Today it is an absolute pleasure to welcome author Steven McKay to the blog. Steven has written the wonderful Forest Lord series, chronicling the adventures of everyone’s favourite legend, Robin Hood. With the final book, Blood of the Wolf, out this month, Steven talked to me about his writing, inspiration and what’s coming next.
Hi Steven, thanks so much for agreeing to be a guest interviewee on my blog, History…the Interesting Bits. So, here’s the questions …
What made you become a writer?
I always wanted to write stories, ever since I was a child. I would write little daft things in my school books and things like that. I think some people are creative and have a need to let their imagination run a bit wild be it through writing or art or music or whatever. I love to create songs on my guitars, and obviously write novels now but, sadly, I’m a terrible painter.
Who are your major writing influences?
Boringly, Bernard Cornwell is number one, just as he probably is for 90% of the people you talk to! The great thing about Cornwell is, he covers so much ground and so many periods. I don’t have any interest in his Sharpe stuff, for example, but his Arthurian and Saxon books are right up my street. And he does it so well that it always gives any writer inspiration and hopes of someday being that damn good!
Apart from that, I love Tolkien’s world-building, Philip K. Dick’s ability to get right inside a reader’s head, and David Gemmell’s great heroes.
How long do you spend researching a novel before you start writing?
Well, I had to do a lot of research for my debut novel, Wolf’s Head, since I wasn’t really very clued-up on the middle-ages OR the Robin Hood legend. So I spent a good year or so, on and off, getting a feel for the period and the characters but, once I had that solid foundation I didn’t really need to do any more research before writing the other books in the series.
Now, though, I’m going to start a brand new series, set in post-Roman Britain, and again, I’m going to have to find out how the people lived and what the whole culture and landscape was like.
Hopefully I can learn quickly…
What comes first, your storyline or your research?
As above, it rather depends on what the book will be about. I just wrote a new short story with my characters from the Robin Hood books and I didn’t have to do any research prior to coming up with the plot. I obviously had to check certain facts once it was done but that happens at the end of every book, when you’re proofreading and editing.
For my new series I will need to do some research to figure out what directions the story might go, but I have a vague idea of what’s going to happen in the first book at least.
Do you know how a book is going to end when you start writing, or do your characters ‘surprise’ you?
Generally, yes, I know what will happen. And, of course, with Robin Hood the story is well known and has to be stuck to fairly closely or it’s not Robin Hood any more. So in that respect I’ve always had an idea how each book will pan out, although along the way certain things happen when I’m writing that I didn’t expect. The characters really do come to life and take things in their own direction sometimes, without the writer’s prior knowledge! Friar Tuck always seemed to do that when I was writing his scenes – it was his idea for Robin to travel to London in Rise of the Wolf, the thought had never even crossed my mind originally!
Have you always been interested in Robin Hood?
No, not at all. I’m not really sure why, as I did always love that other great British hero, King Arthur, but Robin Hood never interested me until I decided to write a book about him. I think I never really engaged with the legend because there hadn’t been a great, modern interpretation of it the way there had been with Arthur. Bernard Cornwell had written great books about that as had Stephen Lawhead, and there was the movie Excalibur which I enjoyed, not to mention the whole mythology of Merlin…Robin, on the other hand, wasn’t really so well-known, to me at least. Had I been just a couple of years older I probably would have got into the TV series Robin of Sherwood when it came out in the 80’s and developed an interest from there but nope, I only started watching that as research for my own novel.
Needless to say, the Robin Hood legend is much deeper and more interesting than I first thought!
There are 3 Forest Lord books so far, Wolf’s Head, Rise of the Wolf and The Wolf and The Raven how many more adventures are there to come? Did you know how many books would be in the series when you started writing the story?
The fourth book, Blood of the Wolf, will be published on October 14th 2016 and this will be the last in the series. I planned it to be a trilogy but the second book took itself off in unforeseen directions and I needed to add an extra volume to do everything I wanted with the story. Incidentally, that second book, The Wolf and the Raven, was probably the most fun to write of all of them, perhaps because I let the characters go where they wanted without forcing them to stick to my plan!
What is in store for Robin next?
Nothing, I’m afraid. You’ll need to read Blood of the Wolf to see how things end for him. I do have a brand new short story, “The Stapleford Prisoner” featuring him and Little John but I don’t know when, or how, that will be published. I also plan on doing another novella, this time starring Will Scaflock but I haven’t started it yet. It will hopefully serve as a stopgap for my readers until I can get the next series underway.
I love the fact the stories are set in the reign of Edward II, rather than the more traditional Richard the Lionheart/King John era. What made you do this?
