This Wednesday’s How I Write Blog post series is about research, so I thought, what better way to present more than one opinion on research then to interview someone who has jumped in with both feet? I present to you, author Kat Black. Her books about a 14th century scottish lad are a fabulous read. Tormod, A Templar’s Apprentice is available now in hardcover and will be released in softcover in December. Book #2, A Templar’s Gifts, which I’m eagerly awaiting, releases in February.
The Book of Tormod is set in 14th century Scotland. How did you research to write this story?
The internet is my first source. I don’t know what anyone did before Google. Not only can I get the titles and authors of every book ever written on the crazed subjects I need to cover, but the random links it throws my way are truly amazing. I never know what I’ll find when I begin jumping. That’s how I think about the internet. Research is a series of leaps. I grab an idea and let myself go to wherever it takes me.
The library, of course, comes next. I use several and find across-the-board that reference librarians are fabulous people who really love to help. Just ask!
And third is the country of origin. I booked a trip to Scotland and spent two weeks on a tour bus travelling through the highlands. I was the youngest person on the bus by at least twenty-five years, but it was the best research I’ve ever done. I listened to the locals at every stop. I saw firsthand the remains of castles and abbeys and just drank in everything Scottish. I highly suggest it of anyone using a real place as the backdrop to his or her story. If you want to get it right. Go there.
Great advice. Scotland is number one on my list of places to visit! In Tormod, you use phrases like “Within the candle mark”, that I can only imagine what they mean. Did you create these phrases or find them during your research?
Some phrases I found and others I made up. I wanted to give the old feel without using words like hours, or days. In the beginning I thought if they didn’t have a clock how could they mark the different times of the day. I came up with the idea that a candle, a maybe quarter inch around maybe six inches high would probably burn in about an hour. It’s probably wrong and if I were just making it up now, by book three, I would have tested it first:] A quarter candle mark was to me about fifteen minutes and a half a candle a half hour. The Scottish words like bairn (child), balach (boy), and bodhran (skin drum), I found in a Scottish Gaelic Dictionary. When I first started I sent a list of the words I was thinking of using to a librarian in the highlands whose great aunt still spoke the language. She made sure the ones I had were in the right context and accurate. I have to say that’s been such a phenomenal thing. People want to help you. They go out of their way and don’t ask for anything in return.
My awesome copy editors checked some of the other phrases I used out. A league is how far you can comfortably walk in an hour. A sennight is a week. A fortnight is two weeks. Then I had all the crazy things to consider. If you were traveling by horseback, how far could you possibly go in an hour? If you were in a wooden ship crossing the ocean from Scotland and landing in Spain how long would it take? You know, the easy stuff:]
What inspired you to write a book about the Templar Knights?
I didn’t intend to at first. I wrote another book that had a bit character that was a Templar. I began to research to flesh him out and was just captivated. The background story about the Knights was so interesting. I could hardly believe I had heard nothing about them until that time. It’s pretty wild that I was doing my thing the same time Dan Brown was doing his. I started the Templar digging at least ten years ago. I’m going to keep myself from spoiling the full story so I won’t tell you what I found. Enough to say that it’s pretty amazing stuff. What bothered me though, then and still today, is that there is not a story out there that presents a Templar Knight in a good light. I’m not really sure why, but I needed to reconcile that. I created not one, but two in the Templar and Tormod his apprentice. The Templar Alexander is the Knight I imagine as the true, devoted, and good man I know was an integral part of that order. Tormod has always wanted to be a Templar and hopes and prays that his wish will come true. Whether or not that happens I’ll not be telling here.
So in all your research you must have run across a ton of lore. What is your favorite bit of Scottish Lore that you did not include in the book?
I love everything in the old Scottish tales. I have to do something with The Hag of the Highlands; a personification of Cailleac Bhuer, Celtic Crone Goddess, an old woman who appears to travelers often during a heavy mist. If she is stirring her cloak in the river beware, she is the harbinger of winter and death. Aside from that I love the druids, and the woad painted Picts, and anything celtic in origin.
What was the hardest part for you about writing fiction from history?
My most difficult job is the juggling. Getting it right while balancing the many story lines I have running consecutively. History is such a slippery thing. If it’s a time really long ago, like mine, there are few records. I have the names and dates of the key Templar players. I know where they were when major things were happening. I have as well the key French players, and the Popes. My job is to juggle them all together and keep this fabulous back story in the back as I write about Tormod, a fictional boy who has a journey of his own to make.
Just think of the challenge of several stories running at the same time. There’s a boy. There’s a carving. There’s a map. There’s something in the visions plaguing the boy. Each of these threads have their own full history and story. The boy is the main thread and we know him well. But the carving . . . Where is it from? Who is it based on? Who was it carved by? Why? And the map. What is it of? A land below. Flowing waterfall. The stars above at a certain time of year. And whatever it is that needs to be found, why? What will happen if it’s found? What will happen if it falls into the wrong hands? I just love it!
It’s hard not to get carried away with all the other great questions to answer, isn’t it? Do you have a last research tip you can share for other writers of historical fiction?
The greatest thing I can tell you is to let your research take you where it will. Don’t think for a moment you know what you are doing. When I began it was with the kernel of a premise. By the time I’ve gotten to here, book three, I’ve discovered a phenomenal conspiracy that covers several countries, kings, popes, spirituality, and the greed of men. It’s a wild ride. History is more than dates and names to remember from a book. (That’s what I thought of history as a kid.) It is stories from a time different from our own about people who lived, breathed, learned, and sometimes prayed.
Ooh, I love that. I think that’s what I love about history too. What other projects are on the horizon?
I have several ideas working their way into my world. One is called Winter’s Song, the story of an ancient healer who has been called through time to save a child who has been targeted by a serial killer.
And maybe a series set in the French Revolution. I was given a short list of questions during a workshop. When I answered them I had the kernel of a story about a boy, who is a pickpocket living beneath a bridge in Paris. He has to sell an ancient heirloom in order to buy his brother’s freedom from the workhouse he was sent to when their parents were killed. I am completely uneducated about the French Revolution, but it’s calling me and I believe I will leap.
I am drawn to write about ancient times and places that have an interwoven line of fantasy. But be warned I can’t write simply. There will be layers on layers that will blend history and fiction. I have to do it.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Thank you so much for having me on your blog. I love what I do and it is so great to finally have kids out there living the journey along with me. The more I write, the more I learn, and what I have discovered in the process is that I am truly the luckiest person on the face of the earth.
And we are truly lucky to have you! Thanks for sharing your bits of research wisdom. And come back Wednesday to see how I research for fantasy. Research for Fantasy you ask? Yep! There is still research, even for a made up world.