Just for a change of pace, I thought it would be fun to let you hear from someone beside me about how they research the medieval history in their novels! I chose to begin with G.G. Vandagriff, author of The Aruthurian Omen, a mystery/thriller type novel that takes place in modern day Wales, but is highly influenced by Wales’ medieval past. I hope you enjoy the interview that follows, and if interested in Welsh research, find some helpful tips in my discussion with G.G.
Joyce: Even though your novel, The Arthurian Omen, deals with a modern-day chase to discover a lost Arthurian manuscript, you refer to a great deal of medieval Welsh history in your book. What inspired you to set much of the background of your novel against the history of medieval Wales?
G.G.: It’s impossible to be in Wales without being captivated by its medieval history. To the Welsh, it might have been yesterday. They have their own language, their own history, their own heroes. In 2000 there was a huge celebration in Wales commemorating the uprising by Owain Glyndwr who was pledged to reclaim his land from the Anglo-Saxons six hundred years ago. He is their hero, along with Arthur (who Glyndwr claimed to represent). The beautiful ruins of the castles built by the English and later captured by Glyndwr are such food for the imagination. (See my website: arthurianomen.com for links to all the castles and monasteries in the book.) I was so interested in the tangle of events back in the days of Glyndwr and the stand off between the Arthur of legend and the barbarian Anglo-Saxons, I got carried away and started researching the period in detail. I now have a cursory knowledge of Welsh medieval history—nowhere near as in depth as yours, I’m certain. [JOYCE’S NOTE: What “expertise” I have lies in medieval England and portions of medieval France, so G.G. is definitely much more of an expert on medieval Wales than I!]
J: How did you choose the historical background—social, political, etc—for The Arthurian Omen?
G.G.: I became very intrigued when reading Geoffrey Ashe’s book about Arthur. He had based his whole theory of who Arthur really was on the existence of a manuscript from the 5th century that had never been found, but only alluded to in a 12th century manuscript. This 5th century manuscript was purported to exist in the library of Archdeacon Walter of Oxford, but no one knew what had become of it. To a storyteller like myself, it was the starting point for a thriller. What would happen if someone had a clue that would tell where the fifth century manuscript was hidden? They could prove Arthur’s existence! Plus, it would obviously be worth millions. And the sentimental value to the Welsh would be enormous. I decided to use people with all of these motives as characters. The “omen” is the manuscript. It is coveted in particular by a deluded Welshman as a tool to facilitate a Welsh revolution which would do away with the Windsors, making way for the return of the “The Once and Future King.”
J: What did you enjoy most about writing the historical aspects of your book?
G.G.: I studied history in college and did a lot of traveling. I love the FEEL of history. I love standing in historical places and imagining all that went on there. To a person of my imagination, it’s heaven. Real historic places are something we have very little of in this country. I think the travel and my actual presence in the historical places was the best part of writing the book. It had its birth in the bewitching, mystical Welsh countryside.
J: What did you enjoy least about writing the historical aspects of your book?
G.G.: There wasn’t really anything I didn’t enjoy about the history, except the Welsh myths were a little hard to decipher. A friend of mine who lived in Wales explained them to me, but I’m still not certain I understand the importance of them to the Welsh.
J: How did you research the Welsh history included in The Arthurian Omen?
G.G.: I used books such as King of the Celts: Arthurian Legends and Celtic Tradition, by Jean Markale.; The Discovery of King Arthur, by Georffrey Ashe; The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture, by Jean Markale; Insight Guides: Wales, Celtic Myths by Miranda Jane Green; and Arthurian Legends, by Marie Trevelyan. I also had a picture book of Wales that really helped me with the history of the sites, and I also used guidebooks and road maps. Of course, I did a ton of research on the Internet, as well, particularly about Owain Glyndwr. [NOTE: G.G. says she typed "Owain Glyndwr" into Google to find websites devoted to him.]
