The following post was originally published on Heroines of Fantasy on 23rd March 2015.
Louise Turner has invited me here today (Louise, Thank you!) to talk about After the Ruin. You will, I hope, read it for yourself so I won’t spoil the story. Instead, I’ll say something about what passed through my mind as I was writing. Or, to be more honest, revising. I’m very much a-make-it-up-as-you-go-along sort of writer and the final version of any of my stories has very little in common with the first draft.
Only the genre was fixed before the beginning. In another life, I write non-fiction. This requires huge amounts of research to make sure the facts are not only correct but presented accurately. I write fiction to relax and so I don’t want to do this level of research to tell my story. With my type of fantasy I can mix up all sorts of interesting ideas from different times and places without worrying about anything other than internal consistency. Internal consistency, though, is hugely important. Get the details right and plausible and a reader will easily swallow any amount of impossibility.
That said, it makes imagining things a lot easier when there’s something real to base them on. I was born in the west of Scotland and, although I’ve lived all over the world since, it’s the place my heart goes back to (and so do I, whenever I can). So After the Ruin is set there, though I’ve mixed and muddled the original places around so much that you’d have to know them well – or else know me well – to recognise them.
And the story? Well, again, it helped to have something to base it on. I listen to huge amounts of folk music. Much of this derives from the Child Ballads, a diverse collection of songs that were – and are – part of the oral tradition of Scotland and northern England, and of the descendants of Scottish and English migrants to Canada and the United States. I didn’t want to retell any single ballad or folksong, though ideas and motifs from many found their way into the book. The chapter epigraphs provide hints, and a playlist. As I was revising, I started to associate each of my three main characters with a particular song: for Marwy Ninek, this was The Bonnie House of Airlie; for Assiolo, Tam Lin; and for Te-Meriku, The Unquiet Grave, which is my favourite ballad of all, at least as interpreted by Lau. These songs largely determined the dominant note of their characters and contributed something to their stories.
The Child Ballads aren’t, on the whole, cheerful. But they are beautiful, honed into shape by a process akin to natural selection. They tell of a world filled by melancholy and longing. Betrayal and violence are commonplace; friends become foes; love begins with secrets and ends, like as not, with death. Although they are often set in real places, and sometimes tell of true events, these songs blur the lines between the mundane and the supernatural, making no clear distinction between the two. That’s the mood I want to conjure in my writing: the real world, heightened.
So there you have it: After the Ruin is a fantasy, riffing off the oral tradition, set in an imagined version of the Scottish Islands and Highlands. It takes its tone from the ballads and is, I’ll freely grant, somewhat melancholy. But I hope it is also, at times, beautiful.