Bringing Legend to Life

By JD Smith

One of the beautiful things about legends is that they are inherently shrouded in mystery, stories passed down through generations, twisted and changed and retold. They are history and at the same time they are fire-side stories, propaganda and bending of truth to favour the side of the storyteller.

old script by @libby_ol

To adapt a legend going back hundreds or thousands of years is to change history once more and bring a new angle to an old tale. We storytellers do it without thinking because we are born to explore characters, places and what might have been. We tread the path of the unknown, weaving our findings in and around knowledge recorded in poems, songs and books which have been passed on and retold through the ages.

Tristan and Iseult Cover MEDIUMTristan and Iseult is one such legend, made popular in French poetry during the 12th century. It may or may not have been a true story. It is the romance and tragedy of Cornish knight, Tristan, and Irish princess, Iseult, retold many times and influencing many stories to follow. It predates Arthurian legend and is considered to have been the basis for the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The legend first appealed to me when I read Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy, where he weaves into the story all the hallmarks of what makes Arthurian legend what it is, including Tristan and Iseult and their love for one another, but in a way that is truly believable, even the magic of Merlin. His masterly skill showed me there were ways yet to retell old stories in new ways, and a few years later I took up the challenge.

I went back to the heart of what makes Tristan and Iseult the people they are and stripped away the myth. What did we really know about these two people? What is the essence of their story? Tristan was nephew to King Mark of Kernow (Cornwall) and Iseult was the daughter to the Irish king Donnchadh’s. We know Lord Morholt seized control of southern Ireland, and we know he was defeated. And we know Tristan and Iseult loved one another, but that it was a forbidden love.

From there I wove a tale I believed in, a tale of simple love that echoes across the centuries. The characters would never speak the word but they would feel it and show it and know what it is to find a person they want to spent their life with but unable to because life doesn’t always happen that way. Love is not always easy and it is not always kind. Sometimes it is a sickness and we believe the other person to be the cure when really, only time and distance can starve the fever. The question for me was would love fade to nothing?

fade to grey by @libby_ol

I wove into this simple story other elements I found on my research travels; mentions of Iseult of the White Hands, Tristan’s mother, his cousin, the war against the Saxons, struggles against the Irish, and the mention at the very end of hazel and honeysuckle that features in some sources, but again, it is a hint of other tales and my own take on them.

For me, the tale of these two lovers was poetic and yet I am no poet. I took instead the immediacy of first person present tense for a legend over a thousand years old, bringing it rapidly into the here and now. Above all I am a cynic and I couldn’t write a story with an obvious love conquers all ending, although in some ways it does. My exploration of Tristan and his Iseult was not one of researching historical facts and discovering the truth of events and actions, but finding the true nature of love and loyalty and how it makes us the people we are.

Jane_12_LARGETristan and Iseult is a finalist for the Historical Novel Society Indie Book of the Year Award 2015. The winner will be announced in June.

JD Smith is the author of Tristan and Iseult, The Rise of Zenobia and The Fate of an Emperor, editor of Words with JAM and Bookmuse, and the mother of three mischievous boys.

Creativity in Tandem: How I Became a Co-author

By Pete Morin

Image courtesy Pete Morin

Image courtesy: Pete Morin

I discovered the peculiar art of novel writing in 2007, when I wrote Diary of a Small Fish as a means of grieving my father’s death. It was an exhilarating period of about two-and-a-half years until I finally typed “the end.”

This didn’t daunt me, since I had been schooled that first novels are usually kind of rough sledding. Surely, after I got that under my belt, the next one would go faster! Yes, yes, it would. I set a goal of one year for #2. Twenty eight months later, I finished. I started a third, and took six months to get about 30K in.

By this point, the indie revolution was in full thrust, and hundreds of novelists, both Big Name and small, were cranking out novels every 3-4 months. What did they have that I didn’t?

It was obvious to me. I can invent a story, but I just can’t put the tale together with facility. I was taking weeks, sometimes, to figure out what came next.

