Our interview today is with Kathleen Cunningham Guler, author of A Land Beyond Ravens (Book 4 of the Macsen’s Treasure Series)
FQ: What is your process for collecting historical data to use as a basis for your work?
Collecting historical data is an ongoing, exhaustive, arduous and utterly fascinating task. The known history of a selected period provides the framework on which a story is hung. That’s where a novelist must employ the historian’s craft of seeking out as much information on the time and place involved as possible, then integrate all this information into a dynamic interpretation of the culture, political situation, mindset and so on. If documents contemporary to the period exist—histories, letters, diaries, annals, anything written down during that time that show what life was like and when events happened—these are the primacy sources that provide the lifeblood of setting.
For my work, unfortunately, none of these kinds of documents have survived and it’s likely very few or none ever existed in the first place. Fifth century Britain was a time of oral tradition—the spoken word reigned in an illiterate world leftover from a time when writing down sacred doctrines was taboo. In lieu of primary sources, the next choice combines secondary sources and archaeology. Secondary sources are documents written in later times that mention events and people of the earlier period in question. While they can be valuable, their reliability can also be questionable because they have suffered through years (often hundreds of years) of handed down memories, multiple translations, unreliable copyists, and of course, storytellers’ embellishments. Archaeological evidence can be tricky to rely upon as well. I have visited most of the significant Arthurian sites in Britain to gain a feel for place and atmosphere, but again, archaeologists can only ‘interpret’ their finds. Modern eyes sometimes do not recognize the true function of an object from long ago. How many times do we not recognize a simple tool from 19th century farming anymore? Quite often, and that’s involving much more recent objects. So how do we know what we’ve actually found in a fifth century dig? Ask ten archaeologists; receive ten opinions. Likewise with historians.
Sometimes—actually most of the time—the collection process is not orderly. It’s so easy to become distracted while in pursuit of a particular point and along the path a number of other interesting facts will crop up that instantly need pursuit as well! The best part is discovering a wonderful piece of information that is totally unexpected and utterly enhancing to the story. The down side is having too much information, then having to decide how much to use and how much to leave out. Experience and keen instinct will guide an author to the right mix.
FQ: Can you tell our readers about your background and what initially drew you to the Arthurian era?
Curiosity led me to learn more about Arthurian legend. In the 1970’s, Mary Stewart’s four Merlin and Arthur novels became bestsellers. This was my first real exposure to the legend. In the meantime, throughout high school, then university, I spent a lot of time studying medieval literature, Shakespeare, European history, art and music. I always love and appreciate how all these facets of the humanities are interconnected through their history. Although I ended up with an art degree and, later, a business degree, I probably had enough study to have earned history and literature degrees as well!
When I began to feel out the possibility of writing historical fiction, of course I had to decide which era in which to set my first book. Because Mary Stewart’s portrayal of Dark Age Britain had thoroughly caught my attention years earlier, and because the historical side of King Arthur intrigued me more than the later literature written about him, I chose to let my curiosity take me through the puzzling mystery of Arthur’s alleged existence. While it’s still unproven whether he did exist, it’s been a long, fascinating journey to explore the possibilities!
In a related thought, my ancestral heritage is mostly Welsh and Scottish. While I was growing up, no one in my family ever said much more than that their forebears came from Britain, and so pride in heritage was not an influence then. However, in the course of researching the Macsen’s Treasure Series, much of which takes place in what became North Wales and lowland Scotland, I discovered those two places are some of the ancestral homelands of my family. No logical explanation. I can only marvel at how I was strongly drawn to write about people in those same places before I even knew that’s where my family came from as well. Spooky, but fitting!
FQ: What is it like to study a period where there is no primary source material and so much pure speculation?
Very frustrating sometimes, I’ll admit. Yet I’ve always loved puzzles. You’re so right about calling it pure speculation—there are a number of theories out there about Arthur’s alleged existence—who the Arthur of legend is based upon—but none them truly completes the puzzle in a satisfactory manner. They place their historical figure too early, too late, or in the wrong place, and the pieces just don’t fall in order.
I have the greatest respect for historians—I know how difficult research is. It can become a lifelong pursuit that is never finished—everything known about history is an interpretation (or re-interpretation) of facts. But after studying countless available primary, secondary and archaeological sources, then reading as many interpretations by historians as possible, an author will begin to recognize what has the ring of truth to it, form his/her own opinion and interpretation. It doesn’t mean this is the correct solution to the puzzle; rather it means finding the setting and background as well as the seeds of the story itself.
FQ: Why do you think so many people find the legend of King Arthur and the characters surrounding him so alluring?
I think part of the mystique is that he and the other characters can be whatever we want them to be, because we simply don’t know the truth. But the overriding theme is that Arthur is the hero who rises from obscurity to become the rescuer of mankind. Though flawed, he thrives in strength, honor and fairness and he does not waver from these, no matter how hard things become. We also can sympathize with him because of his flaws and how he tries to overcome them. Maybe deep down we all have a secret wish to be part of this enduring tale where the hero sweeps us out of the gutter of despair and into a golden kingdom of peace, prosperity, and freedom.
FQ: What is the next book we can look forward to from you? Is there a “book five” in the works?
No, I’m not planning a “book five” for the Macsen’s Treasure Series. However, I’m doing a little re-editing of the series’ first book (Into the Path of Gods) because my publisher is planning to release the whole series in an e-book format next year and perhaps trade paperback as well. Into the Path of Gods first came out in 1998, and my current editor and I agreed it needs a little polishing.
I’m also in the beginning stages of research for another book that’s been racing around inside my head for quite some time and has been knocking to get out. It will probably be a group of interrelated short stories, each set in a different historical period. I suspect one story might be Arthurian in nature, but I’m not that far along yet! As I make progress, I’ll be posting on my blog.
Thank you so much for the great questions. It’s been my pleasure to share a little of my writing experience with you.