The evolution of a story

Once upon a time, the word gramarye (“grammar”) meant magical lore. Over time it took on the meaning of “the set of rules that govern how a language is written and spoken,” but I love that ancient link between language and magic. From the time I was old enough to read I’ve felt the deep magic of words. I bet you have, too.

Years ago I studied Old English literature, which spans the time period from about the middle of the fifth century to the middle of the twelfth, when the repercussions of the Norman Conquest (1066) turned Old English into Middle English. I earned a Ph.D that I thought I would use to teach others about my beloved Old English poets. Life intervened, and I ended up doing other things instead, but I’ve never lost my love for that old language.

About fifteen years ago, I started writing and publishing romances, and I learned a lot about how to tell a story. Two of my favorite of these novels, Lessons in Magic and A Certain Kind of Magic, I’ve kept in print after the original publisher let them go out of print.

A few years ago, I began writing a series of romances set in Old English times, based on what we know of the history of the ninth and tenth centuries. But I began to feel that the conventions of romance, which I thoroughly enjoyed writing for many years, did not work for the stories I was trying to tell now. I mean to say: I wanted to kill off a hero from time to time.

I poked around with writing more of a sprawling historical saga. The basic idea of this series centered around a king (Aethelstan) who united the various kingdoms of the British Isles around 927 and the lords and ladies and knights and peasants I invented who would carry the stories.

But something was still missing. And that was magic. Even my beloved Old English poets, staunch Christians all, wrote little spells and charms to protect themselves on a journey or to get rid of a pimple. Magic was a natural accompaniment to religion and I wanted to explore that.

I was now entering the realm of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which posed another problem, which no epic fantasy author can ever fully resolve: how to write something old in a new way. I had my heroine, Lucinda, who has stuck with me from the very first draft of the very first Old English romance, and I had her lover, Stephen, who has also stuck with me from the very first, but instead of a story about a king uniting a land I wanted this series to tell some other kind of story.

In the beginning I wasn’t sure what other kind of story. What if, I asked myself, what if I start with that old trope, the Return of the King, but shove it off in another direction? What if I bring in gods that are trying to prevent it?

So I brought in gods. I liked this; it was working. I mean, what’s more epic than gods? But now what? I’ve got gods, I’ve got magic, primarily the ancient women’s magic of stone-craft, and I’ve got these star-crossed lovers. What next? 

What if my pagan characters confront Christianity and drive it off?

Well, not exactly, because if I’ve invented a land called the Stone Island and peopled it with gods no one’s ever heard of, and characters who have no historical counterparts, then it isn’t Christianity we’re talking about. But still. It made me sit up and think, HMM.

That could be interesting.

The first book in the series is called The Wanderer, (which you may know as the title of an Old English poem). I’m excited for you to meet Lucinda and Stephen and to join them on their journeys!