I absolutely adore Historical Fiction. I also really enjoy reading novels that incorporate some spirituality and / or mysticism (think the Avalon Series by Marion Zimmer Bradley). To me, there’s something really special in how this kind of writing can bring history alive, enriching the facts into a fully realized world, all the while incorporating elements that are less wrapped in reality, like magic and the paranormal.
I’m serious when I say that paranormal historical fiction just sends my already overactive imagination into overdrive.
The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley has generous sprinklings of both history and the paranormal. These two devices are stirred in with romantic notions that would turn the heads of even the most hardened cynic to create a novel that engages, entices and questions. Although slow at take-off, as the pace of the novel quickens, the reader is drawn in to two parallel stories that explore human nature, love, friendship and loyalty, in a situation where the present really does learn from the past. And, if you’re like me, you will truly fall in love with the two sets of protagonists, Nicola and Rob, and Anna and Edmund.
By the end of the Firebird you’ll be weeping, cheering, and truly smiling.
My Q& A with Susanna Kearsley
1. How did you come up with the concept for Firebird? It’s such a unique premise. Did you have an interest in the paranormal before writing the novel?
I have an interest in the paranormal in that I find the whole notion of things that occur in our world that we can’t yet explain scientifically very intriguing.
Years ago, when I was doing research for my novel The Shadowy Horses, a book that involved an archaeological dig in the Scottish borders, I was introduced to the concept of remote viewing—the apparent ability of some people to “see” things far removed from them in time or distance. The academic studies that had been done on this, by everyone from the Soviets to the CIA, were fascinating, as was the actual field experimentation carried out by researchers, in particular Canadian archaeologist Dr. J. Norman Emerson (1917-1978), the highly-respected founder of the Ontario Archaeological Society, who was a pioneer and champion of the use of what he termed “intuitive archaeology”, making use of psychics to assist him with his digs. One of his closest collaborations was with a man who not only demonstrated abilities of remote viewing, but of psychometry as well—the ability to “read” details of the history of an object by holding it. So that’s where the character of young Robbie McMorran, the 8-year-old Scottish boy gifted with similar psychic abilities, who helped my field archaeologists dig in The Shadowy Horses, was born.
Later on, just as the first ideas for The Firebird started forming and I was starting to get the first glimpse of my modern-day characters and of the little wooden carving that would be the start of their adventures, a reader emailed me to ask if Robbie was ever going to get his own story. Her timing couldn’t have been better, because when I write a book with a twin-stranded storyline, one that weaves the past and present stories together, part of the challenge is finding the right literary device to serve as a bridge between the two. In the past I’ve used things like reincarnation, genetic memory, actual time travel, or the simpler technique of having other characters just tell their stories to the heroine, but with The Firebird, especially since the little carving played a central role, I could see how Rob’s psychic abilities could be used to link the two stories, and lend more interest to the modern storyline, as well.
2. How much time do you spend researching? Do you do all your prep before starting to write or ongoing?
It’s very much an ongoing thing. I do a lot of reading beforehand, both of the history and of actual firsthand accounts, letters and documents written by people who were there at the time—very often by the characters I’m writing about. And I visit the places where the story will be taking place—in this case Scotland, London, Belgium and Russia. But while I’m at home doing the actual writing there will always be places I reach in the book where I’ll have to stop and search out something else, some detail that I didn’t know I didn’t know. I’ll have to hunt down other documents and letters, or find people I can talk to who might know the answers to my questions, and what I find out will often form the basis of new scenes, or take the story in a new direction that I hadn’t planned, so then I’ll need to do more research…
3. With regard to your process, are you a planner or a wing-it kind of writer? How much did you know about what could happen?
I’m very much a wing-it kind of writer. When I start a book, I generally know the central group of characters and the initial problem facing them, and I have a rough idea where I’d like them to end up, but that’s it. I set them loose on the page, and see what happens. Of course for the historical half of the story, many of those characters were actual people who really lived, and I knew from their letters and documents where they were at certain times, and what they did, and who they met and talked to—those details couldn’t be changed. Any 18th century characters I created had to move within these confines, so that sometimes took a bit of thought, but my planning didn’t go much further than marking out a calendar with dates and times of meetings and locations and events. The characters still drove the story forward, in my mind. Events that I initially thought would become very important ended up taking a back seat to other happenings that I didn’t even know about when I began the book, and real-life characters who I thought would play major roles were overshadowed and outplayed by lesser-known ones who emerged from the first-hand accounts and journals I was reading. It’s a process that I truly love, the way a story grows, and I find if I try to plan it out beforehand it’s not nearly as enjoyable, and what I end up writing isn’t half as good, as if I simply wing it, as you say.
If you’d like to learn more about Susanna Kearsley, The Firebird, or any of her other books, visit her websites or connect with her on Twitter.