fiction writing

Q & A with Keira Soleore of Frolic

Q&A for Frolic

 Keira Soleore: Welcome to Frolic! It is wonderful to have a chance for a quick chat with you about your two newest books in the Royal Highlander series.

 May McGoldrick: Thank you so much, Keira, for this opportunity. We’re a big fan of Frolic Media and of you personally, since (like you) we’re both engineer (Nikoo) and medievalist (Jim). We’re, like, clones!

 Keira: Before we get to the books, Nikoo and Jim, readers have been curious how your writing partnership came about. How do you brainstorm characters and plots? How do you divide up who writes what?

 May: To answer these questions, we’ll have to set up a week-long conference, a writing and/or relationship retreat (which would actually be really fun!). What we’ve been able to accomplish (40 years together, 25 years of writing/publishing, 50 books) involves a long, long, long and complicated journey. One thing we can tell you, we were both hesitant to start down that road, as neither of us had any idea about the rules. But we knew we had a lot at stake. To give you a short glimpse of that time twenty-five years ago, Jim was a college professor teaching Chaucer and Shakespeare and other things, and Nikoo was an engineer in a Fortune 500 company. And on top of that, we had a marriage and two small children who demanded every hour of our non-work hours. 

The trigger to do it, however, was our love of writing and reading, as well as Nikoo’s desire to stop working 60+ hours a week away from the family. We both had always wanted to be writers, and we’d tried individually but hadn’t succeeded, financially anyway. So, sitting side-by-side one winter night, we drafted a short story for a magazine contest.

 Our combined talent, hard work, and luck paid off. The universe aligned itself for us. That short story was followed by the idea of a novel based on Jim’s PhD dissertation. In less than a week, we had an agent. In six months, a multi-book contract with Penguin.

How we work together and why it works was a mystery to us until Heinemann Publishers asked us to write a book about it a decade later. Marriage of Minds: Collaborative Fiction Writing, explains some of our changing process, as well as how a dozen other writing teams manage it and remain friends (with some casualties mixed in). In our case, we’ve remained happily married.

We still occasionally sit side-by-side as we try to wrestle a difficult plot point to the ground,  but we mostly work separately on whatever scene is next. Then we swap and revise each other’s work. It takes about three times longer, but we both have to be happy with it before we move on. As far as brainstorming plots and characters, we walk and talk and walk and talk and walk and talk. And then walk some more. One of us (Nikoo) needs to move to think creatively.

 Keira: You have now written many books together as May McGoldrick and Jan Coffey. What was your impetus behind the Royal Highlander series? How was your writing partnership part of the story behind the series?

 May: We’re both fascinated with history. We believe that human nature doesn’t change, and we also believe there’s so much to learn from the past. It goes with that old saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When we were researching and writing Romancing the Scot, the first book in our Pennington Family Series, we came across references to the fears that the aristocrats in England had about losing power. After the Napoleonic Wars were over, people wanted a fair wage and a say in government. Parliament and the Crown would not allow it, but those same leaders were afraid that all those highly trained, discontented soldiers would rise up, a revolution would take place, and aristocrats’ blood would flow in the streets, as it had done in France just a few decades before. So the British government enacted law after law aimed at crushing and silencing all opposition. They took away the civil rights of the people in the name of ‘security’ and ‘the national interest’. What followed was the Radical War of 1820, and the events are eerily similar to things happening today. Pretty scary stuff, and we thought the turmoil of 1820 would be an awesome moment for our heroines and heroes to find themselves and each other.

 Keira: In your own words, could you tell the readers about Highland Crown and Highland Jewel?

  May:  Isabella Drummond is the protagonist in Highland Crown. She is a physician who was educated in Germany. Her ‘marriage of convenience’ husband had been one of the radical reformers in Edinburgh before he was killed. So at the beginning of the story, Isabella has escaped into the Highlands with her younger sister and the daughter of her late husband. They are being hunted by English soldiers and Scottish rebels alike. 

When a shipwreck occurs off the northern coast, Isabella saves the life of Cinaed Mackintosh, a fierce soul who is aiding the clans’ continuing resistance to English domination. Sparks fly between them, but Cinaed harbors dangerous secrets, as well.   

