Interview with the authors of A Year of Ravens Part III

Interview by Thomas A. Timmes

UNRV: The story, writing, and characters were all simply amazing! How do you get seven authors to agree on a consistent storyline, and characters that manage to maintain their individuality from beginning to end?
Ruth Downie: Lots of emails and the miracle of Skype! What I enjoyed about this was the way one person’s ideas sparked off another’s, and everyone was willing to be flexible. Poor Simon had to be excessively flexible because lots of us liked his character so much that we put him into our own stories, leaving Simon to work around lots of backstory he wasn’t expecting.
Stephanie Dray: Thank you! It took about a billion emails and two video conferences to get it right, but it was so much fun. We had some early missteps--Vicky was going to write about Cartimandua and I was going to write about Valeria, the wife of the procurator. But we quickly realized that Vicky wanted to write about a Druid and I had no idea what to do with Valeria. Meanwhile, Cartimandua was speaking to me and Kate had the better idea for Valeria anyway. I remember a bunch of us sitting down together at the Historical Novel Society’s conference and building on one another’s ideas.

None of it would’ve worked without cooperation and a determination to keep our characters as tightly entwined as possible. There were lots of conversations that went like this, “Hey, so if your character was fostered in a Roman household, can it be my Romans who fostered him?” And we even took some votes on who could live or die. Let’s just say we’re a bloodthirsty lot!
Eliza Knight: Believe it or not, this is actually not as complicated as it sounds! (Or maybe that was the mason jar of wine I had while going through final edits? LOL) We all worked very well together, and from the very beginning, we shared our outlines, cross-over characters, etc… so that by the time the writing started, we had a good idea of where everyone was. And then again, when we had those cross-over scenes, we wrote them together, so as not to make any mistakes. For example, I had in The Daughters, SJA’s character, Andecarus, and I made him a little more moon-eyed than he was, which was an easy fix!
Kate Quinn: From the beginning, each author chose a section of the rebellion in which to concentrate their story--before any plotting was done, I knew my story had to start after the sack of Verulamium and peak in the final battle, and everyone else had similarly firm historical starting-and-stopping-points to act as a framework. Everyone chose their own story and protagonists, however--the only guideline was that we wanted a mix of narrators to show Roman and Briton, old and young, male and female, etc. Once we each had an idea who our protagonists were, we met up in a Skype session and gabbed excitedly about how to interweave them. “Can my hero be your hero’s son?” “Can your heroine be my hero’s love interest?” “Can your hero carry the crucial message that has to arrive in my story?”
Vicky Alvear Shecter: To give you an idea of how this came together, think flexibility. Originally, I was slated to write a different character but on one of our many group discussions, someone mentioned we had no Druids in the story. My heart leapt with excitement--and I leapt to volunteer. Because really, how can you have a story about ancient Britannia and not have a Druid? So I think we all chose characters that “spoke” to us in some way.

For characters who interwove in others stories, it was a matter of making sure their “voice” was consistent and recognizable. Also, it was a matter of respect--if a character in your story has appeared before, then it was up to you to carry through what the author began in terms of characteristics and voice. If the character was young and naive in their story, they shouldn’t suddenly be mature and eloquent in yours. We’re all professionals and were careful to respect the integrity of characters that we had not originated.
Simon Turney: Er…. if you get an answer to that from the others, please let me know. In that respect I can only speak for Andecarus, who seems to have become something of a common thread, linking stories in his own right. It was a matter, I think, of constant consultation and peer suggestion.
Russ Whitfield: I’m absolutely thrilled you enjoyed it, that’s wicked! Thanks so much!

OK, so, when I came on board, the H-Team had already mapped out the events that they wanted to highlight on the story (the ones that you HAVE to have in a Boudica tale) it was more a question of execution. I suspect that you’re going to get this answer from everyone that starts like this: “Well, I can’t speak for the others…” So...

Well, I can’t speak for the others, but when I asked for and was given “The Tribune” I was made up because I know a little bit about the period and the Roman military at the time, so I thought that story carried the lowest risk of an Epic Russ Fail (though, the book’s not available to the public yet, so the jury’s out on whether I managed not to fail!).

I knew that my guy - Agricola - was young at the time. The first thing that sprang into my head was Act II, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s Henry V (Full Disclosure: I had to Google the Act and Scene there - I’m not showing off!).

And, be assured, you'll find a difference, As we his subjects have in wonder found, Between the promise of his greener days And these he masters now
So that informed my thinking (I still don’t know why I thought of that line when this project came up, but there we are). I wanted Agricola not to be a great man - or even at the beginning show any signs of having the potential to be great.

He’s just a young bloke with a cool uniform, a cushy job and a good set of abs. Of course, he grows up during the process of the story and changes (the good old character arc) and my feeling was that these experiences set him on the path of his life to follow. But we don’t leave him as “Legendary Commander” or anything like that. He’s a survivor of a terrible war - and carries the scars.

