter lives than we do now. Without antibiotics or any real knowledge about how infections work, something relatively simple like the flu would have claimed many lives. Women died in childbirth, people perished from infected wounds and so on. That means Conor, who is in his fifties at the end of Child of the Prophecy, is a very old man by early Medieval standards. It's realistic to have Sorcha die of what is probably uterine cancer, and Red succumb quietly to a winter malady of some sort, maybe pneumonia. That's just how it was.
In terms of storytelling, Sorcha's death changes the balance in the Sevenwaters family radically. It causes Red to rethink his priorities and allows Liadan to take centre stage. In the third book, Liadan is absent for the first half of the narrative, allowing us to focus on Fainne. With Red gone, Sean gets a bigger role as the true father figure at Sevenwaters.
What happened to Padriac? Why isn't he in Child of the Prophecy?
I was tempted to bring Padriac back in, as he would have been a really useful person to have around when Sean and his allies were planning the assault on the Islands. I decided it was more realistic not to do this. Padriac was a traveller and an adventurer. Of all the brothers, he was the one least affected by the swan transformation, partly because he was the youngest, but mostly because he always found new experiences interesting. Readers will find out more of his story in my novella, ’Twixt Firelight and Water, to be published in July 2010 in an anthology from HarperCollins Australia.
Where does Finbar go at the end of Daughter of the Forest? What actually happens to him before he returns in the second book?
You can work this out by reading between the lines. Finbar spends a long time alone in the forest, trying to come to terms with what has happened to him - as we find out later, he is left by Lady Oonagh's enchantment in a form that is not quite man, not quite creature. This means he can't comfortably live in the world of men. But he can't become a swan again, either. He makes his condition an advantage by learning a shaman's art - he can use the creature part of himself to walk between worlds. Later, his skills become useful in training the younger druids in this art (part of a druid's learning was to take on animal forms for a spiritual journey).
If Sorcha inherited her black hair and green eyes from her mother, doesn't that contradict the story that the Fomhoire legacy of the Sevenwaters family comes down through Lord Colum's blood line?
No. The black hair and green eyes do come from Sorcha's mother, Niamh. Lord Colum's line carries the Fomhoire streak, which comes with black hair, and with a very distinctive eye colour that manifests itself only in the seers of the family - eyes 'colourless like clear water'. The only two people in the series with these eyes are Finbar and Sibeal. Even though Liadan is a seer of sorts, she has her mother's eyes. Most of the brothers have grey eyes. Note: lots of Irish people have black hair! And lots have red hair like Ciaran's and Fainne's. Note again: we know very little about Sorcha's mother - an untold story there.
Where are the Islands?
The Islands are not to be found on any modern map (after all, they do disappear into a strange mist at the end of the third book, to be seen thereafter only by certain fishermen). If they were on a map, they would be located south of the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea between Sevenwaters (inland from Carlingford) and Harrowfield (in the Cumbrian region of Britain).
When does the Sevenwaters story take place? What period of history?
The Sevenwaters story is fantasy, not history. Because I wrote it with fantasy in mind, I have been fairly free in my treatment of historical detail, and I make no apology for that, since the purpose of writing was storytelling rather than historical scholarship. Certain references to kings, and the mention of Viking raids, pin this story to the second half of the ninth century. There was no major war between Britain and Ireland then, and I never intended to suggest that - the feud over the Islands is a local dispute between Sevenwaters and Northwoods, the kind of trouble that flared up easily in those days, when both countries were patchworked with many small kingdoms. By that time, druidry was pretty much overwhelmed by the spread of Christianity in Ireland, so Conor and his brethren are amongst the last of their kind to practise fairly openly.
Where is Sevenwaters located?
The setting for Sevenwaters is an area of Ireland called the Ring of Gullion, in County Armagh. The nearest town is Newry, near the Ulster / Republic of Ireland border. There was once a major forest there but most of it was cut down when they cleared the land for farming in around the 14th century. There's been some effort to replant recently and you may find on a map something called the Slieve Gullion Forest Park - that is pretty much where Sevenwaters is supposed to be. The lake that's there now is a lot smaller than the one described in the books.
