A New Collection of Questions & Answers about recent publications
Mairibeth MacMillan was born in Paisley, Scotland but now lives on the shores of Loch Long with a gorgeous view down the River Clyde. After teaching high school Drama for many years, she took a career break to have children and during that time completed a BA (Hons) in Humanities with Creative Writing and a few years later an MLitt in Playwriting and Dramaturgy from the University of Glasgow. She has had short stories published in various magazines and anthologies and more recently her first poem. She has never been good at focussing on one task at a time but is currently working on improving this skill. In her spare time (!) she drives her children to various activities. She has recently taken up kayaking and wild swimming in the loch and has returned to ballet classes after a break of too many years to count. She is a member of the Scottish Association of Writers, the Romantic Novelists Association and the Society of Authors.
You are a romance writer; was your first choice or did you experiment with different genres? If you were to change your genre, which one would you choose?
I have never been good at sticking to one thing. I have always enjoyed reading romance, the fact that a positive, upbeat ending is guaranteed (or should be) is very appealing. I read a wide range of books but reading romance has helped me through a lot of difficult times in my life and always leaves me with a sense of hope rather than feeling depressed so it was a natural choice, to begin with when writing my first novel.
I also found that the romance writing community is, in general, a fantastically supportive one and I have made a lot of friends, and received a lot of support from so many people over the years — I could not have asked for better friends to accompany me on my writing journey. Although most of the as-yet-unpublished novels I have written have been romance, most have been romantic suspense and I enjoy merging the suspense plot with the romance. I also love reading crime fiction so this is a great way to blend them.
I think I would be most likely to write crime fiction if I had to choose a different genre but I think there would always be romantic elements in there at the very least as what is more important than our relationships with one another?
I did, however, begin by writing short stories and I don’t think any of them could be classified as romance. In fact, I think the opposite is probably true!
Playwriting is another of your passions; do you approach writing a play or a script in the same way you approach writing a novel?
Novels tend to be slower to form in my mind, whereas when writing plays I tend to work from a single idea — often a visual image. I prefer the shorter word count in plays and find it easier to keep track in my head of what is going on, which I find really difficult in a novel. I probably do less planning in terms of plot and characterization when writing plays because some of that will be up to those who produce the work. In a way, a play is a more open text; you are providing ideas and dialogue for others to use as a starting point whereas a novel is a complete work in itself and you need to provide more for the reader.
Your upcoming historical romance novel, The Viking’s Cursed Bride, is about the Norse invasion of Alt Clut (Dumbarton Rock) in 870 CE. What inspired you to write about this particular historical event?
When you spend any time at all near the River Clyde, Dumbarton Rock is a striking feature that you can’t miss. Throughout my life, I have been told various stories about events that happened there and how it used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Strathclyde (one of the four 9th Century kingdoms that are now Scotland). I’ve also recently bought a flat close to the rock and have a stunning view of it from my front window. Vikings are very much part of the history of the west of Scotland, but it was when I was watching the eponymous series on television that I realized that the Norse siege of Alt Clut was led by two of Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons, Ivarr the Boneless and Olaf the White. Or, at least, the evidence that exists points to that. There is really not much historical evidence from this area, at this time, that is not open to some level of interpretation. Most of the historical sources that we have were written by foreigners — mainly English or Irish monks — so the perception of the Britons of Strathclyde and the Norse invaders is not necessarily accurate, nor the way they would have viewed themselves. In our current political climate there is a strong tendency to try and present British history as some kind of pure heritage, while in Scotland at least, we are aware that our heritage is very much a mixture of people who came here in different waves of immigration through the centuries. If you listen to The Proclaimers’ song Scotland’s Story you will get the idea.
Though The Viking’s Cursed Bride is mainly romance, research has played an essential role. What specific research did you have to do? How long did you spend researching before beginning the novel-writing process?
I don’t think the genre is really relevant when it comes to research. You can’t write about anything unless you know enough about it to explain it to someone else. Romance is no different from any other genre in that respect — there are, however, poorly researched and poorly written books in every genre.
