Ruth Frances Long writes fantasy books. Her latest release is A Hollow in the Hills, second in the Dubh Linn series. I am a big fan of Ruth’s books and was delighted when she agreed to answer some questions about her writing.
When and where do you write?
Whenever and wherever I can. I have always written but I really got serious about it when my children were small and I had to take every opportunity that presented itself. I often write longhand, so I can write in bed, and take my notebook with me everywhere so I’ve been known to write while waiting outside schools or waiting for people, or having a coffee. If I’m working on the laptop I’m usually on the sofa surrounded by cushions, cat and dog. Or, in the morning I like to sit in the sunroom at the back of our house and write over breakfast.
A Crack in Everything and A Hollow in the Hills both have a large cast of characters and an action-packed plot. How do you plan your novels?
I don’t really plan my novels at all. Not when I start. They grow from the characters first – I think about them a lot until they are very real in my head. When I start writing, I tend to have the beginning and the end in my mind, and perhaps some scenes in between but no real idea of what path the story is going to take. Having the characters first makes it something of an adventure, and they usually take off and leave me trying to keep up. As a writer, if I’m getting bored I know the reader is going to be too, so I try to avoid that. If something seems predictable and there isn’t a reason for that, I’ll try to do something different. And if I don’t the characters will. They always surprise me. It is always very difficult to talk about the way I write without sounding slightly strange. But that’s writers for you.
You have also written a stand-alone novel, The Treachery of Beautiful Things. How does this experience compare to writing a series? Which do you prefer?
I don’t really set out to write a stand-alone or a series. The story is the thing, and I try to make sure each book tells a complete story. In the case of A Crack in Everything, when I reached the end of the book, I had thought it would be a stand-alone, but the characters and the world just wasn’t finished. There was so much more to explore. So A Hollow in the Hills began. And now I’m working on the third book in the series. I don’t prefer stand-alones or a series. It’s a case of being true to whatever you’re writing. Similarly I wouldn’t want to drag out a series for too long just for the sake of making it another volume.
At the launch of A Hollow in the Hills you mentioned writing groups and book club, how important do you think it is for writers to have a community?
I think it’s vitally important. Writing is a solitary pursuit, and as writers we spend so much of our time inside our own heads, so having friends with similar interests is really important. I love the book world and the writing/reading community in Ireland. I find it incredibly supportive and I always know I have friends to turn to if I am finding things difficult, whether in writing or just generally.
You have incorporated a lot of Irish mythology into your books. How did your interest in myth and legend develop?
I remember having copies of Roger Lancelyn-Green’s books on mythology as a child and I loved them. They were mainly Greek, Egyptian and Roman legends, and tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood. Later, but not much later, I started to hear Irish legends like the Children of Lir or the Salmon of Knowledge. In time, I came across local folklore and stories that weren’t famous, or part of some grand mythological saga, but were small and local and just incredible. That’s when I was well and truly hooked. I love when stories are linked to the land around them, when they seem to grow out of the land itself, rather than being captured in a book. I love stories from an oral tradition, which change with each retelling. When I went to university I took a course in Celtic Civilisation and on the first day our lecturer arrived in to tell us that King Arthur wasn’t real. I almost quit the course there and then. I stayed of course, and to me King Arthur is always going to be real, regardless of whether a historical Arthur or proto-Arthur actually existed, because the stories made him real.
Place is very important in A Crack in Everything and A Hollow in the Hills with many of the scenes set in recognisable Irish settings. Could you tell us about how you researched the locations for the book? Was there any scene you found hard to place?
Because the idea for the world of Dubh Linn came out of Irish Folklore, which is intimately connected with place, the settings were hugely important. Dublin is an amazing place to explore. I sometimes think it changes while we aren’t looking. There always seems to be something different, something I haven’t noticed before. When researching I always try to visit the places, I take a ton of photos, I read up on the history and folklore as much as possible. Sometimes I already have an idea of a place where I want to have a scene take place, but sometimes I need to find it. I talk to people, get their Dublin stories too. Sometimes I just have to make something up as I did with the Liberty – based on the idea of the area known as the Liberties in Dublin, but here a combination of the tiny house on Dame Street, the Botanical Gardens, the Long Stone and the Thingmote where St. Andrews Church now stands, all mashed together by Sídhe Magic. More often the settings are places where I grew up, or ones that made a particular impact on me at various times in my life.
Where did the idea of melding familiar and fantastical Dublin come from?
