Bringing Legends to Life: An Interview with Kim Headlee
by Moira Allen

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Somewhere -- perhaps in a cave guarded by ravens, or on an island shrouded in mist and magic -- rests the body of King Arthur. Not dead, legends say, but only sleeping, until the hour of Britain's need summons him forth again.

The legends that surround the fabled king seem equally unlikely to die. From generation to generation they have continued to fascinate, retold and reinterpreted to the point that, if Arthur were to wake up today and read about his "history" in the morning tabloids, he probably wouldn't recognize himself.

For storytellers, this fascination is both a blessing and a curse. People love to read about Arthur -- but how does one say anything new, when everyone already knows how the story ends? This is the challenge Kim Headlee takes on in her novel Dawnflight: The Legend of Guinevere (Pocket Books, 1999) -- a novel that adds some unexpected twists to the story of Arthur and Guinevere.

Dawnflight begins at the end of the 5th century, when Roman traditions are still strong in Britain even though the legions have officially "left." Headlee places her story against the backdrop of Arthur's twelve battles, beginning just after his victory over the Caledonians (Picts). Rather than slaughter his former enemies, however, Arthur seeks to enlist their aid against a new threat to Britain: Scottish and Germanic invaders. It is through this tangled web of politics, alliances and war that Arthur and Gyanhumara ("Gyan") are brought together.

Gyan is no hapless damsel, but the head of a Pictish tribe. Moreover, she is betrothed to Urien mac Dumarec, heir to a clan that has feuded with Gyan's for generations. Gyan is determined to bring peace by going through with this ill-fated match, despite the fact that Urien soon "proves to be her enemy in more ways than one" -- and despite the fact that she has fallen in love with Arthur.

A Lifelong Fascination

Kim Headlee has been fascinated with Arthurian legends since the age of seven. She soon began writing her own versions of the tales, which followed the Malory tradition until she discovered Mary Stewart's The Hollow Hills and its prequel, The Crystal Cave. "Stewart's Merlin trilogy inspired me to start my own quest for who the 'real' King Arthur might have been," says Headlee. "There was also no question that from then on, I too would base my work on 'Dark Age' Britain." Headlee went on to read everything she could lay her hands on -- fiction and nonfiction -- that dealt with post-Roman Britain, Celts, Druids, Anglo-Saxons, and the numerous theories of Arthur's origins.

The inspiration for the prior-betrothal angle in Dawnflight came about when Headlee read Dr. Norma Goodrich's King Arthur. Goodrich speculated that such a betrothal might account for some of the later "captured Guinevere" motifs that appear so often in Arthurian lore. Goodrich discusses the theory that Pictish culture might have been matrilinear, with the line of succession determined through the female rather than the male line. [Interviewer's note: This idea, first proposed by Bede in the 8th century, is supported to some degree by modern archaeological evidence. See British Archaeology, April 1995].

Headlee believes that Dawnflight is also the first Arthurian novel to pay serious attention to the motivations of Britain's waves of invaders -- in this case, the Caledonians and the Scots. Headlee depicts not only the clash of armies but the clash of cultures, as Gyan encounters the customs of Romanized Britain and Arthur attempts to deal with the traditions of the clans.

Besides the problem of finding something new to say about Arthur, Headlee also faced the challenge of bringing to life a culture about which little is understood. Her novel paints a realistic picture of Roman Britain and of the decidedly un-Romanized Pictish clans -- and she offers some worthwhile advice to other writers who would like to depict a "real" historical timeframe.

It's in the Details

With more than 200 books on Arthurian history and related topics in her library, Headlee clearly believes in the importance of research. At the same time, she warns against falling in love with that research. "Remember that readers don't pick up your book for a crash course in history -- although most enjoy learning a thing or two along the way -- but to be entertained. Avoid the temptation to show off your wonderful knowledge all at once, but sprinkle tidbits here and there throughout the story."

The best way to do that, Headlee suggests, is to use the perspective of one's viewpoint character to "notice" appropriate details. In Dawnflight, this is relatively easy since Gyan and Arthur come from different cultures, "so I can slip brief explanations into dialogue, where one character truly doesn't understand what the other is trying to say."

Even when characters don't come from different backgrounds, dialogue and perspective can be used to provide necessary details. In doing so, however, Headlee warns against falling into the "as you know" dialogue trap:

"As you know, General Jackson died of wounds inflicted by one of his own men," said Captain Jones to Lieutenant Smith.

A better approach, according to Headlee, is to use a character who genuinely doesn't "know" the information you're trying to convey. In that way, the reader can learn along with the character, and share the character's emotional response to the information at the same time:

Captain Jones regarded the lieutenant: so young and fresh-faced, despite all the horrors he'd undoubtedly already seen in this Godforsaken war. Jones despised the thought of having to add to the list. But the truth had to be told. "General Jackson died of wounds inflicted by one of his own men."

Smith's eyes rounded in obvious shock, before squeezing shut. He bowed his head but did not speak; praying, Jones guessed, although for whom, he had no idea.

Headlee also points out that a viewpoint character should notice only those things that are appropriate to his or her background. "A warrior (of either gender), for example, would probably describe scenery in military terms, such as the advantages and disadvantages of the terrain. Having him go on at excruciating length about the larches and blooming heather would be out of character, unless he has already been shown to have an interest in botany." Similarly, a non-military character might have difficulty understanding what is happening in a fight, unless one provides some background information that shows where the character acquired such knowledge.

