1 January 2019

Guest Post by Steven A. McKay: Researching The Druid and the 'Dark Ages.'

Northern Britain, AD430 A land in turmoil. A village ablaze. A king’s daughter abducted. In the aftermath of a surprise attack Dun Buic lies in smoking ruins and many innocent villagers are dead. As the survivors try to make sense of the night’s events the giant warrior-druid, Bellicus, is tasked with hunting down the raiders and thwarting their dark purpose. 

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

As an author of historical fiction it is absolutely vital that you have a good idea of the period you are writing about. What did they wear? What did they eat, drink, do for fun? And, in the case of my latest book, The Druid, what was their religion like? 

My first series was a retelling of the Robin Hood legend so that was fairly simple to research—there’s hundreds of books out there on the medieval period and probably the same number about the infamous outlaw. The druids, however, are a different matter entirely. 

We all have our own perception of what a druid would have been like, and probably most of us think of an old, grey-bearded man, in a long robe, holding a staff. Gandalf, or Merlin, essentially. The thing is, there are very few historical records from this period of time (5th century Britain in the case of my novel), with much of what we do have being basically propaganda written by the Romans to demonize their enemies.

So what to do? Where to start researching a book about a dark age druid? Well, the fact there are so few records about the druids can actually be seen as a good thing as it gives a writer license to use their own imagination to create a character and a religion of their own. However, we do know much about things like the weapons, buildings, foods, names of local gods and goddesses and so on, and that means we can steep ourselves in that and build a solid picture of the time in our head. This planting of oneself in a particular era is something I always do with my books and it allows me to build a solid, realistic world for the characters to appear within.

To find out more about the post-Roman period in Britain I made use of a number of books like Simon Young’s A.D. 500, which gives a fantastic overview, from the point of a Roman tourist actually, of the entire country and the peoples of the time. Then there’s Ancient Scotland by David Ross with chapters titled, for example, “Picts’ Houses”, “Farmhouses, Duns and Crannogs”, and “Languages of North Britain and Caledonia”. This is a fabulous little volume which is crammed with useful information. With these, and more, I was able to root myself in 5th century Britain, and then it was onto the difficult part: The Druids and their religion.

There are a few books available on the druids, but, it has to be said, no-one really knows anything for certain about them. One person who hadn’t even read my book, just seen an advert for it, complained about my use of Stonehenge because, to her, the druids were not interested in that monument – they venerated trees and water and open spaces, not some man-made ‘temple’. The evidence suggests that is true, but to me, if a druid felt inspired by a stone circle they’d have incorporated it in their work, without question. I would!

Similarly, everyone knows the druids sacrificed humans to their bloodthirsty gods, right? Well, maybe they did at one point but the religion of the druids was not like Christianity, with a rigid set of doctrines and commandments and rituals to be followed to the letter. My druid, Bellicus, would have learned his craft at the feet of his elders, but surely he would have used his own intuition and personal preference when it came to performing his ‘magic’. Much of what they did was down to performance anyway—how can an author research something like that?

You can’t, because, quite simply, no druids wrote anything down about what they did, so the writer is free to make up his own set of rules that stick to the known facts already discovered by reading books like The Quest For Merlin by Nikolai Tolstoy. That is a treasure trove of information on the oldest sources from Wales and Ireland in particular that deal with Merlin. If anyone can be said to be a druid it’s that guy, so where better to start researching than with this book?

The internet is also a valuable tool for finding period-correct things like names to use for characters, and even Youtube is handy. For the sequel to The Druid I wanted to describe a scene where the characters set animal traps and, having no knowledge of hunting myself, I found a video showing how to make a really simple snare, allowing me to describe it in the book.

Sometimes it’s simply not possible to visit a location yourself. I still worked a full-time day-job when I was writing my Robin Hood books so never once set foot in Yorkshire or Nottingham – yet readers who live there told me I’d got things spot on! With The Druid being, in part, set near my own home though, it allowed me to make some field trips to places like Dumbarton Castle and the site of a Roman fort, take pictures, note the geography and, perhaps best of all, just absorb the atmosphere. It’s amazing to stand someplace your character has ‘stood’ hundreds of years earlier and put yourself in their place!

I’m not going to detail every resource I used to research my novel—you can see many of the books in my photos, although there’s more stashed all around the house and in my car! The point, as with researching any historical novel, is to read as widely as possible, take what you need from each source, and mould it all into an exciting, somewhat-believable tale (I will say, there’s no fantasy style magic in The Druid, it’s supposed to be a realistic account of an adventure that might really have taken place).

Once you have your foundation you can let your imagination fly! 

THE DRUID excerpt

Bellicus drew the knife from its sheath at his waist and jumped headlong from the table, using the momentum to propel himself through the air at one of the nearest invaders. He crashed into the man, a great bearded brute with flashing eyes, and hammered the blade into his neck. The wound erupted in a gout of blood which drenched the druid’s hand, but Bellicus moved on without stopping.
“Cai! Here, boy!” The muscular hound slipped through the confused, shouting mass of people and appeared by the giant’s side as he fixed upon another target. “Attack.”
The dog lunged forward and fastened upon the man’s wrist, powerful jaws crushing the bones and drawing a scream of pure agony which was cut off as Bellicus punched him in the mouth, knocking him backwards to the ground. Cai moved then from arm to throat and, again, like some avenging demon, the druid’s huge robed figure moved on, searching for more of these attackers to kill, the lean form of Eolas now at his rear.
It wasn’t going well for the invaders, he could see. Some of the local men, and women too, had shown their courage by fighting back, despite the fact they wore no armour or carried war gear and now, only three of the intruders still stood.
One of those was beset by both Coroticus and Nectovelius and it was clear the man, tiring as he was, wouldn’t survive long, especially as the king’s guards were moving to surround him.
Another fell as Bellicus watched, borne down under the weight of four or five furious locals whose knives rose and fell in a bloody spray.
The third, a short barrel of a man, stood in front of the doors, almost as if he was guarding them, and Bellicus’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Why wasn’t the fool escaping? His companions were beaten and he’d be killed soon too if he didn’t get away.
A shiver ran down the druid’s neck. Something was amiss here – this was no simple raid gone wrong. 
“Take him alive!” he shouted, but as the cry left his mouth someone threw an empty amphora at the stocky swordsman, the pottery smashing into pieces on the unfortunate’s skull.
“Alive,” Bellicus roared again, but the people were too enraged to heed his words and they set about the downed interloper with fists and feet and whatever else they could find.
The screams didn’t last long. The hall was far from silent though, the babble of fear and confusion almost raising the rafters as everyone wondered what to do.
Men eyed the smashed doors, wanting to run to their homes and gather their shields and swords and axes, but fearing what might be out there waiting for them.
The king hurried across to Bellicus and together they peered at the doorway, trying vainly to see what, or who, might be waiting outside for them.
“Can’t stay in here all night,” the druid growled, and Coroticus nodded grimly.
“Guards, form up behind me.”

Steven A. McKay

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About the Author

Steven A. McKay was born in Scotland in 1977. His first book, "Wolf's Head", came out in 2013 and was an Amazon UK top 20 bestseller. "The Abbey of Death” is the final book in the Forest Lord series which has over 100,000 sales so far. Steven's new book, "The Druid" is the first in a brand new series set in post-Roman Britain and was published on November 1st 2018. He is now finishing off a standalone novel about a slave in Roman Britain. He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up. Find out more at his website https://stevenamckay.com/ and find him on Twitter @SA_McKay.

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