A bit of background on our author:
J. M. Harvey lives in Australia with her husband, their cattle dog and two goats, in the cool high country on the southern border of Queensland – the area where her Scottish grandmother and family resided from early last century. Her passions are wide and varied; Scottish medieval history, research and writing top the list.
What would you most like your readers to know about you that they would not likely read in your official bio?
I’m intrigued by the flaws in human nature, the nature of forgiveness and how hard it is to forgive ourselves
I’m inspired by people’s courage in the face of adversity.
I’m an observer and love ‘people watching’
I’m more of a listener than a talker
I like solitude and getting in the zone of writing
I’m a great traveler and adore new places and experiences.
What do you want to tell the Scribbler readers about your book, Sisters of The Bruce?
I felt driven to write this story because of its importance. Much has been written by men about men in this historical context. I wanted to portray the critical role women played in general, but also the courage and resilience of these particular sisters. Many of the Scots I spoke to had either never heard of Robert’s sisters or knew precious little about them. I hoped to rectify this injustice.
Sisters of the Bruce is a book to be savored. I would like readers to approach this tale with a gentle spirit and an open heart; to set aside preconceptions and judgments; to have faith that the journey, though fictional, is a timeless one with themes that are relevant to us today; to read it to its conclusion and be left with a sense of awe and a desire to know more. If you fancy wandering the pathways of medieval Scotland, Norway and Orkney, then you’re in for a treat.
How deeply do you research before beginning to write and how important is being historically factual in a fictional work?
I love research and enjoy reading about Scottish history from a variety of reputable sources. And I’m fortunate in that I’ve been able to visit so many of the places relevant to the story. A few years back, I climbed over an old gate into the grounds of a Scottish castle and wandered across a field to the deserted ruins. The moon rose over the trees and the wind scurried the autumn leaves…Such an experience is worth a thousand hours on the internet!
I approach historical fiction differently to most authors and readers. I like to be entertained of course, but I want the story to follow the known facts so that I can learn something worthwhile as well. I know this doesn’t fit the popular notion but you have to march to your own beat. If authors feel compelled to change the facts, I would expect and appreciate some clarification at the end of the book.
Maps are an important resource as well. Their inclusion aids the reader who is unfamiliar with the geography and landscape.
I loved the idea of telling the story of Scotland at this time through the medium of these womens’ letters. What inspired this idea?
I saw a snippet of information on the internet – Isabel, Queen of Norway, was reported to have corresponded with one of her sisters in Scotland. It was impossible to verify this but the idea captured my imagination. I wondered what the sisters might have relayed to each other – surely a mix of homely confidences but also the latest news. Indeed what I might have written to my own sisters! I felt sure Isabel would have wanted to know what was happening back home, especially with the family endangered by escalating conflict and no doubt, she would have shared her own joys, gnawing worries or disappointments within her own extraordinary life as well. What an opportunity for the most personal of dialogue, unfiltered by onlookers or tainted by circumstance!
Do you develop a deep backstory for all your characters before ever sitting down to write or do you just have a general idea of who they are?
When I started writing, I had a clear idea of the historic timelines and movements of the characters. There were few clues about the sisters but I deduced as much as I could about their skills, abilities and personalities from what was recorded about their activities.
Developing the fictional characters proved a special joy; they animated the story and became very real to me. Some of the names are unusual – I chose those which reflected the cultural backdrop. I wanted to give these individuals depth and substance, reflecting how important they were to Scotland’s foundation.
To help readers, it is important to include a glossary of characters especially with multi-generational epics.
When brainstorming a story idea do you begin with character or plot?
In this case, the plot was pivotal and the characters came later.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I love getting into the zone of writing and find the hours go by very quickly.
What do you enjoy the least?
Coming back into the real world is sometimes challenging after spending many hours writing especially trying to think what to cook for dinner; remembering to do household tasks is sometimes difficult.
Can we have an excerpt from Sisters of The Bruce?
Kildrummy Castle, Scotland
A rider thundered along the track as if the very hounds of hell growled and slavered at his heels. Fiery rivulets of light streaked across the midnight sky. The air fizzled and spat and the heavens howled in despair. Now the rain came as horizontal shards biting into his skin. On he rode, driven by the horror of what lay behind him.
The rutted track came to an abrupt halt. The walls of the castle loomed large. Through smoky arrow slits, faint lights glowed. He clattered across the drawbridge, the beat of his horse’s hooves ringing in his ears. Manoeuvering his way through the small gap between the creaking oak gates, he fell from his mount. Though his skin was lathered with sweat, the man’s belly churned with an icy terror.
“A great host approaches!” he croaked, his voice, barely audible.
From the guards nearby, a frantic shout rent the air: “The English are coming!”
The ashen-faced household stumbled from their beds. Standing in tight-lipped silence, they looked to the chatelaine of the massive fortress of Kildrummy.
“We will deal with this! To your posts!” Kirsty Bruce cried and swept out of the bailey, her cloak dragging in the mud as she turned sharply on her heel. She masked her fear well – a few short weeks past, the Bruce kinfolk had only just managed to evade capture after the rout at Methven. Their desperate return brought tears of relief and sorrow to the Kildrummy household.
Now, the anticipated news had come. An enormous English host was pillaging Scotland. None would be spared. All knew the command to ‘Raise the Dragon’ had been given. It was imperative: the kinfolk of Robert the Bruce, crowned King of Scotland and foresworn enemy of the brutal Edward I of England, must reach safety.
The adults gathered now in Kirsty’s solar. At the window, Queen Elizabeth, Mary Bruce and Isobel of Buchan peered into the gloom. A streak of light caught Niall Bruce’s strained features. He must play for time and hold the castle steadfast. Some of the household would dress as Robert’s sisters so the Earl of Pembroke would not be alerted to their escape. Once again, Kirsty blessed these loyal souls who were as family to her.
“We leave at first light.” The others nodded as Kirsty gave the sombre order. Like vanguards of doom, the heavens rumbled a low, menacing response.
A few hours later, the women and young Marjorie, the king’s daughter, led their horses, hooves slipping on the wet cobblestones, down through the dark, vaulted tunnel.
Farewells were quick and muted. Fears lay unspoken, but none could hide their raw devastation. Niall’s sisters hugged him, aware only of the unstinting strength he offered in return. Marjorie clung to him in desperation. Wiping her tears away, he pulled her close. “Courage, lass,” was all he said. In the deep half-light, they escaped through a fine veil of mist and fled north. Niall remained, grim-faced and silent, until a deep sigh escaped his lips. With a heavy heart, he made his way up once more to the battlements.
Who knew what lay ahead for any of them?
Do you use a pen name/pseudo name? If not why did you decide to write under your own name?
I really didn’t give it too much thought to be honest but used the more formal name of J.M.Harvey, hoping it might add a touch of gravitas. Who knows?
What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe your process in one word, what would it be?
Do you have a critique partner/belong to a critique group?
I belong to a local writers’ group but have a few close friends who critique my work in stages.
If money were not object, where would you most like to live?
Edinburgh, Scotland. I lived and worked there many years ago with my son and husband so it feels like home.
If you could have one super power, what would it be?
A photographic memory
What writer has most influenced your work?
Sharon Penman, especially her wonderful series about the Welsh princes
What are you currently reading?
The First Blast of the Trumpet by Marie Macpherson
What’s your favorite word?
What’s your least favorite word?
Amazing – I use it far too often!
Got to snack when writing?
Frequently when I’m mulling things over or editing, but when I’m in the zone I often forget to eat or drink. A writer friend of mine sets a timer to get herself up and moving every hour or so which I think is a great idea.
Can you think of a song or piece of music that could be your theme song?
I find Runrig’s ‘Loch Lomond’ – played very loud, inspirational but when I’m writing I prefer something softer like Norwegian folk tunes
What are the best and worst pieces of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
I’m a novice writer but have learnt a lot by trial and error through this experience.
‘Show! Don’t tell!’ – A very irritating piece of advice which is bandied about like a mantra! I’m skating on thin ice when I say this – it is true for the most part, but not always. A pivotal portion of a historical narrative may need to be ‘told’ especially if it informs and underpins a dramatic aspect of the tale.
‘Kill your darlings!’ – I don’t have the stomach for this so have to get others to do it for me!
Among the most helpful are the following: use robust verbs; remove unnecessary adverbs; limit the number of adjectives; take out superfluous connectors such as ‘that, which, however’ etc: this advice definitely makes for cleaner, more precise writing. I also read passages aloud: this process helps me identify all sorts of literary misdemeanors, otherwise missed!
What books or other projects do you have coming up in the future?
A sequel to ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ is a work in progress. It will cover a fascinating period in history – 1315 to around 1350. Can’t wait to get into the 100 Years War and the Black Plague!
I’m also about to go to the UK for four months, partly for promotion and further research, but also to attend the 700 Year Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. I contribute historical articles for some Scottish association newsletters around the world and will be writing specifically about this event.