Although I began with prior knowledge of some aspects of the time period and events, I read all the historical accounts of the Siege of Alt Clut but I also looked at a lot of more recent archaeological research that has been done. I work for the University of Glasgow so I have access to the library there which has been invaluable. I also follow quite a few archaeologists on social media and keep up to date with recent finds which are changing the perceptions of Scotland’s past.
I read regularly about this time period, so it’s hard to say how long the specific research for this took as it’s an ongoing interest. I also went to quite a few events where there were Viking re-enactors and actually spoke to the people, saw the clothing and tried some of the crafts. That was probably the most helpful research in many respects as I had a direct experience to describe, and those people really pride themselves on being as accurate as possible. One thing I learned is that there are a lot of commonly believed misconceptions about Vikings!
What kind of historical sources did you use for The Viking’s Cursed Bride? What aspects of the research did you find most frustrating?
As I mentioned earlier there are virtually no primary sources and most of the secondary sources are generally not contemporary and were written by foreigners. I used a lot of archaeological reports and looked at reconstructions based on evidence found, but Dumbarton Rock was in use for centuries after this time and the digs were not straightforward and were unable to reveal as much as an abandoned site might have. For this reason, I looked at other similar sites occupied by the Britons at this time which had been abandoned soon after this time period and were, therefore, more intact.
The most frustrating aspect is the lack of primary sources. The next most frustrating is that history books don’t always tell you about day to day life, but that is where talking to the reenactors really helped.
Another aspect that was frustrating, but at the same time interesting, was the various languages and how the names of those involved are complicated by those translations and you have to be very careful to make sure that you know who is who. For example, Causantin is better known in English as Constantine and Ìmar as Ivarr.
At that time, four main languages would have been used in what is now Scotland; Brythonic (Old Welsh), Goidelic (Old Irish/Gaelic), Old Norse and Northumbrian. Latin is used in most of the historical sources. It remains debatable whether the Picts used a Brythonic or Goidelic language, but either way, it was Celtic in origin.
What are the most common pitfalls for aspiring historical romance writers during the research process? What advice would you give to avoid these pitfalls?
The most common pitfalls are either not doing enough research and being inaccurate or else trying to put all your research into the book. You need to learn to pick and choose so that you include just the right amount. There are, however, times when you just need to decide what makes sense to your story as a whole and go with it. The story is, after all, meant to be entertaining and too many facts or too much realism is probably not going to be all that romantic. I, for one, do not need to read about lice!
Are there any real historical figures in your novel? Are any of the characters modeled on real historical figures?
Ivarr the Boneless and Olaf the White don’t actually appear but are mentioned. They really did besiege Alt Clut for four months, then carried off many of the Britons there and sold them at the slave market in Ath Cliath (Dublin). One of those captives was King Artgal, who was killed just before the events of the book begin. His son, King Rhun, appears in the second book and I have tried to keep that information accurate but again, there is so little known that a lot of it had to be created just for the story. I’ve tried not to include events that are totally incongruous.
Are there any specific rules to follow when modeling fiction characters on known historical figures? Is there a risk the character becomes too predictable? What steps would you suggest to the aspiring historical writer to avoid this type of pitfall?
Personally, it’s not really something that interests me. Having said that, it’s always important to remember that the historical record that exists is generally that of a male, white, western perspective and may not actually be the most accurate version of the events from the viewpoint of anyone else. It’s important to consider that the records, and the information contained within them, are biased and therefore, re-interpreting historical figures through a different lens may be a very interesting thing to do. I’m not really the person to ask about the pitfalls of this, as it’s not where my interests lie.
The Viking’s Cursed Bride will be published this November. Would you describe its journey to publication as easy or arduous?
I found the editing process very difficult but I have learned so much from working with my editor this time around and feel sure that many of the issues can be avoided next time. I have quite a long list of words that I need to make sure I stop overusing and have also learned I need to plan better before I start writing. I always start with a plan for my books but now I need to learn to stick to it!
What is your next project, a novel or a play?
I’m currently writing the second novel in this series, revising a romantic suspense for Harlequin and writing a play exploring the inaccuracies in the media perception of the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper.