A finely crafted work of historical fiction transports the reader to another time. It isn’t just the physical details of daily life and the world around the characters which elevates the work from just being set in the past to practically being in the past. Those are definitely crucial. Dialogue is one of those secret ingredients that needs just the right touch. Not enough authenticity and the work feels too modern and general; too much, and most readers find it a hard slog to follow.
Nancy Blanton is a historical fiction author who has just the right touch for crafting authentic, character-centric dialogue that takes you back to 17th century Ireland. Together with impeccable historical details and a rousing good adventure, her Prince of Glencurragh is a novel that I would heartily recommend.
I’ve asked Nancy to drop by and talk about the inspiration behind her 17th century novels of Ireland. Welcome, Nancy!
Tell us what drew you to 17th century Ireland?
Nancy: Long before I started Sharavogue I knew I wanted to explore Irish history, partly because of family heritage, but also because I had grown tired of books about the Tudors. As an avid reader of historical fiction, I was searching for something new to learn about and was fascinated by the Scottish history I found reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. But perhaps the greatest influence came from a summer study course in Dublin when I was about 19. I was hooked even then but it took a good while longer for me to realize it.
My research of Irish history began at Dingle, a place I had visited and loved. I read about the 16th century, the Siege of Smerwick and the terrible massacre there, and then the doomed Desmond rebellions. But ultimately the 17th century compelled me. Rife with conflict, disaster, invention and sweeping change, I don’t believe there is a time more fascinating and remarkable. In the words of Robert Burton in 1638: “War, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions…and such like, which these tempestuous times affoord…” – and all of that during the first few decades. Who could resist?
What inspired you to write Sharavogue and its prequel The Prince of Glencurragh?
Nancy: One day on the Internet I stumbled upon an argument between two people over whether the Irish had once owned slaves. One insisted that the Irish, being so oppressed themselves, would never have owned slaves. I looked into it and found some books, essays, and an archaeological study to confirm that in fact Irish plantations on the island of Montserrat had operated using slave labor. At the time, it was the only way they could be profitable. These plantations developed in the early 1600s and into the Cromwellian era that is credited with deporting to the West Indies about 10,000 to 12,000 Irish who became slaves or indentured servants. I had spent time in the town of Skibbereen, the end-point on a map of Cromwell’s march through Ireland. The pieces came together in a very exciting way. The story begins with Cromwell’s arrival in Skibbereen. Protagonist Elvy Burke confronts Cromwell, runs for her life, and is swept away to a fictitious sugar plantation on Montserrat named Sharavogue – from the Irish meaning bitter place.
I’d intended to write a sequel to Sharavogue, focusing on the Great Irish Rebellion of 1641, but instead my readers urged me to do the prequel. They wanted to know more about Elvy’s father Faolán, and how he came to be in his circumstances when Elvy was born. Once I figured out his lifespan, I discovered a book detailing the strategy of young men to elevate their station in life by abducting an heiress, often with the help of their families. Such abductions weren’t condoned, but they weren’t illegal at the time. In fact, the famed Duke of Buckingham abducted his wealthy bride with the help of his mother. Once the heiress was in a man’s possession she was considered damaged goods, and the family became willing to make the best of things by negotiating a marriage settlement. This sparked my imagination and the story flowed rapidly from there. Faolán dreams of reclaiming his father’s estate and building Castle Glencurragh. Thus the title, The Prince of Glencurragh, refers to his driving desire.
Did you uncover any surprising facts while researching your novels and what were they?
Nancy: Yes, many. The research is so exciting because you never know where it will lead.
I learned a lot about the Great Earl of Cork, who built towns and developed industry in the Province of Munster, but became one of the wealthiest men in Ireland by taking advantage of others’ misfortunes, and taking a large percentage of church tithes – which he was later forced to return.
Another discovery was that the town of Skibbereen experienced a population surge in 1631 after Algerian pirates raided the coastal town of Baltimore and carried away about 100 people to be sold as slaves. This is well documented in Des Ekins’s book, The Stolen Village. It turns out the pirates may have been led to the Baltimore settlement by a man who wanted to own that land. There are also a few grisly stories about the English inviting “troublesome” Irish clans to a banquet, and then killing every man, woman and child. Native populations in the West Indies received similar treatment from both the English and French.
