Monday, March 17, 2014

O, thou Dragon of the Island

My first book, Dragon of the Island, is free on Amazon today (March 17) through tomorrow. Link is:

When, over twenty years ago, I decided to write a book, I chose a genre that fit my love of history and, inspired by the King Arthur tales of Mary Stewart and Rosemary Sutcliffe, set it in dark age Wales. At first I floundered, trying to find my story. But then in my research I came upon a sixth century Welsh warlord named Maelgwn the Great and everything started to come together.

There’s actually much more historical evidence for Maelgwn the Great than there is King Arthur, and in northern Wales the name is still common. But unfortunately, the best account we have of Maelgwn and of the time period he lived in was written by one of his contemporaries who appeared to despise him. Writing in 543, Gildas the Monk calls Maelgwn a “tyrant among tyrants” and general disparages his character. He also refers to him as “O, thou dragon of the island”, a wonderfully evocative description that became the title of my book.

I imagined Maelgwn as a fiercely independent man, as raw and untamed as the land he ruled. In Roman British princess Aurora, I gave him a heroine who could match his tempestuous nature and more than hold her own. As their story unfolded, the themes of treachery and betrayal naturally wove themselves into the plot, along with warfare, violence and a soul-consuming passion. By the end, the world I had created seemed as real and alive to me as any place I’d ever been. And when I finally visited Wales ten years later, I wasn’t disappointed, as I was still able to catch glimpses of the wild, majestic, mystical world I had envisioned.

Since Dragon, I’ve written fifteen more books. But none of them stirs my blood the way this first one did.

Some scenes from Maelgwn’s world:

Saturday, March 15, 2014

My Irish Love Affair

This photo is of a blue-eyed horse we saw while hiking (and getting lost) in the Slieve Bloom mountains It doesn't really have anything do with this post, other than it illustrates the beauty and magic of the Irish land.

About a third of my bloodline on my mother’s side is Irish, but growing up I didn’t really pay much attention to that aspect of my heritage. I do recall my great-aunt joking about her “big Irish feet”. She also had among her curio collection a tiny cauldron made out of Irish bog oak and a box containing a chunk of Irish peak, both of which, as a child, I found fascinating. I also remember her showing me a picture of her mother’s family in County Armagh, Ireland. My great-great grandfather has a beard like Abraham Lincoln and the women are all wearing dresses with huge full skirts, although they were so petite that they reminded me of dolls. My great-grandmother later came to the U.S. and married a man who also claimed Irish descent, as his father was born in County Antrim.

But my real interest in the Irish started when I was 14 and I read an interview about Jim Morrison, my adolescent crush (or more like, obsession) which described him as a “black-white Irishman”. In this phase of my life I was delving deep into anything mentioned in interviews with my hero, including reading Nietzsche, researching Greek mythology, and exploring the Irish fascination with poetry, drink and despair. Much later I learned that Jim was really of Scotch extraction.

Of course the Scotch and the Irish were totally mixed up genetically, so it’s really hard to tell which is which. Throughout the dark ages, the Irish were known as the Scotti. But they invaded the region we now know as Scotland so many times that this archaic name for the Irish got attached to Scotland. There are several possible sources of this name, including an Irish legend about Scota, a woman of the Milesians who according to myth hailed from Egypt and was one of the founders of the “modern” (after the Firbolgs and the Tuatha de Dannan, of course) race.

When I met my husband, I thought he was the living, breathing cliché of an Irishman. He has red hair, comes from a family of eight kids and is named Patrick. A name he shares with with an uncle, great-uncle, great-grandfather and most likely, a few dozen other men of his line, going back generations.

He introduced me to the whole Protestant/Catholic issue, which I had previously been only vaguely aware of from reading news accounts of the “troubles” in modern Ireland. It turns out that some of my Irish ancestors came from Scotland, which meant that my husband had “married the enemy”, as Cromwell encouraged Protestant Scots to settle in northern Ireland to overwhelm and subjugate the native population. Of course, I later learned, from my great aunt’s research, that my male descendants who came from Scotland were Quakers who went to Ireland to escape religious persecution, since during the Cromwell era, being Quaker was as dangerous as being Catholic.

The Irish have long memories. I suppose I’m an example in that I love the past and the vast majority of my books are set hundreds of years ago. I've been to Ireland twice and hope to visit again later this year. Every time I go I am renewed and inspired by the mystical scenery, stirring traditional music and some intangible connection to the land itself. My female line in Ireland goes way back and in some sense it will always be my "motherland".

Because of the lingering darkness from the history of the last few hundred years, so far modern Ireland has not appealed to me as a literary setting. But you never know. My Irish fantasy series might someday end up connecting to present day Ireland and I read so many Irish mysteries that maybe I'll be inspired to write one.

Ireland was always a turbulent place. I have a copy of the Annals of the Four Masters, which is reputed to be the history of Ireland from ancient times, written down in the Middle Ages. It’s all about “who slew who”, a rather monotonous recitation of endless power struggles between people who were genetically and religiously identical. The Irish are feisty and passionate, and probably always have been. And that’s what I love about them.

But they are not, in general, great cooks. I have been to Ireland twice, and the best meals I had were decidedly not Irish. But there are some lovely exceptions. I offer for you, a recipe for Dublin Carmel Apple Cake. It’s delicious enough that with the help of a little Irish whiskey (you have to buy some for the cake) you can forget the past for a time and simply celebrate. Something the Irish do better than anyone.

Dublin Carmel Apple Cake

1/2 c. firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 c. butter
8 oz. heavy whipped cream, divided
1/3 c. chopped pecans

1 pkg. apple cinnamon quick bread mix
1 c. peeled, chopped apple
3/4 c. water
3 Tbs. Irish whiskey
1/4 c. oil
1 egg

remaining heavy whipping cream
2 Tbs. powdered sugar
2 Tbs. Irish whiskey


Heat oven to 350F. In small sauce pan over low heat, combine brown sugar, butter and 2 Tbs. whipping cream. Cook and stir until butter is just melted. Remove from heat. Stir in pecans. Pour mixture into bottom of ungreased 9 in. round cake pan or 9 in. square pan. Set aside. Combine all cake ingredients. Stir thoroughly. Carefully spoon batter over caramel mixture, making sure caramel is completely covered. Bake at 350F for 40-50 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 1 minute. Invert onto serving plate. Cool. Just before serving, beat remaining whipped cream until soft peaks form. Add powdered sugar and whiskey. Beat until stiff peaks form. Spread whipped cream over cake. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Store in refrigerator. Serves 10.

Some notes: The quickbread mix used is one of the small packages (like the Jiffy brand of pizza dough or cornbread mix). If you use a larger package, cake mix size, you'll have too much batter for one cake. Only about 2/3 will fit into pan. If you can't find the quick bread mix, you can substitute a homemade apple spice cake recipe, using whiskey for part of the liquid.