The Compulsive Reader: Guest Blog from Clare Dunkle!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Guest Blog from Clare Dunkle!

I really like reading about werewolves. They've always been a little creepy to me before they became popular in literature, and I love seeing what authors do with them in their books. Clare Dunkle (The House of Dead Maids), for instance, has taken werewolves and given them a very interesting twist with her unique setting: the Scottish highlands. By These Ten Bones is an atmospheric and tangible read, full of history, lore, and superstition and I highly recommend it.

Clare was nice enough to stop by and tell us a bit more about her research and writing process!

When I first puzzled out the plot of my werewolf story, BY THESE TEN BONES, I knew that I wanted to have a witch trial, and I wanted one of the characters to remember a friend who had been burned at the stake for heresy. Now, witch trials were, by and large, a Protestant phenomenon, while the burning of heretics was commonly associated with the Catholic church. But when I started doing research, I discovered that these two plot details presented a very big problem. The century in which these details could overlap was a time of bloody warfare between the two religions. The only place I could find that was peaceful enough for these two plot elements to coexist was the medieval Highlands of Scotland.

A book set in the Highlands. When I was a teenager, I had read books set in the Highlands. They were cheap paperbacks, and they stood in wire racks in the old Fultz’s store on the town square. There on the covers were the Highlanders, swathed in bright plaid, clutching fainting women in their well-muscled arms. From what I remembered, those books didn’t have much to do with Scottish history, although they did manage to work the word “bonny” into conversation from time to time.

This memory soured me on my new manuscript. As a young teen, I had enjoyed reading these books. But as an adult, I REALLY didn’t want to write one.

So I set out to learn about the real Highlanders. I read as much about them as I could. And the more I read, the more I realized that this was in fact the perfect place to set a dangerous werewolf romance. The real medieval Highlanders were every bit as daring, courageous, clever, and ardent as those cheap paperbacks had made them out to be. But even better, they were immensely superstitious.Medieval Highlanders believed that theyshared the earth with angels, devils, monsters, Fair Folk, and ancient demigods. Records indicate that the Scottish courts processed three thousand accusations of witchcraft. What better place could there be for a werewolf?

I dragged my family across the Highlands in a rental car, driving on the wrong side of the road and visiting living history museums. We bought as many books as our luggage could hold and soaked up local customs. My husband learned firsthand why it’s a bad idea to stand up straight inside a historic Highland “black house.” (The smoke is thickest by the ceiling, so the best chair in the house has the shortest legs.) You can see the photographs from that journey here:

By the time we went on our Highland tour, I had crammed so many facts about Scotland in my head that one museum docent thought I was a history professor. But that still wasn’t enough to wipe out my memory of those lusty Highland romance novels, so I got the bright idea to ask for a volunteer to help me check for my manuscript for errors. Imagine my anxiety whenone of the world’s foremost experts on the medieval Highlands agreed to read my werewolf tale. R. Ross Noble had spent decades guiding field studies and archeological preservation in the Highlands, and he had curated the Highland Folk Museum for twenty-five years. He had been asked to give expert advice on the movie “Braveheart,” too, and he told me with an air of gracious affability that he was not offended by the final result.

I thought,“If that’s the kindest thing he can find to say about my manuscript, I think I’ll slash my wrists.”

A weeklong panic followed, during which Mr. Noble emailed me cheerful little notes. I don't think I mentioned it,” read one, “but many years (decades!) ago I did my graduate dissertation in Scottish history on the Scottish Witch Trials.  So I will look at your ‘take’ on witches with particular interest.”

“I can’t believe I got myself into this!” I groaned to my longsuffering husband when I read that. “Green Day was right—I’m an American idiot!”But there was no way to bow out gracefully at that point. The manuscript was already in the mail.

To my immense relief, Mr. Noble loved BY THESE TEN BONES, and his contributions added to it greatly. At each reading I become more impressed with the work,” he wrote me. “I have felt on these recent readings that the book feels ‘Scottish’.  It has a cultural resonance which not even all Scottish authors manage to achieve.”

I walked on air for weeks after getting that letter. But then I started to worry. Cultural resonance hadn’t interested me when I was picking reading material as a teen. Why would it interest my readers?

So I arranged for another group of experts to help me out—a group of expert teens. A troop of Girl Scouts read my manuscript for me, and they enjoyed BY THESE TEN BONES too.

“It was like a Harry Potter book,” wrote one of the girls. “I couldn’t stop reading it.”

To a YA novelist, there is no higher praise.


LinWash said...

Great interview! I love Clare Dunkle's books. As soon as I learned that she had a new book I quickly ordered it. My copy of By These Ten Bones just arrived today. I cannot wait to read it.

LinWash said...

And by interview, I mean guest blog! :-)

Jessica said...

Awesome guest blog! I love Clare Dunkle's books and haven't read this one yet. I'm even more excited to check it out now! :)

Anonymous said...

Love the guest blog. I'm a huge fan of Clare Dunkle; By These 10 Bones was good but it was surprisingly my least favourite of her books.

Lauren said...

What a journey! I can't imagine having a prereader with such high credentials...I'd be a nervous wreck!

Karen said...

Awesome! What a great adventure it would be to go to the Highlands!