Wouldn't the Harrowfield and Northwoods families have been Saxons with Saxon names? Why do the Irish characters refer to them as Britons?
Yes, they would have been Saxons. Some of the Irish names in the series are incorrect for the period, too. The historical inaccuracies can be put down to the fact that I wrote the book as pure fantasy first, and added the Irish setting later. In those days I had no idea what historical fantasy was – I figured that if readers were happy to accept magical elements they wouldn’t mind if the history wasn’t quite right. In my later books I have been more careful with my research.
As for the references to Britons, the lack of written reference material from the period means we have no idea what the Irish would have called them. Possibly to someone like Lord Colum a Briton was a Briton, whether his ancestry was Saxon, Welsh or even Pictish. An Irish chieftain might have simply seen them all as enemies.
Who is the child of the prophecy, Fainne or Johnny or both?
The answer is up to the reader. Both Fainne and Johnny fit the description. Both are needed for the resolution at the end of the story, and for the continuing preservation of the Sevenwaters heritage. If you asked the Fair Folk they might say Johnny, but the Old Ones would say Fainne, the one they prepared for the role.
Who is the Son of the Shadows?
According to the one reference in the book, it would be Ciarán - he refers to himself as a 'son of the shadows, condemned to walk in darkness.' He believes that, as the son of Lady Oonagh, he can never reach the culmination of druid wisdom, which deals with the ways of light. However, I think the description 'son of the shadows' fits Bran, who has spent all his young life dealing with the shadows of his cruel childhood. He can only emerge from them through his own courage, and with Liadan's love and strength. For me, Bran's story is the primary focus of the book. Eamonn also feels a sense of darkness overshadowing him from the moment he first encounters the Painted Man. He is unable to see beyond his obsessive hatred and jealousy until (possibly) the very end of Child of the Prophecy.
Where did you get the idea for Bran and his band of warriors?
The idea for the band of warriors is partly based on the Irish story of the 'fianna', a band of heroic and fierce fighters loyal to the legendary hero Fionn (Bran and his men are not actually meant to be these figures, just a group formed along similar lines - and Bran himself is more of an anti-hero).
The idea of the tattoos owes something to childhood influences - I grew up in New Zealand, where facial tattoos had, and have, deep meaning and significance for the Maori people. That's certainly the style of tattoo I had in mind when describing Bran's appearance. In Bran's time the Picts, from the region that's now northern Scotland, were said to wear facial markings of this kind, hence the name Picti, or painted ones.
I like the concept of 'outsiders' who appear threatening and evil but who are at the same time (once we get to know them) quite human and individual, and the notion that a person like Bran, so marginalised himself, could provide a home and purpose for these men who have been rejected by society.
Is starwort a real plant? What about heart’s blood?
They are both invented plants. The name starwort is used in the Grimm's version of the old fairy tale, The Six Swans, and it translates as chickweed (stellaria media.) Chickweed would be hard to spin, but would not hurt the hands. In some versions of the story the girl makes shirts from nettles. I liked the name starwort, so I decided to invent a plant with that name that was pretty to look at and unpleasant to handle - part of the psychology of the story for me was that the task should be extremely difficult for Sorcha, so she’d need to show great reserves of strength. The near-impossibility of the task, and the way she remains fixed on achieving it, underlines the bond between her and her brothers.
If Deirdre is forbidden to marry her cousin Johnny, why is it OK for Red to marry Elaine?
Different countries, different rules. In Daughter of the Forest, it's explained that Richard has obtained special permission from the Church for Elaine and Red to marry. Later on, the same kind of permission would be required when Simon and Elaine got married. This is in England, where most people were Christians by this time, and it would be up to the bishops to rule on such matters. Generally the answer would be no, but Richard has friends in high places.
The marriage between uncle and niece (Ciaran and Niamh) would be forbidden under the strict Irish laws of the time, and so would a marriage between first cousins (Deirdre and Johnny).