Author Q&A: Darci Hannah on Publishing, Scottish History and The Angel of Blythe Hall
Following this week’s review of Darci Hannah’s romantic historical novel The Angel of Blythe Hall I’m positively thrilled to share a conversation with the author. Darci was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for Literary Inklings, and what she had to say rings of insight, creativity and wonder. Enjoy; and thanks again, Darci!
The Angel of Blythe Hall weaves fiction and history together, both in its characters and events. What inspired you to focus your story during the reign of King James IV?
Good question! First, let me start by saying that The Angel of Blythe Hall started out as something quite different. I’m one of those few authors (wink wink) who had a hard time finding publication for my first novel, which was a rather large, sweeping historical epic. Back then I didn’t realize how important word count was to a publisher, but after receiving over a hundred agent rejections I finally got the message. That was when I decided to write a smaller, normal-sized novel. The result was The Exile of Sara Stevenson. I adored that novel and felt certain the first agent I queried would too. Yet again I was wrong. So while the rejection letters were rolling in for poor Sara Stevenson, I thought that maybe I should be writing for the young adult market, after all, agents seemed to be clamoring for that stuff. That’s when the idea for Blythe Hall came to me. Honestly, all I knew at the time was that I wanted to write a story for my sons. I wanted it to be magical without actually using magic, I wanted a charismatic hero, and, of course, it had to be rife with adventure. From the very start I knew that I wanted to set the novel in the early renaissance, because to me no other period in history mirrors the adolescent mind better, with its vibrant energy, bold curiosity and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
Author Darci Hannah
I really had no intention of setting another novel in Scotland. By this time I had set two novels in Scotland…well, my first novel was actually set in Norway but ended in Scotland, hence the setting of Sara Stevenson’s story. Yet after a good deal of research, and after hoping some place would jump out at me as the perfect setting, for some odd reason I kept coming back to Scotland, and to the reign of James IV. I was intrigued by the guy, especially by a line that I read in an old history book that said as a young king James would often disguise himself as a peasant and ride through his realm unattended like a prince of romance. That line stuck with me, and the more I read about him and his reign the more I realized that to me he embodied the perfect Renaissance king. I was also fascinated by the Scotland of his time. It didn’t take long before I knew I had my setting. By that time the characters of my story had all fallen into place as well, and I began writing my young adult novel.
I had written about a hundred pages when I finally received that call I had been waiting years for. It was from an agent who loved The Exile of Sara Stevenson! Of course, I was ecstatic. I was even more so when three weeks later she sold a two book deal for me to Ballantine, a division of Random House. The condition for my contract was that Ballantine required another work of historical fiction, geared towards the women’s audience, set in Scotland, with paranormal elements. Since I had just spent the last two years researching and writing about Scotland in the reign of James IV, I knew that I couldn’t give it up that easily. I had a lot of passion for the period and the king, and so I decided to rethink my story and start it at the beginning. That’s when Julius and Isabeau appeared, two troubled siblings from a rather unique Border family. I loved them from the start and knew they would be amazing characters to explore. I then chose the theme of angels as my paranormal element, due in part to the cult of angels that arose in the renaissance, and partly because it fit so nicely into my story. I wrote up a pitch and sent it off to my editors at Ballantine. They loved it, and that’s essentially how The Angel of Blythe Hall came to be written.
While James IV plays a very active role in the novel you also brought in additional characters in history, such as Marion Boyd. Could you talk a bit about which other characters in the book were plucked from history and why you chose them?
Certainly, and I’m so happy you mentioned Marion Boyd. She’s one of those people who captured my imagination the moment I saw her name in a history book. As very often is the case with women so far back in history, she was mentioned briefly and then brushed aside. But I think she must have been something quite special in order to capture the attention of the young king. She was also the perfect companion for Isabeau, whose gentle nature and naivety often compliments Marion’s higher spirits.
Now to answer your question, as a writer who is fascinated with history it’s important to me to tell my story using as much real historical detail as I can without bogging down the narrative. Many people who pick up The Angel of Blythe Hall will never know that it’s actually steeped in actual historical events and filled with real characters. My first intent as an author is to tell a gripping story that will entertain and delight the reader. But for those who chose to look a little deeper, there’s a delicious slice of history at the core of this story, and the Douglas family is at the center of it.
Read my review here
Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Angus (and Marion’s uncle), was a powerful nobleman and one of the key figures who played a part in the demise of James III. He was the guardian of James IV and thought that with the young king on the throne he would have more power and control of Scotland. However, through the complications of politics and appeasement things didn’t work out the way old Angus had envisioned they would. There is evidence that he actually bargained with King Henry of England to have James IV kidnapped. His plot failed and was never discovered until much later. Alexander Hume also plays an important role in this story just as he did in the story of the Borders themselves. In fact, there are so many real historical figures that appear in my novel that it would be nearly impossible for me to acknowledge them all here. Aside from the Blythes and their immediate followers, most of the characters were real and acted in much the way I have attributed them to–from William and Oliver St. Clair (of the great St. Clair, or Sinclair family) to Sir Andrew Wood, one of Scotland’s most notable sea captains of his time. Even the trouble hinted at in the Mediterranean has roots in reality, from the corsair, Curtogoli Reis, to Pierre d’Aubusson, Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller on Rhodes.
Then there’s the matter of angels. I guess it all depends on what side of the fence you’re on here. I will say that history, the Bible, and the apocryphal texts are full of interesting little tidbits regarding angels. All one really need do is just look at some of the artwork from the Renaissance in order to understand the scope of their influence.
On a closing note, it was said that James IV repented all his life for the part he played in his father’s death. Shortly after he came to his throne he had a thick chain of iron fashioned which he wore around his waist for the remainder of his days. The extra weight was to remind him of the burden he carried in his heart, and so that he would never forget the personal cost of his crown. That act alone, I believe, speaks volumes about the man.
This was your second published work, following The Exile of Sara Stevenson which took place in Scotland as well (though several hundred years later). Did you find that the experience from your earlier writing influenced your writing process for The Angel of Blythe Hall?
What brings me to face that blank page every day is purely the joy of writing. I love the possibility of an untold story and the challenge of creating something entertaining and unique. However, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t influenced by my previous works. Every time I approach a new story I carry with me the experience of all my past projects. The Exile of Sara Stevenson came about because I had done a lot of research on Scotland due to my first, albeit unsold, novel. I made it a point to read the works of the great Scottish authors and had stumbled across a wonderful biography of Robert Louis Stevenson. I was intrigued by his family and the fact that his grandfather was this famous lighthouse builder. It just so happened that I was reading the biography around the time I was thinking about writing a smaller novel. No sooner had I closed the book when Sara Stevenson appeared. I stopped work on my big novels to write The Exile of Sara Stevenson. Six months later the manuscript was completed. I couldn’t have written it that fast without the experience of writing those first giant novels, or the benefit of my previous research.
The same could be said about The Angel of Blythe Hall. It’s quite a different novel than The Exile of Sara Stevenson. One is set in 1814 at the lighthouse on Cape Wrath, while the other is set during the late fifteenth century on the Scottish Borders. The scope and feel of each story is unique, but if one looks a bit closer you’ll see that the voice and the storytelling are suspiciously familiar.
Ballantine released The Exile of Sara Stevenson in 2010.
Without spoiling the story for new readers I’ll just say that you kept several important threads in the story from being tied up. Do you think you’ll return to Blythe Hall in future novels?
Absolutely! Actually, that was my plan from the start. Although The Angel of Blythe Hall has what I believe to be a very satisfying ending, there’s quite a lot more of the story to be told. After I turned in the manuscript for Blythe Hall to my editors I naturally started right in on the next part of the story. I was nearly finished with it before I was told that Ballantine would not be picking it up. What puzzled me even more was that they wouldn’t even take a look at the manuscript. I had figured that if they loved Blythe Hall they were really going to love this new one, but the interest for a sequel was just not there. Instead they requested another standalone work of historical fiction, set in Scotland, geared for the woman’s audience, with paranormal elements. I can’t begin to tell you how hard it was to leave the continuing adventures and romances of the folks of Blythe Hall up in the air and turn my attention to something else. But I did.
I’ve spent this last year researching and writing my new novel currently titled, The Laird of Winterhaven. It’s another very entertaining, highly romantic adventure set in 18th century Scotland. I had really thrown my heart and soul into the writing of this story, and had just passed the half-way mark when I learned that my publisher wouldn’t be picking up this novel either. Did I scream when I learned that, you ask? Heck yes! It’s all very frustrating, but I’m afraid that’s the publishing industry for you. The good news is that there are plenty of publishers out there looking for great novels to publish, and, as it just so happens, I have a few of them right here.
My goal is to bring both of these stories to the reading public, and I’m committed to doing just that. I don’t know how it’s going to happen yet, or when, but it will. So, to answer your question, yes, I will be returning to Blythe Hall, and I do believe that you won’t be disappointed.
The detailed history and vivid depictions of Scotland in The Angel of Blythe Hall illustrate your devoted passion to the country. If you were to write in the future about other countries, kingdoms, or eras which would you choose?
This is an intriguing question! I do love writing about Scotland. Ever since I cracked open my first book on Scottish history I’ve been hooked. I love the country and its people, and thus far I’ve been encouraged by my former editor to keep writing about Scotland. So I did. However, as a closet historian I’m positively fascinated by the history of nearly every country and city on earth. This is often a problem, and sometimes it’s hard for me to narrow my focus. But there are definitely places that have captured my imagination and taken root. I briefly mentioned that my very first novel (still unpublished) was set in 18th century Norway and Denmark. I loved writing about Scandinavia. It was through that novel that I was introduced to Northern England and Scotland as well. I actually wrote the sequel to that novel (another very long, unpublished, romantic historical adventure) which took me to Venice, the Mediterranean and Northern Africa. In fact, I had so much fun writing about 18th century Venice that I chose to use that city for the opening of Blythe Hall. I’d very much like to go back there, and maybe I will. Truthfully, the sky’s the limit as far as setting is concerned, but these decisions are never really mine anyway. I’ve learned that they are governed by my characters. I’m just along for the ride.
About Darci Hannah
Darci Hannah lives and plays in Michigan with her husband and three sons. When she’s not playing, she’s hard at work on her next novel. Read more…