To find all this information that one's characters will oh-so-subtly convey, Headlee recommends more than just book research. "Visit the sites you plan to write about as often as you can, and in many different seasonal settings. Put yourself in 'sponge mode' to absorb details of nature, people, weather, geography, etc. Haunt the museums -- especially those local to your site -- and take notes, lots of notes. Keep a diary of your observations, thoughts, and impressions. You might never get a chance to use them, but you won't regret the exercise."

If travel isn't feasible, Headlee recommends visiting local museums and getting as much "hands-on" exposure to the types of artifacts and objects that your characters will use or encounter in your story. She also recommends conducting research on the Internet, where one can also find maps, scholarly articles, and "living history" sites.

Headlee also turns to friends for research help. "I was fortunate enough to have a colleague who was a longtime student of Tai-Chi, a sword-based Chinese art. He kindly sat down with me on several occasions to explain the general principles of sword-fighting, and I watched him execute his routines." Tai-Chi, Headlee explains, is conducted with more finesse than the European "hack and slash" method, and she discussed these differences with her friend at great length, opting to retain some of the Oriental "flavor" in Gyan's fighting style to emphasize her cultural uniqueness.

"Attending medieval Renaissance Faires can also be a handy and fun way to conduct field research," Headlee says. "The fighting and jousting are choreographed, but it's still better than relying on what one learned in one's high school or college fencing class."

Maintaining the Illusion

Even with the most careful research, a historical fantasy will still be a blend of "real" and "fictional" elements. In some cases, the information one needs to build a historical world simply isn't available, and details must be filled in from one's imagination. The challenge is to combine these elements so that the reader never notices anything "false" or out of place.

One area in which ancient and modern worlds are likely to collide is dialogue. "Dialogue is an invaluable bridge between your characters and your audience," says Headlee. "When I write, I try to take extreme care to avoid word anachronisms. It's one of those thankless tasks: Most readers won't compliment you if you make no mistakes. But use the word 'tartan' in a Scottish Highlands story set prior to the 18th century (even though Celts had been weaving distinctive checkered patterns for millenia) and your mailbox will overflow with smugly irate responses." Similarly, Headlee tries to avoid words that, because of their ethnic origin, would be impossible for a character to use ("e.g., instead of 'admiral,' which is of Arabic origin, I use 'fleet commander'.").

"On the other side of the dialogue tightrope, however," says Headlee, "is the tendency to make characters sound too formal. Unless I'm reading something written by a medieval author, stilted or overly formal dialogue will turn me off a story faster than just about anything. I try to survive this balancing act by making my characters sound 'natural' while still avoiding anachronistic words and concepts."

Anachronistic words are one problem; anachronistic behaviors and values are another. According to Headlee, it can be a challenge to take a culture that has radically (even appallingly) different structures and standards from those of one's readers -- and portray it in a positive, appealing light.

"For example," says Headlee, "from what I've been able to glean from my research about the Celts, theirs was a highly gender-segregated society, even to the point that married men and women lived apart most of the time. So I decided to tone down that aspect by portraying men and women feasting together, served by their women -- and even the noblewomen weren't excused from this obligation. Gyan, being of a different cultural background, naturally finds herself having to buck this tradition, on general principles."

Portraying a character as "bucking tradition" can be a way to portray both the character and the tradition itself, but Headlee warns against applying purely 20th-century values and morals to different times and cultures. "Above all else, your characters must remain 'in character.' That means that if you choose to assign certain 20th-century morals (or lack thereof) to a 14th-century heroine, she must have reasons for acting the way she does that are logically justifiable within the context of her backstory or situation. Furthermore, the consequences of bucking the traditions of society must be shown -- which could very easily function as the core of your plot, depending on the nature and magnitude of the character's 'rebellion'."

Whatever a character's reasons for rebelling against the "system," Headlee warns against using that character -- or the story in general -- as a pulpit for "preaching." One of her pet peeves in any type of fiction is the "all pagans are good, all Christians are bad -- or the converse" angle. Neither view, she points out, is realistic. She suggests that authors "portray characters who exist at all points of the moral and religious spectrum. Mythology in general and Arthurian legend in particular are rife with various forms of moral depravity and rebellion, coexisting -- or conflicting -- with virtue. That's how life operates. No author is devoid of religious bias, for or against. However, if you take care not to 'stack the deck,' but allow your readers to decide which belief system they'd rather relate to based on the logical decisions and actions of your characters, you'll stand a better chance of broadening your audience."

Finally, Headlee notes that when one chooses to write about a historical or mythological period, one should remember that to one's characters, the period is neither historical nor mythological. To the characters within the story, the period is "now." "Your characters are going to consider themselves and their inventions and ideologies (whether made-up or real) to be 'modern' relative to their time period. So if you, the author, treat them as 'ancient history,' you will be doing them, and ultimately your audience, a disservice."

For more information and an excerpt from Dawnflight, Kim Headlee's tips on writing, and suggested resources on Arthurian history and mythology, visit http://home.usaa.net/~kimheadlee/

Find Out More...

What's in a Name? An Interview with Kim Headlee et al., by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/sf/name.shtml

Copyright © 2000 Moira Allen

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Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

 

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