It was a mix of things. In 2009, on my birthday, I was in Dublin and as I walked down South Andrews Street I came across a piece of graffiti. It was an angel, just as described in A Crack in Everything. She stuck with me and I started to wonder about her, imagining how she came to be there other than the obvious. She seemed so real, like she was just waiting to take off. I remembered the Irish legend that the Sídhe were once angels who refused to take a side in the war in heaven, who tried to sit on the fence and were exiled. They were, so the legend said, not good enough for Heaven, or wicked enough for Hell. With nowhere else to go, they were sent to Earth and chose Ireland as their home because they found it beautiful. They became the Tuatha de Dannan. When the Milesians arrived the magician Amergin promised to divide the island evenly between them but he tricked the Sídhe, dividing into above and below, splitting it along dimensional lines and once more they were exiled. They have envied us and plotted revenge ever since. I always loved this idea and so it was only a short leap to imagine how they would have changed and evolved over the many centuries. The links were all there waiting for me.
You have said that A Crack in Everything was inspired by a piece of street art in Dublin. Do you use a lot of visual references when you write?
Definitely. I am a fiend when it comes to taking photos, so much so that my family refer to me as “picture Lady”. I find art very inspirational as well and keep a Pinterest account with ideas for different projects.
You have made a playlist for A Hollow in the Hills, and music plays an important role in the book, as well as in The Treachery of Beautiful Things. Do you listen to music when you write?
I listen to music when I think about writing, rather than when I am actually writing. That said, I do need noise when I’m writing. I find it hard to concentrate when it’s too quiet – I have that mother’s instinct that something is definitely up. But I make playlists for my books, and I listen to particular songs which I associate with characters, settings and scenes while driving, or doing other jobs. It helps the ideas to percolate while I’m not writing so that when I sit down to do it the ideas are there. I make CDs of my playlists and listen to them especially in the car while driving, or doing another automatic sort of action. I have so many ideas when I’m halfway along the motorway, which can be a problem. But I always think that if the idea is good enough it’ll either stay with me or come back when I have the opportunity to write it down.
A Hollow in the Hills has a large cast of characters, all complex and nuanced. Do you prefer writing the heroes or villains? Do you have a favourite character in the book?
It would be a bit like picking a favourite friend. They’re all so different and distinct to me, and they all have their parts to play. I will admit, however, to having an enormous affection for the Matriarchs. They’re not so much evil as amoral – they look out for themselves. But sometimes they take sides.
You baked a very impressive book cake for the launch. What are your other hidden talents?
I really enjoy making things – all sorts of things. I’ve made jewellery and decorated cakes, I occasionally paint, or make costumes. But I don’t do them regularly enough to really call them a hobby. I use them as a way to procrastinate mainly.
What do you plan to write about in future? Can you tell us anything about the next Dubh Linn book?
I’m currently working on the third Dubh Linn book. It’s somewhat darker in tones, following events in A Hollow in the Hills but I’m heading to a pretty spectacular showdown at the end. I’m still picking settings but I have a number of places in mind. Any suggestions are always welcome. Because of the way I write, I’m pretty much making it up as I go along.
I also have a timeslip which I’m editing at the moment, and a Space Opera (because who doesn’t love Space Opera) which started off life because I read a book about medieval Queen Consorts. I am also working on some ideas for new books but I’m not quite at the writing stage yet. More on the mulling over stage, getting to know my characters and worlds.
You are very involved with the Irish Sci Fi community – would you write a sci fi book?
Definitely. I’ve always written fantasy, and have recently written a Space Opera (think Star Wars). I’m also very into Steampunk. I’m not particularly interested in hard Sci-Fi, but if the right story presented itself I would definitely give it a go. The Sci-Fi community is very broad and incorporates all sorts of things so it’s very welcoming.
The tagline on your website is ‘where fantasy meets romance.’ How do you balance these two genres in your writing?
The main thing is to maintain the balance. Both fantasy and romance go very well together – there are a lot of links between the two. I try not to let one outweigh the other in the course of the story but to maintain the importance of both. A good level of realism also helps and make both the fantasy and the romance more believable.
What books would you recommend to fans of A Hollow in the Hills?
Susan Cooper – The Dark is Rising Series
Alan Garner – The Owl Service
Pat O’Shea – The Hounds of the Morrigan
Gillian Philips – Firebrand (and the rest of the Rebel Angels series)
Liz de Jager – Vowed (and the rest of the Blackheart series)
A big thank you to Ruth for answering my questions, I really enjoyed learning more about her writing and research. I can’t wait to read the third Dubh Linn book!