As for consistency - we helped each other. It was that simple - Kate did a wicked job of Agricola in her bit, asked me for a line or two of dialogue which I was happy to do in my best “Agricola” voice. As Editor-in-Chief, she asked if she could add this or that to my story… and I was made up, because the bits she added are the best written bits in the story. Clearly, I’m not going to say what bits those are cos then everyone will know and I won’t be able to brag on about it “all being my own work” to my Mrs.

UNRV: When I completed the Epilogue, I was left wanting to know more about the future of several of the characters such as Keena, Ria, Cartimandua, Valeria, and the Iceni tribe. Can readers expect to learn their fate in future books?
Ruth Downie: I love the idea that they go on to have their own lives beyond the book, but I’m happy to leave it to readers’ imaginations. At least, I thought I was until I began pondering this question...
Stephanie Dray: Hah! Well, all I can say is that Cartimandua’s story would certainly make a compelling novel. If readers want to keep up with what’s next, they should sign up for an alert at www.stephaniedray.com/newsletter!
Eliza Knight: I would absolutely love to write more about Keena’s story. I loved her so very much! And I too, would like to see what happens next!
Kate Quinn: I don’t plan to write more continuing my characters, but I do know what happened to them. [Spoiler!] Valeria will make her way to Gaul and her bookish husband, who will take her back without divorce. They will mend relations and live out a rather quiet happy life, much enlivened by a huge hell-raising son. Like his father, he will be a warrior. Unlike his father, he will fight for Rome. [End spoiler.]
Vicky Alvear Shecter: Not from me! But some may have other plans. You never know. However, I am working on a children’s book about ancient warrior queens and Boudica will certainly be a part of it, though it will be more of a biographical retelling. Here in America, few children (and adults!) know about Boudica so it will a treat to introduce her to young audiences.
Simon Turney: From this group, I would say not. Their story is told. It may be that one of the authors here wishes to go on and write further works based on their character. I would not be averse to such an idea, though it would not be feasible for me to do so. But I think this is a complete and finished tale, really, with no need to expand. If Highlander II taught us anything, it is that some stories are meant to stand alone.
Russ Whitfield: I don’t know - they’re all great characters, aren’t they? That’d be up to the writers of those stories, I guess. I have no plans to do anything about Agricola at the moment.

UNRV: Do you have plans for additional books employing multiple authors?
Ruth Downie: I think everyone’s keen to do more but I’m hopeless at forward planning so I’ll wait to find out!
Stephanie Dray: We hope the H-Team will make it a yearly project to put out a novel like A YEAR OF RAVENS because it’s not only fun, but it really sharpens the skills. I learn so much from my fellow authors and I get to experiment with techniques I’ve never used before. But enough about me. The best part is that readers get a chance to sample authors they may not have heard of before!
Eliza Knight: Yes! Yes! Yes! The H-Team was created because we are hoping to put our yearly epic tales given from multiple viewpoints. A Day of Fire was very successful, and I believe, A Year of Ravens will be, too. I can’t WAIT to see what 2016 brings.
Kate Quinn: Goodness, I hope so. It’s about the most fun you can have and still call it work. We probably exchanged thousands of goofy emails during the writing of A Year of Ravens. Ruth said it best when she described the entire process as a writing seminar crossed with group therapy, only funnier.
Vicky Alvear Shecter: Nothing yet, but I will be the first to raise my hand if the opportunity arises. It really is fun and fulfilling!
Simon Turney: I can almost guarantee that The H Team will produce another compilation next year, based on a new historical event or character. Again, there will probably be a slightly different lineup. Looking at what we achieved here, though, I rather hope I will be one of them...
Russ Whitfield: With this lot? No chance, they’re all mad. And shouty (very shouty). All of the time.

No, seriously - this was an amazing experience, one that I was honoured to be included in this roster. I’ve said before, I feel like the bloke watching the football match and gets waved onto the pitch by the manager and ends up playing with his heroes (heroes who saved me from scoring an own goal - thank you Ruth Downie).

I don’t know if there are other stories planned - if there are and I was invited to participate, I would be in like a shot. I can’t express how much fun it was - I find writing quite hard (and some find my writing hard to read… but let’s not go there) but this experience was such a laugh - and the fastest 25000 words I’ve ever written. I don’t know why, I think it was the buzz of working with such exceptional talents lit a fire under my arse and I sat hunched at the keyboard with the mantra “don’t be rubbish, don’t be rubbish” going over and over in my head.

So - 100%, I would love to do this all again if the opportunity arose.

Thomas A. Timmes, a 28 year active duty veteran of the U.S. Army, holds the Bronze Star for Valor and Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry for combat in Vietnam. Tom also served on the Department of the Army Staff and the Joint Staff in the Pentagon. He worked in the Department of Defense for 42 years including 24 years in the Pentagon.

Tom earned military and civilian awards including the Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service, the Defense Superior Service Medal, Combat Infantryman's Badge, holds a Master's Degree in History, and is a member of the National History Honor Society. In 2013, he was designated a Distinguished Member of the Psychological Operations Regiment. Thomas A. Timmes has published several novels in the series Legio XVII

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