In ThePrince of Glencurragh, one of the issues you address is an eating disorder and its devastating effect. It’s an issue that is only recently spoken about. Why did you decide to include it in your story, and was this a disorder that was more common in the past than we might think?
Nancy: This brings up the challenges that can arise when writing a prequel. In particular, I describe a case of anorexia, which I had always assumed was a modern disease. In the opening chapters of Sharavogue, Elvy’s mother Vivienne already has died, so the prequel had to cover her death within a year of her marriage. Common illnesses like tuberculosis could take seven or more years for death to occur. To have her die in childbirth seemed unfit for this story. I sought out a disease that would kill her within a year, and found a treatise by 17th century physician Richard Morton on “Nervous Consumption.”
He attributed this disease to “violent passions of the mind” and described symptoms reflecting anorexia: “At first it flatters and deceives the Patient, for which reason it happens for the most part that the Physician is called too late.” Morton details symptoms and describes at length his treatment of a woman who tired of her medicines (various drinks and stomach plasters) and died within three months; and a man who was successfully treated by moving to the country, taking in “very good air,” cheerful exercise and the conversation of friends.
I was surprised and fascinated that this disease existed so long ago, and I love to use such details that further illuminate the 17thcentury for readers. It also made sense for the personality of Vivienne. Anorexia typically causes death by stressing the heart to the point of failure, but at its core anorexia is a disease of control. In the book, when Vivienne loses control of her fortune and her identity, the disease that has troubled her for years takes a fatal hold.
In The Prince of Glencurragh, you chose to tell the story of Faolán and Vivienne through Faolán’s faithful friend Aengus which was a daring choice (not too unlike Nick Carraway in the Great Gatsby). Not all authors would be able to pull this off but you do. Can you tell us why you decided to show the story through Aengus’s eyes?
Nancy: Thank you for the compliment! There were a number of reasons for this decision. I suppose the biggest one was that I expected Faolán would die in a skirmish at the end of the book, and I wanted an objective voice to follow him throughout the story. As it turned out, Faolán’s transformation at the end seemed like the right place to end, and he survives for the next book. A second reason is that I was not writing a romance, and I believed if I wrote from Faolán’s point of view it would become one.
A third reason is that I had written Sharavogue in first person, and the use of Aengus would be an opportunity for growth as an author. We must push ourselves, just as any athlete does to improve a skill. To do this I did in fact study the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tactics for portraying Nick in The Great Gatsby. I also studied Taita, the eunuch slave in Wilbur Smith’s book, River God. Taita is a charming narrator who all but invented the wheel. These were extremely helpful as I wrote Aengus, but in all truth Aengus unfolded himself for me. I only realized when I finished the book that he comprised many experiences I have had with my dearest friends. And that’s what the book is really about: hope, and friendship.
I was speaking at a book club recently when one of the members said, “I love Aengus!” My eyes filled with tears. I am so gratified that he meant something to readers. I love him, too.
What are you currently working on?
Nancy: Taking place between the first two, my next book, The Earl in Black Armor, is about relentlessness, loyalty and betrayal. Faolán is sent to Dublin Castle by the Earl of Clanricarde to spy on the new Lord Deputy of Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, who is bent on acquiring Irish clan properties for English plantations. Faolán soon discovers he is not the only one watching the Lord Deputy. It’s a volatile time including the Bishops Wars with Scotland and the events leading up to the Great Irish Rebellion, England’s Civil War and ultimately the fall of the monarchy.
Wentworth is a real and controversial figure, both good and bad. He was rich and powerful, but sought an earldom for most of his adult life. He received it only months before he was executed — basically, murdered –by Parliament. Publication is set for the spring of 2019.
Thank you Nancy for stopping by. I’ll be looking forward to reading your next book!
Nancy Blanton is the author of historical fiction including The Prince of Glencurragh and Sharavogue, both award-winning novels set in 17th century Ireland. She also wrote Brand Yourself Royally in 8 Simple Steps, winner of the President’s Silver Medal, Florida Authors and Publishers Association. She wrote and illustrated the children’s book, The Curious Adventure of Roodle Jones. She has produced two award-winning regional history books and two interactive timelines. She lives in Florida.
Media attributions (Featured image in header):
View From The Hilltop at Lough Hyne (Skibbereen) By edward982 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.