J: Which books or websites have you found most helpful to your historical research, and why?
G.G.: The Owain Glyndwr site was extremely helpful. All the sites of the towns and castles in the book were goldmines. The book that was most helpful was The Discovery of King Arthur, by Geoffrey Ashe. I also enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part one, for the English take on Glyndwr.
J: How did you choose authentic Welsh names for the non-historical characters in your book?
G.G.: Throughout the years, I’ve learned (through doing genealogy), the most common Welsh names—Griffith, Jones, Morgan, Williams, Thomas, etc. It is kind of an instinct with me to know the history of names.
J: How do you balance story vs. history in your books?
G.G.: That is difficult, because different readers like different things. I just finished writing a book based on the decline and fall of the Hapsburg Empire. Some readers loved the history and other wished I’d do away with it. Welsh history is so interesting and so interwoven with all aspects of their life and culture, that it was easy to use it as almost a “character” in the story. A lot of Americans don’t know a lot about Wales, so the whole setting of the book was kind of “magical”. Also, everyone seems to love King Arthur and what he represents. Knowing the history of Wales was imperative for Maren (my main character) in order for her to solve the mysteries, so the reader learned along with Maren.
J: Do you have any favorite medieval historical personages, either Welsh or otherwise? And why are they your favorites?
G.G.: I must confess that I have a weakness for Owain Glyndwr. He had vision and was capable of inspiring men to do great things. Imagine reuniting Wales after a millennium. There hasn’t been anyone like him since. I feel that he must have had a very complex personality and a great belief in the Arthurian Legend to empower him.
J: Tell us a little about The Arthurian Omen.
G.G.: The book opens with a 15th century monk (a follower of Glyndwr) discovering and then burying the manuscript that would prove Arthur’s identity. He dies while being pursued by Prince Henry’s men [the future King Henry V]. Maren’s sister, Rachael, discovers a clue to the hiding place of the manuscript, but before she can begin her search, she is brutally murdered. Her estranged sister, Maren, wants to find closure in her relationship with her dead sister by pursuing her quest and unmasking the murderer. The reader knows who the murderer is, but he is not obviously one of the characters (Arthurian scholars, policemen, an old lover) joining Maren in her search. Who is this psychopath who believes himself to be Owain Glyndwr trying to unite the Welsh and overthrow the current monarchy? Who murdered her sister? Are these people among the little group of traveling companions who are searching monasteries and castles for the manuscript? The reader knows this person is one of her companions, but doesn’t know who. The book is a psychological thriller, running against the clock which is set at the anniversary of Glyndwr’s uprising when the new “Glyndwr” plans to murder Prince Charles, and use the “omen” to rally the Welsh to Arthur’s ancient cause of ridding the island of Anglo-Saxons and returning rightful rule to the Celts.
J: Would you like to share anything with us about any upcoming projects you have going on?
G.G.: I have written a mystery series about two genealogists (a rifle toting grandma and an angst-driven young widow). The fourth book in that series, Poisoned Pedigree, is due out in September. The project of my lifetime has been The Last Waltz, a romantic epic set during the years of 1913-1938 in Austria. I am very excited for that to come out next spring. In the autumn of next year, there will be either a collection of my essays or another mystery. It depends on whether I am writing the sequel to The Last Waltz yet. I cannot write the sequel without traveling to Poland, France, Scotland, and Hampshire, England.
J: Do you have any advice to share with other historical writers?
G.G.: Know your history so well that you can integrate it in your book either by metaphor, allegory, or as a “character”. Don’t write a textbook. Make the history absolutely relevant in the lives of your characters, whether they are living through it or whether they are trying to discover it.
J: Thank you so much for joining us today, G.G.
G.G.: The pleasure is all mine! Please visit my website at www.arthurianomen.com. If you are interested in reading the book, you can order it on line through my website or from your local Barnes & Noble if they don’t have it on their shelves. And of course, there’s always Amazon!