As a fiction writer, you might think that I wouldn’t care so much about accurate historical facts, but the truth is that I am an absolute stickler for those kind of details. In part, because I love history, but mainly because I never, ever want my readers to be drawn out of the story because something feels out of place for the era they are reading about.
Initially, the inspiration for this novel came from my fascination with standing stone circles and one in particular—the stone circle Beltany, which is in County Donegal, Ireland. I spent a lot of time reading about these Neolithic monuments and all of the theories about how and why they were built. I loved that there is still an aura of mystery surrounding them and my imagination took off as to what might happen if there were still people alive today serving as their guardians.
That information led me to research Celtic mythology and the legendary founding tribes of Ireland and to my decision to incorporate one of these tribes—the Tuatha de Danann—into my story. All of this mythology, and indeed, the early history of Ireland pre-dates the coming of Christianity. The pagan rituals that were part of this culture were rich with tradition and intertwined with numerous threads of superstitious beliefs and customs.
Delving into the eight Celtic holidays that make up the Wheel of the Year, was definitely some of the most interesting research I’ve ever done. The calendar begins with the New Year Celebration—Samhain—on October 31 and continues through the year celebrating the solstices and equinoxes and the days halfway in between.
The ceremonies on these days often times took place at the standing stone circles and were full of rituals that often blessed the followers with assurances for a bountiful growing season or harvest or a safe winter until the next growing season. May Day or Beltane (one of the most important holidays celebrated in my novel) is associated with a fertility ritual that, depending on the website, can be a little risqué. As I was writing a young adult novel and not erotica, I was careful in how I described those particular traditions. (It did make for some – er – “interesting” reading, however.)
All of that research set the framework for the historical sections of Circle of Nine – Beltany and those chapters are introduced when my modern-day main character Brigit Quinn is given the assignment to read a thick book of family history before her first May Day trip to the Beltany Stone Circle. The initial historical account she reads is in the year 1324. That date might not seem particularly significant—but in my research, I learned that was the year of the very first written account of a witch trial ANYWHERE and, lucky for me, it was in Ireland. Without giving too much away, this is important because I needed to know that the atmosphere was right at that time for a woman to be accused of such things—particularly if she was a healer.
Many other historical tidbits that I learned were because I wanted my characters to be able to do certain things, but needed to make sure they were historically possible.
Could women inherit land in 14th Century Ireland?
One of my supporting characters has inherited her parents’ land holding and again, lucky for me, that Brehon Law in Ireland was very kind to women. I was surprised to learn that Ireland was way ahead on inheritance law and indeed, I wasn’t conflicting with history by suggesting such a thing. Phew!
Would a girl have been able to read and write in the 14th Century?
I learned this would have been rare but not impossible. (Anyway, my characters are an extra-special kind of people, so this seemed like I could take a little liberty there.)
How available was paper or bound books?
Again, this was rare in that century, but in order for the first historical character to record her story for future generations, I needed her to have access to a book. When I wrote this scene, I made the acquisition of this book sufficiently difficult for it to seem plausible, requiring a daylong trip to a bigger town and with a high price tag.
How much would rowanberry jelly sell for in Ireland in 1344?
Now, I never expected to find the answer to that one, but I should not have doubted the trusty internet! After much searching, I came across a list of food costs for a medieval stronghold in Ireland in the mid-1300s. Rowanberry jelly was not specifically on this list but fruit preserves were. I felt very lucky to find that.
What type of plant that grows in Ireland might provide a potent enough poison to fell a grown man?
I found some interesting websites on this one—hopefully no one is monitoring my internet searches, because I have definitely been flagged as a “person of interest” at this point. I won’t spoil anything for readers by telling you whether I did or did not decide to use this information.
What plants can be used to naturally dye Ostara (Easter) eggs?
Just in case you want to try this yourself, use the inner bark of the apple tree for yellow, onion skins for orange, spinach for light green, beets for pink, and, strangely enough, red cabbage for light blue.
What are typical spells used in old Magick? How do you cast a circle for spell making? What are runes and how are they used?
I wanted to be sure when I wrote the spells and incantations included in the book that the rhythm and language sounded as authentic as possible. I also wanted to understand some of the objects typically used in the pagan ceremonies and imbued with magickal properties—like rune stones
I also researched plants indigenous to Ireland, typical diets and recipes for different eras, housing, transportation, and my most favorite of all—clothing. When I read historical novels, these sort of details matter to me, so I assume they matter to everyone else. The clothing details are even more abundant in the novella I just published – Dervla’s Destiny. (Dervla is a character that we first meet in Circle of Nine and readers had been asking for the rest of her story, so I obliged.) Just check out my Pinterest board and you’ll see that I became mildly obsessed with clothing.
All of these historical tidbits taken separately seem rather random, but together they give the story the authenticity that readers enjoy and (I believe) deserve. Other writers may complain about the drudgery of research, but I never will—especially since we live in the internet age and all of this delicious information is only a click or two or three away.
Valerie Biel’s love for travel inspires her novels for teens and adults. When she’s not writing or traveling, she’s wrangling her overgrown garden, doing publicity work for the local community theatre, and reading everything she can get her hands on. She lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband and three children and dreams regularly of a beautiful cottage on the Irish coast where she can write and write and write.
Her debut novel Circle of Nine – Beltany has been honored as a 2015 Kindle Book Award Finalist, a finalist in the Gotham Writers’ YA Novel Discovery Contest and the Readers’ Favorite Book Award Contest as well as being a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree.