30 September 2012

Guest Blog: Maggie Secara

This week, we’re welcoming historical fantasy author Maggie Secara, whose title THE DRAGON RING looks at history through time traveler Ben Harper's eyesJoin us Sunday, when Maggie will be here to talk about the novel and offer a copy to a lucky winner. Please leave a comment with your email address for a chance to win. Here's the blurb:

When the King of Faerie calls in a favor, what can you do? Follow your gift. Find the magic. Travel in time. Save the world... How hard can it be?

Reality TV host Ben Harper has a problem: he owes the king of Faerie a favor. So now he has to track down the three parts of a Viking arm-ring, and return them to their place in time. This takes him through the wolf-haunted forests of Viking Age Wessex, the rowdy back streets of Shakespeare's London, and a derelict Georgian country house. Partnered with caustic, shape-changing Raven and guided by a slightly wacky goblin diary, Ben must rediscover his own gifts while facing his doubts and the queen of Faerie's minions, who will do anything to stop him.

The Dragon Ring, the first in the Harper Errant series, is a time travelling mythic adventure that takes you to Old England, and leaves you enchanted. 

**Q&A with Maggie Secara**

What do you love best about your own writing or anyone else’s? What makes you fall in love with a book?

The music! That is, the words themselves. I started out as a poet, and I’ve been singing from an early age in choirs or small groups, and that’s all influenced how I use and respond to language. There’s music in a balanced sentence, in the way the words bounce off each other, that tells me I’ve chosen the right ones.

Everything else builds on that, whether the sensory details of a description or the flash and dazzle of a conversation; the hero’s awareness of the weight of the sword in his hand or the giddy realization that he’s in love. When I’m reading, those are the passages that make me stop and read them out loud just for the feel of the words in my mouth. When I’m not sure about a sentence or a paragraph of my own, I always read it aloud and listen for the stumbling places, and don’t move on until I’m content with the sound as well as the meaning. Oh yes, the meaning too. There’s a story going on here, and characters to meet. The words may sing and dance, but are they doing their job? If not, if I have to cut them away and put them in a box, I will. Tough love.

Speaking of characters, what do you do to make your characters both believable and interesting to the reader?

Story is why we pick up a book, but the characters are why we read it. A plot isn’t events, it’s people reacting to events. If you don’t believe in the characters, you probably won’t buy any of the rest. I think what makes a character come to life is the little, often secret things—skills or beliefs or events in their past-- that even their friends may not know.

In The Dragon Ring, for example, ex-pat Ben Harper is the star of a popular reality show on British television, who practically grew up at the Renaissance Faires in California. In King’s Raven (coming this Christmas),  Miss Susan Pickering, a perfectly sensible Victorian spinster struggling to manage on her own, keeps a sketch book in her handbag and a photographic memory in her head. I can’t plan those things. In general, I’m completely unaware of them until the character comes up and says Hey! Look at this! In some cases, those details turn out to be critical to the story—and what a happy surprise that is! Other times, they’re more or less incidental, though never irrelevant. Either way, those details are what sets one blue-eyed hero apart from another, and helps to make him real.

Without asking ‘where do you get your ideas”, can you tell us about the inspiration for your latest book, The Dragon Ring?

This is actually kind of a funny story, if you know my friend Ari. Ari is a college professor, a brilliant scholar and folklorist, a devoted husband and father, and a gifted writer with a devastating wit. Also, I’ve known him a very long time. Well, I’d wanted to tackle NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for some time, and was racking my brain for a starting point. Then late one night in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere, a question popped into my head: “What if Ari had to solve a mystery?” That tickled me so much I knew it was the start of a great idea—but still only the start. For one thing, there had to be a puzzle worthy of his talents. And there had to be something precious at stake to be worthy of his time. And being Ari, myth and folklore would be central, and that led me straight down the road to fair Elfland. I stayed up all night filling up the last blank pages in an old spiral with the questions I always ask and sketching in possible answers until something like a plot started to come together. Of course, it all came out quite different as the story plan developed, but the idea of a clever, charming hero who was also a family man was where it all began.

What do you find most interesting about setting a story set in the past?

A lot of the historical writers I know would probably say it’s historical events, but the big events are too big to me, and I tend to shy away from them. When a story idea starts to form, it always has a historical setting, but it’s the place, times, and peoples themselves that I find fascinating. So I dig up letters, inventories, wills, landscape and costume pictures, as well as street maps and floor plans. The minutiae of everyday life shows me people who find their challenges on days when the world isn’t violently changing around them. When their world intersects with Faerie, the characters meet those challenges in unexpected ways. And there’s my story

There are exceptions, of course. The central historical point in The Dragon Ring is a meeting between King Alfred and a Viking war leader called Guthrum. The meeting actually took place, though the details are vague—perfect for fiction. One thing we do know, as I discovered while I was in the planning phase, is that they swore an oath on a “holy ring”. And that was the key to everything.

I understand you do a lot of research for your books, but when I read a novel, I want a good story not a history lesson. How do you handle that?

As a reader, I hate authors who over-explain. The trick is to provide a sensory impression of place and time without burying the story in mere facts. I want you to feel like you’ve really been there with Ben and Raven, not like there’s going to be a quiz later. Mind you, I’m fussy about accuracy in the fine details as well as the broad generalities. I want to know how houses were furnished, the kitchen tools they used, and the way they spoke to their children and servants as well as to their lovers—and all these things change over time. The better handle I have on those details, the easier it is to decide what to use and what to leave aside. The more comfortable I feel in, say, Elizabethan London, the easier it is to just tell the story and let the details fall into place just as you would in a contemporary setting.  

Thank you, Maggie, and best of luck with THE DRAGON RING
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