In Highland Jewel, The Radical War of 1820 has extended into the Highlands. Maisie Murray and her family have found shelter at Dalmigavie Castle, the heart of the rising in the north. The dangers of their past have followed them, but they are committed to Scotland’s fight for freedom. A messenger brings the promise of an important ally to their cause, but only Maisie recognizes that falsehood and betrayal has also arrived at their door.

Six months earlier, Maisie was the picture of docility, quiet and compliant in the eyes of her family. To her activist friends, however, she was a fearless crusader for women’s rights. In the wake of the Peterloo Massacre, Maisie and a friend founded the Edinburgh Female Reform Society, and she carried the banner for universal suffrage. Caught up in the wave of her enthusiasm, Maisie never expected to fall in love with the man who saved her life during one of their protests, the brother of her friend and fellow reformer.

Niall Campbell, a hero of the wars and a decorated officer of the Royal Highland Regiment, is battle weary and searching for stability in his life. A fierce warrior by training and a poet at heart, Niall walks away from the shining career that lies ahead of him, to the dismay of his superiors.

Niall is frustrated by his inability to curtail his sister’s involvement in the women’s reform movement. A widow with two children, she is determined to ignore the dangers of her radical positions. In saving his sister when a protest turns violent, he meets Maisie. Their relationship begins as one of experience versus idealism, of scars versus hope. Soon, however, he finds in Maisie the heart he longs for.

When Niall’s sister is arrested and disappears, he quickly realizes his life is not his own, for the British authorities have a mission for him to accomplish in exchange for his sister’s freedom.

Overnight, Maisie loses Niall, her friend, and her home. In the wake of the riots that sweep through the cities of Scotland, her own sister Isabella is branded a traitor to the Crown, and the family must flee to the Highlands. They take shelter at Dalmigavie Castle, under the protection of the charismatic Cinaed Mackintosh.

Here in the heart of the Highlands, Maisie runs into Niall again. He has a new name and carries a message of hope. But Niall has a task to complete.

Maisie and Niall’s future rests on their ability to overcome the forces that divide them, or—for the future of Scotland—she must stop the man who owns her heart.

Keira: In both your stories, your protagonists meet in highly charged situations when the plot is fully in motion and the stories continue moving fast from there. Is this your usual storytelling style or is this how the series is playing out?

May: We love throwing our readers into the middle of action. We might have developed this style by writing thrillers and suspense. Carrying it into historical novels came naturally.

Keira: Your heroines are courageous, enterprising, passionate women. Isabella is a doctor and Maisie fights for women's suffrage. What led you to choosing these professions for your protagonists? What was your inspiration behind them?

May: These two characters were really modeled in some ways by real women from history, and then we threw obstacles in their way that were almost impossible to overcome. Dorothea Erxleben was our inspiration for Isabella. She was a university-trained physician who lived in Germany about seventy years before our story takes place. Maisie was modeled after a reform activist named Mary Fildes, who was on the speakers’ platform at the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ in Manchester, England, a few months before our story starts. In real life, she was actually run through by a sabre wielded by a soldier who was part of the militia who attacked the peaceful, unarmed citizens who had gathered to protest the government’s actions. Mary survived and went on to lead the movement for women’s suffrage until her death decades later.

Keira: When readers think of the Regency, they think of pretty gowns and balls, not the rawness of these stories. On some level, these lives and the events that unfold have a distinct medieval feel to them. Was Scotland that far different from England in those times?

May: We’re glad you mention that. If readers are looking for pretty gowns and polite courting rituals, our stories might not be for them. We have real people engaged in real struggles of life and death. Our characters, in these novels, find love that is deep and lasting, but it’s not love that is based on a clever bon mot or a shapely leg. As far as Scotland being different from England, we believe that many widely held views of history are skewed and inaccurate. Most of us have a perception of the time period that is based on what we’ve read in novels or seen in films. And many of those stories have been colored by the way some people in our society want to see the world. The reality of the Regency period—in Scotland and in England—has a great deal in common with our own era. It was a period of change and struggle and exploitation—the Radical War of 1820 took place in England and Scotland during the Regency Period. But, like the 21st century, it was also a time of romance and family and philosophy and science and, well, fashion.

Keira: I was pleased to see Niall address how the British Empire was for the financial benefit of the nobility and wealthy financiers (and the government higher-ups). Having him show what the East India Company did in Asia felt like not only had you done your research but also understood the ethos behind their actions. What made you choose this as a reason for Niall's change of allegiance?

May: In Highland Jewel, Niall has seen first-hand the way the British military were being used to promote business interests, such as those of the East India Company. Niall is a war-scarred veteran of the Napoleonic War, and he realizes that Scottish regiments are now being shipped out to Ireland and India and Australia and New Zealand and South Africa to conquer lands for a growing empire that would be exploited for their natural resources. But he also sees that the policy is being used to keep trained Scottish soldiers out of their homeland. In the Highlands, poor farm families were being violently evicted, workers in the growing industrialized cities are being exploited, and the middle class is being denied a voice in government. Deep down, Niall wants life in Scotland to be better, and joining the opposition is the only way to create change. Luckily, he meets Maisie, and that makes his journey all the more exciting and, ultimately, satisfying.

Keira: The mystery of Cinaed's past is superbly done, and I liked how it spans the two books. Are there story threads that were started in the first book that were then continued in the second? Do you have seeds planted in the first book that will then grow across the entire series?

May: Thanks, Cinaed and Isabella’s story is just too big to fit into one book. As we hinted at earlier, this is the Royal Highlander series. We’ll see more of Cinaed’s mother (who was scorned and nearly erased from history by the Prince Regent and his minions), as well as more of the efforts of the British Crown to crush Cinaed and the Scottish resistance. And we’ve got a lot more romance and adventure in store for all of our characters.

Keira: How many books have you planned for the Royal Highlander series? Whose story is next? Would you please share a teaser with Frolic's readers?

May: Right now, we’re planning on finishing up after three books, but you never can tell. Here is a little more about the story than readers will read on the back cover of Highland Sword, the third book in the series:

Three extraordinary women escaped to the Highlands of Scotland at a tumultuous moment in time. Hunted by the British authorities, each of them had to find her identity and her place in history. In this conclusion to the Royal Highlander series, the reader meets Morrigan Drummond.

Independent and fiery, Morrigan lost everything when her father was killed while caring for Scots wounded by English dragoons during a day of protests in Edinburgh. After fleeing to the Highlands, she discovered her gift. Training with Mackintosh fighters at Dalmigavie Castle, Morrigan can now shoot a pistol and handle a dagger better than any man. She is ready to use her deadly skills on the enemies of her nation. And she wants revenge on Sir Rupert Burney, the English spymaster who ordered the attack on peaceful people and the death of her father.

Aidan Grant is a Highland lawyer, at odds with the Crown for his fearless stands against the government on issues of representation, slavery, and the violent Highland Clearances. Quick-witted and popular with the Scottish people, he is a nemesis in the eyes of the repressive Crown forces seeking to crush reform across the land.

These two meet and the battle of wills begins. She wants war; he wants peace. She is after revenge; he is after justice. She is ready to spill blood; he believes too much has already been shed. Neither one will surrender their ideals, but neither can ignore their attraction for the other.

Highland Sword is an emotional ride, but we feel reasonably confident everyone will be satisfied with how everything wraps up at the end. That being said, there is still one more very cool historical event connected to our series that may just need to be explored in another book. We’ll see.

Keira: Could you tell us one thing about you that might surprise readers.

May: We’ve both been married three times…to each other!

Keira: Thank you for visiting Frolic. It's been a pleasure chatting with you.

May: We’re delighted that you asked us, Keira. We love living in the world of fiction, and writing for our readers gives us more joy than we can express. So thanks for the opportunity to reach out. We’d love hearing from everyone.

Sex, Love, and Second Chances for the Eternal in Shakespeare

When Shakespeare’s friends and partners got together to assemble his plays for the first time, his great rival Ben Jonson wrote, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” High praise, to be sure, but maybe this was the original book quote, put on that First Folio simply to sell a few more copies.

No, no, let’s put that cynicism behind us. Four hundred years have passed since William Shakespeare penned his last play, and his language, imagery, plots, and (most important) characters are as alive today as they were when the plays were originally staged. Shakespeare’s plays have definitely survived the test of time. But why is that?

For us, those plays touch on timeless themes such as love, friendship, vengeance, honor, shame, and politics. They delve into human and social issues that have remained essentially unchanged over the years. This is the bottom line: the playwright’s work is still thriving today because of his characters. Whether we live in 1616 or 2016, as human beings we are the same. When we look at Shakespeare’s plays today, we recognize ourselves in his characters. They transcend time. Indeed, the man had an uncanny grasp of human psychology long before the term existed.

This guy from that little market town in England had such an amazing understanding of human desires and fears, aspirations and flaws that the people who populate his plays are alive for us today.

For the purpose of this post, let’s focus on his women. Shakespeare refused to place them on the sidelines, cheering on their men. In his stories, women play critical and often central roles. Whether we look at brilliant Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, indomitable Viola in Twelfth Night, infamous Lady Macbeth, stormy Kate in Taming of the Shrew, or wise and challenging Portia in Merchant of Venice (among so many others), these women LIVE. They have a voice.  The scholar Sidney Homan said Shakespeare’s characters have souls; they have lives that existed before the curtain opens and after the stage lights dim. So true about those women.

And where would we be without sex? In all of Shakespeare’s work—in his comedies and in his histories and even in his tragedies—sexuality drives and motivates his characters. When the French send a basket of tennis balls to the young King Henry V, the sexual taunt is not misunderstood, and he responds that his ‘balls’ will knock down the walls of French castles. When Lady Macbeth wants to spur her husband to act on his ambition, even to the point of murdering his king and kinsman, she knows which buttons to push regarding his manhood.

We have a debt to pay to Shakespeare. From our first novel to this one, we’ve always tried to make our characters come alive on the page and in the imaginations of our readers. When we began our new Scottish Relic Trilogy, we wanted to pay tribute to the Bard’s understanding of the human spirit. So, drawing very loosely on the great romantic comedy, Much Ado about Nothing, we created characters who reflected (in some way), Beatrice and Benedick.

In Shakespeare’s play, Beatrice wants to be respected and loved for her intelligence, her passion, and her independent spirit and demands equality in a society that scoffs at such a notion. What she needs is to overcome the fears that are tied to her self-confidence. Benedick wants the freedom of the bachelor life. What he needs is the love of a woman who matches his own wit and passion. The conflicts that arise as the two of them struggle toward an understanding of their true needs is what makes their story—what makes them—timeless and real.

And we set out to do much the same when we created Kenna and Alexander in our new novel Much Ado about Highlanders. There is a history between them that exists before the reader lays eyes on the first page. They were married but separated because Kenna, like Beatrice, wants and demands equality in their marriage. Once an unexpected kidnapping occurs, their battle of wits begins and rages until passion and love seals their marriage.  

As Kenna came alive for us, Beatrice’s desires became more and more relevant. Even after the passage of centuries, she shines as a role model. She is wise, witty, and wounded. She is fiercely devoted and a courageous risk-taker. More than any other character in Shakespeare’s plays, she defines his dramatic genius. As her story develops, Beatrice comes to realize she wants not just more, she wants it all. As a woman, she lacks power in her male-dominated Elizabethan society and struggles against it. And so does Kenna in her sixteenth century Scottish Highlands. And why shouldn’t they have it? Why shouldn’t we all have it?

Women feel the same wants and needs that Beatrice and Kenna feel, and continue to struggle today. What’s fascinating is that Shakespeare felt it and understood the value of that struggle. This is even evident in the fact that so many of his great heroines dress as young men to overcome the obstacles that fate and society lay before them. He weaves our sexuality (and our shared humanity) into every play.

In his Much Ado, Shakespeare introduced Benedict; in ours, we brought to life Alexander Macpherson. A witty know-it-all, he is a confident alpha male who is striving to bring some order back to his chaotic life and marriage. As our story opens, he simply doesn’t know how to make that happen. Tracy, a reviewer on GoodReads, writes, “What ensues is a fast-paced, steamy, delightful story of true love conquering all, along with a lot of action, adventure, a bit of paranormal/magic and some truly cringe worthy villains.” And Alexander is a man who needs Kenna MacKay.

As dreamers, we aspire to be remembered 400 years from now. As hardworking writers, we can only apply ourselves (as Shakespeare did) to making characters who capture the heart of our human experience.