I’ve been reviewing books in a new way, a kind of quick fire lessons learnt thing. You can see old ones here: 5 Lessons in First Person POV & How to Snag A Publisher First Time With Your Synopsis.
So I decided to continue the trend and review Conor Kelly and The Four Treasures of Eirean (The Tir Na Nog Trilogy Book 1) by Ali Isaac in the same way.
This time I learnt how to translate research into fiction, and because Isaac translates so well, I learnt what to do, and what mistakes to avoid.
I picked up Ali’s book because she’s my friend, so I wanted to read it. But, I’ll be honest. It’s Irish mythology, something, up to the point I peeled open the front cover, I knew nothing about. I was more than a little daunted by the prospect of sinking my teeth into a few hundred pages of what I perceived to be hard core mythology.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Isaac blew me away. She painted a tapestry of mythological research into a masterpiece of fiction. I unwittingly got educated on every aspect of Irish mythology there is, and to my surprise and delight, I loved every minute of it.
When I read books, I do so consciously now, so that I can absorb every ounce of skill each author leaves on the page. I rave about collecting words and sentences constantly. With Isaac, there was no question, I had dozens by the time I finished reading. She truly is the queen of interlacing accurate historical detail with beautiful descriptions and a heart wrenching story. Here’s what I learnt about translating research into fiction:
First, I want to caveat this post – Although I have mentioned the fact Ali is my friend, she did not ask me to read her book. I chose to do so. In fact, she frequently told me to put it down and get on with writing. I ignored her and read on. All the views expressed my me in this post are my own personal ones.
Mistake 1 – Dumping Information
If you are writing about anything, it requires research. But that means you acquire a shit ton of Information. If you learn a lot, you can’t help but know a lot. When you know a lot, it spills out without meaning too. Look at your stereotypical professor, they can jabber on for hours about their chosen topic.
The skill here is the age old, less is more.
Just because you know a lot, doesn’t mean we need to.
Of course, Ali is my friend, so I took advantage of that fact, and demanded she answer my questions on this topic.
Ali, you are an author that is prolific in your quest for research. It oozes from you, and you’re your blog where you freely share your knowledge. But your knowledge is SO vast, how do you avoid information dumping when you translate that knowledge into your book?
The trick is to use only what you need to set the scene for your story. I LOVE researching, I can get lost in it for hours! But putting it all into a fictional story would make for a very dull, dry read. What I dont use (about 75% of it) goes on my blog… it seems such a shame to waste it, and if I find it interesting, there must be others who find it interesting too.
Mistake 2 Forgetting Details Matter
Details come in all shapes and sizes. The one thing they share in common, is that they really matter. If you don’t know your rapier from your samurai you probably shouldn’t be writing about swords or battles.
As long as you don’t make mistake number one – dumping too much information, then you can sprinkle details to your hearts content.
Isaac, does this in bucket loads. She starts with character names, all Irish, all mythical. Something I did struggle with at the start because they were alien to me. But, once I got my head around the pronunciation, it actually made it easier to read as all the characters were so different, I always knew exactly who was who.
But she doesn’t stop with names. Isaac has a gift for scattering gorgeous details in everywhere. From the weapons they use, the clothing they wear, to the mythical creatures bone structure. There is nothing, and I do mean nothing, that Isaac hasn’t researched.
But my favourite example of how she weaves details into her story is through the environment. Isaac is lucky enough to live in Ireland and has visited every site she writes about. You can tell. Every atom of her setting is portrayed beautifully, from the way the water ripples in the wind, to the smell of woodsmoke during certain festivals.
“All the entrances faced the centre, almost as if they were worshipping the larger mound. Their open doorways gaped like toothless mouths.”
There’s no way, if you hadn’t visited that site, you could have known the doorway looked like a gummy mouth. What I find most daunting about this – is I write about made up settings… *gulp*
Ali, you are the queen of detail, never failing to capture the minutest of details about your stories world. As writers, we know we can’t information dump, and you have already told me you use a fraction of what you learn. So, how do you determine what details to use, and what to leave out?
It has to be very relevant to your protagonists experiences. If it’s nice to have, but doesn’t actually move the story on, you just have to cut it, you don’t need it. The dreaded info dump slows the pace of a story so much and bores the reader to tears, or even worse, closing the book and falling asleep. You can be sure they won’t pick it up when they wake. Info dumps show you know a lot of stuff, but it doesn’t make for a good story. Decide what you absolutely need to set the scene, give your hero their incentive to act, and drip feed it throughout the story as you need it, not all at once.
Mistake 3 Mistaking accuracy for beauty
Isaac is notorious for being a field agent and getting out to the places where her myths actually happened. She frequently blogs about her travels and discoveries, and I didn’t appreciate the extent to which she assimilates her knowledge.
I’d assumed accuracy meant getting names and places correct, with a pinch of dates and bobs your uncle. But actually, it’s much more than that, including painting an ugly picture when one is needed. Almost like torture your protagonist, you need to torture your history and world building.
Often one can get swept up in the magnificence of architecture and the richness of history. But actually that isn’t what accuracy is, and a reflection of my (or your) starstruck face on the front of an historical site shouldn’t end up in your work of fiction.