When I researched the legend the main thing I wanted to do was write about a realistic hero, so I tried to find out if there had been a real Robin Hood. I don’t believe there was one, single outlaw with that name, but there was a decent case for a Robert Hood living in the time of King Edward II having contributed to much of the early stories that became the legend we now all know. It seemed as good a starting point as any and certainly gave things a fresh slant since everyone always sets their Hood tales in a much earlier period.
Your Robin Hood has also moved from Sherwood Forest to Barnsdale Forest, is there are particular reason, or did Robin just fancy a change of scenery?
As above, the earliest ballads about Robin were actually set in Barnsdale and the real Robert Hood I mentioned came from Wakefield in Yorkshire. So again, that gave me a new direction to take the tired old tales and make them a little bit different. That said, much of the action in the books does take place in Nottingham as I believe any outlaw gang would have had to move around from place to place to avoid the law. The sheriff in my books, Sir Henry de Faucumberg was actually the Sheriff of Nottingham and Yorkshire in real life although I did use some artistic license with the dates he served….
A lot of actors have played Robin Hood through the years, do you have a particular image of Robin when you’re writing him?
No, not at all. I mean he’s tall and extremely well-built. Any good medieval longbowman would have been really muscular so that’s obvious but, other than that, I don’t really have a picture of him in my head and I don’t like to describe characters too exactly as I like to let the reader come up with their own image. Making the reader’s imagination fill in some blanks is the best way to draw them into the story I think.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
Just the way that I can pour out my imagination and make the stories in my head come to life. I’m constantly making up little stories in my head, imagining dialogue and actions and whatever, even about everyday events. My mind never seems to stop planning things, or imagining how some scene – even a completely mundane one – might pan out.
Planning and writing books is basically a way of harnessing that energy and making it useful.
What is the worst thing about writing?
Probably waiting to see what readers think of a new book. I can’t tell if a new one is any good or not, it’s impossible, so I have to rely on readers’ opinions. It’s a horrible, nail-biting time waiting on feedback from beta readers and reviewers and hard not to badger them constantly about whether they like it or not.
Apart from that, editing can be a pain – structurally editing a novel I mean. It can be a really daunting thing trying to rearrange certain scenes and events into a cohesive whole and I usually wish it would just happen by magic so I can get on with simply writing again!
How long does it take to do a project from start to finish? Do you write one book at a time, or have several on the go at once?
Well, I’ve been writing for about four years now and in that time I’ve managed to write four novels and a couple of novellas. Basically, I like to do a novel and a novella every year or so. I only concentrate on one thing at a time so I don’t get confused, especially now with this next series being set in a different era altogether. That will require a whole new mindset which is why I haven’t started on it yet, until Blood of the Wolf is done and dusted and out there for people to buy.
Who are your favourite personalities from history? Is there anyone you would particularly like to write about, but haven’t yet?
Jesus! Sorry, that’s not a blasphemous oath, that’s my answer to the question. I’m not a religious person but I think both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible have great stories in them and it would be interesting to write a realistic version of, in particular, Jesus’s life. I did start to research the project years ago but it never came to anything. I’m not sure if it would be a good or a bad thing because there’s so much potential to offend a huge amount of people, but it’s something I would like to do eventually.
Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you get around it?
No, not really. I don’t sit down to write unless I have something planned. I like to think about what scene I’ll be working on next and have it ready in my head so when I start writing it just flows out.
Do you find social media – such as Facebook and Twitter – a benefit or a hindrance?
I don’t see how anyone can say they’re a hindrance – they’re basically free advertising and an amazing way to engage with your readers. I try to do my “social media admin” smartly – so if someone retweets me, I’ll reciprocate, but I do it on my phone as it’s much faster and I can do it when I have a spare minute during the day.
Don’t make the mistake of sitting down for an hour every day and interacting with people on a kind of schedule, because it will soon become boring. Fit it around your day, use every tool you have, from phone to tablet and laptop. Free apps like Hootsuite are also a massive help.
What is your next project, once Robin Hood is complete?
The working title for the next book is The Druid. Rather than a large cast of well-known, iconic characters that I was working with in the Hood books, this time I want to create one single warrior druid living in Britain just as the Romans have left. I love this land and it will be great to explore the geography of it through the eyes of a druid. It also has the added bonus that not much is known about the druids so I can have a little more freedom than I did with my Forest Lord series.
I’m really looking forward to writing it!
Thank you so much for agreeing to an interview, Steven, and for taking the time to answer my questions – I hope they weren’t too onerous.
Not at all, thank you for having me! It’s always great to chat about my work to people.
Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.
He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.
©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.