“Oh, you’re a pantser, that’s your problem!” you say. “Do an outline, plan your story.”

Easy for you to say. My mind isn’t made for outlines.

Some writers are storytellers, and some are story makers. Think about your five favorite authors. Are they all equally good at making the story as they are at writing them? I love John Grisham’s stories, but I don’t think he’s a terrific teller. I’m a teller.

After three efforts, I decided that if I was going to write fast, I needed some help in this fine art of story building. I needed a plotting fiend who would collaborate with me in both the invention and creation of the novel.

I took to my blog to solicit interest. I did not awake with a full in-box of offers. I did, however, get a message from an old friend I’d met on Authonomy [writers’ forum] years before, at the beginning of my journey.

Susanne O’Leary is a Swedish-born citizen of Ireland, married to a career Irish diplomat. We’d spent way too much time in the Authonomy forums (with hundreds of others). She had a sharp wit and could get prickly at times. She wrote romantic comedy, and she assured me that if I needed help putting a plot together, she was my pick.

Wait, what? Why would I ever consider writing with someone in a totally different genre?

Well, I wondered that myself. She had a plausible answer—I was interested in writing political/legal suspense. Dirty politicians, crafty lawyers. She had an interest in Irish politics (married to a diplomat, you’d not be surprised) and loved the idea of a Boston-Dublin political potboiler. Why not a story involving Irish politicians on both sides of the pond, featuring a return of Small Fish’s hero, Paul Forte? And in Ireland, a co-hero: a brassy redheaded political editor of a Dublin newspaper, Finola McGee. We would knit two stories together, Paul’s and Finola’s, as they intersected, and the scenes would jump back and forth between them.

Oh, gee, I thought. That sounds like it could be fun. Let’s run this out a bit and see where it goes, and if we can get half the story sketched out and I felt good about it, what the hell? One thing that clinched it for me: Susanne had co-authored two novels (Virtual Strangers and Virtual Suspects) with fellow Swede Ola Saltin (another acquaintance from Authonomy), both done as send-ups to the traditionally murder mystery. Their humor was wicked, and although Ola’s style was dramatically different than Susanne’s, they managed to pull it off quite well.

Four days later, we’d set up about half the story, with comfort that there would be no breakdowns along the way.


The Full Irish cover, courtesy Pete Morin and Susanne O’Leary

We began our project from scratch on May 1, 2014. We finished the rough draft by the end of July, sent our final draft to an editor on October 1, and went live with Full Irish on December 1st. Six months, door-to-door.

I won’t say the process was flawless, seamless, without a bit of head butting or a few cross words. But I will say this: Susanne and I had made a commitment to get it done, and we had no trouble overcoming whatever disagreements came up. The principal concern at the outset would have to be, were our styles were sufficient compatible? At the beginning, we were concerned about this, but we set the concern aside, agreed that “all first drafts are shit,” and just forged on until we had a finished story, rugged as it was.

As the rewriting progressed, we had a critical discussion about whether or not I should edit her scenes and she edit mine. I held firmly to the yes until I got my way. And I worked very hard to revise Susanne’s scenes to preserve the distinct Irishness of it, while shaving and shaping to bring the two styles closer together. It was dicey at the beginning, as some of the scenes went back and forth with quite a bit of red and blue. But Susanne is a professional, she’s published a hell of a lot more than I have, and she was quite gracious about my editorial intrusions.

While there were some polite disagreements, in the end it seemed we were remarkably in sympathy on all of the important elements of a final product—especially the cover.

We were excited enough about our experience that we’re currently more than 40K words into the next one.

I would say that co-writing is an ideal arrangement for writers who have absolutely no problem taking or giving criticism, fighting for your position, and having the emotional and intellectual maturity to be able to compromise or even cede completely. Remarkably (somewhat) Susanne and I seem to have lucked out*.

*not to be confused with ‘lucked in’, depending on which country you inhabit …