For example, Isaac sets her story in two worlds, today, and the fairy world of the Sidhe. Both are linked by the treasures and magical architecture now found in Ireland.
What struck me, is that just because something is supposed to be a work of architectural beauty, doesn’t mean it is. But that is something you would only know if you researched the location.
This quote illustrates this brilliantly:
“The Lia Fail stood proudly before them, approximately four feet high, and made from a lump of rough grey granular limestone. It looked disappointingly like a concrete bollard to Conor.”
Question – It’s easy to get swept up in the rich beauty and emotional power of historical sites. I recall Conor’s reaction to Lia Fail as disappointment. What do you do to ensure you accurately capture the essence of a location for your novel?
Conor’s reaction to the Lia Fail was actually mine. In my second book, I describe how I believe such an important monument would have originally appeared. Often, I visit a site first before researching it, as there are no preconceived ideas or expectations about it that way. I take lots of pictures, and videos too. The most important thing of all is you HAVE to go to a site you are going to write about. You just have to. You can’t rely on Google or other people’s interpretations. To write authentically you have to go there, and that’s the bottom line. Unfortunately, you can always tell in a book if an author knows the place he/ she is writing about. It shines off the page and leaves you in no doubt.
Mistake 4 Not Connecting The Dots
Isaac’s story isn’t just predicated on one myth. It’s based on them ALL. I honestly don’t know how she amassed so many myths and amalgamated them into something that is not only coherent, but translatable and understandable to someone like me, who has zero knowledge of Irish myths.
But we don’t all write mythology. So what’s my point? And how can connecting a dozen myths together help writers from other genres?
My point is this:
Look outside the box. Sure, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life researching, but actually sometimes drifting off in a tangent can help.
Let me give you an example:
Say you’re writing a steampunk novel, and you need to know about trains. So you search for images and see a picture of a woman with a floor length gown with a funny sticky out bum. You find out it’s called a bustle, but then as you scroll on, you start to read about woman in the Victorian era, the suppression and later, Emily Pankhurst’s fight for the vote. All of a sudden, you have an idea. You wanted to know about train chimneys, but instead, you are weaving in deeper societal conflict into your steampunk novel. Your story is thicker, richer and grittier, all because you connected the dots.
Your books link dozens of myths, and entwine them into something coherent. When connecting all these individual myths together, how do you cope with such a mass of information, and what tricks do you use to smooth it into something that makes sense?
Irish mythology is not logical, and it’s very hard to make sense of. The names of the characters are all tongue-twisters, and there’s so many of them. But some stories just click. Something about them resonates, and won’t let go. Those are the ones I tell in my stories, and honestly, they just fall into place. Its as if they want their stories to be remembered, that’s how it feels to me, anyway.
Ali Isaac lives in rural Ireland and is the author of two books in a trilogy based on Irish mythology and a disabled hero; a book of love stories based on tales from Irish mythology co-authored with Jane Dougherty, and most recently, a book re-telling some of her favourite Irish myths. She regularly writes for Irish Central and Brigid’s Fire magazine. Ali is currently working on the third and final book of The Tir na Nog Trilogy, and a YA shapeshifter novella, also based on Irish mythology.
Conor Kelly is not your average hero. He can’t walk. He can’t talk, but his mind is as active and alert as that of any teenage boy. On the outside, however, he’s about as interactive as a lump of wood.
Then he meets Annalee. She claims to be a Sidhe Princess, some kind of fairy royalty, apparently. She offers to take him into the magical realm, where her people wield the power to help him.
But is she just some child-snatching lunatic psychopath, or can she be trusted? On the other hand, what’s he got to lose?
He soon discovers that Tir na Nog is not the benign, dreamy land of legend. Nor are its inhabitants, the Sidhe, the benevolent fairy folk of Irish mythology. To accept their help has a cost, but for someone who doesn’t value his life, death is a risk worth taking.
With the blood of Lugh, God of Lightning, tingling in his veins, the boy in the wheelchair must dig deep, if he is to unlock the inherited powers dormant within him. Only he can defy disgraced Sidhe-King, Bres, who seeks to avenge himself on his brethren, and subject all mankind to his tyranny.
In the race to recover the legendary lost talismans of power, the Four Treasures of Eirean, before Bres gets his hands on them and becomes invincible, Conor begins to wonder just whose side Annalee is on, as her chequered past comes to light.
There are other obstacles, too; Ruairi, the Chieftain’s son, and worse, his own crippling self-doubt. Not that anything’s going to stop him. For the first time in his life, Conor finds he is not restricted by his physical limitations. Still, it’s not going to be easy.
Nothing worth fighting for ever is.
Book One of The Tir na Nog Trilogy begins an epic fantasy adventure which takes us back in time to the shadowy past of Ireland’s long lost legend, where fairy Kings and Gods walked amongst mortals, and where feats of magic, swordsmanship and courage were customary.
Here amidst the ancient stones of Newgrange and Tara, Conor discovers that anyone, no matter how unlikely, can still be a hero.
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