Today Erika Lewis stops by Fantasy Literature to discuss the research process for her Celtic mythology-inspired debut YA novel, Game of Shadows, which, in my review, I called “action-packed” and “perfect for YA readers … who enjoy high fantasy.” And we’ve got one copy of Game of Shadows to give away to a randomly chosen commenter!
I didn’t set out on writing a book steeped in Irish Celtic mythology. Game of Shadows was about Ethan Makkai, a Los Angeles high school kid cursed (his word, not mine) with the unfortunate power to see ghosts. With an overprotective mother who borders on insanity when it comes to him never going anywhere alone, Ethan just wants a little freedom. He longs for a chance to make his own decisions, make his own mistakes. A chance he decides to take that ends with catastrophic repercussions to everyone around him.
The catastrophic repercussions are what led me to hop on a research train that turned out to be a roller coaster ride of epic proportions. Every time I felt like I’d reached the peak of the tallest hill to climb, I’d find another question that had to be answered, and I’d be chugging uphill yet again.
It started on a semester abroad during my junior year of college. I was in London but spent more weekends in Ireland, traveling with friends, exploring ancient ruins, and trying Guinness in every pub we could find. When returned to the U.S. with two things: a deep love for all things Irish: the place, the people and their beer; and a lingering question that felt unanswered in their ancient mythological past. What happened to all the mythical races and magical Druids from their legends? Is it possible that they’re still here? Maybe hidden somewhere? Of course they are, in my imagination anyway! On a continent that feels like it’s still in the Middle Ages, with fortified borders as definitive battle lines because they were always fighting with each other. A continent called Tara.
A little of my research passed on to you
In my abbreviated version, thousands of years ago Ireland was home to the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Irish gods and goddesses, the Hill of Tara being their seat of power from which the high kings ruled. When they lost the battle to humankind, they split for the Otherworld through the fairy mounds. Now, I’ve seen the fairy mounds, climbed on them, begged them to let me into the Otherworld, but thinking back on it, it probably wasn’t the right phase of the moon at the time because here I remain. But I digress…
As I beat out Ethan’s character background, and where his power came from, I knew he had to be somehow connected to this continent I call Tara. That decision set everything in motion, and forced me to deep dive into everything I could get my hands on about Irish Mythology.
All research starts out online. It’s a great place to begin. But what you soon find are varying explanations, varying dates, and legends that tell different stories. Little was written down in this time period. Poets and bards carried these myths through poetry and songs. So I turned to books — many, many books. Those books led me to reach out of an expert at Berkeley to be sure I had interpreted what I was reading correctly, and make sure that if I was going to butcher the Old Irish language, I did it properly!
Each realm in this fictitious continent had to take on a different race from the old tales. Each character added had to have remnants reflecting who they were in ancient history, but then have a modern twist. Cultural things like clothing, diets, and weaponry all had to be taken into account … and that led to massive amounts of even more research.
Then there were the fight scenes. Fight sequences and battle scenes meant even more time examining everything from types of armor, swords, spears, bows and arrows, and magical powers, to specific tactics and formations that Celts would have used; then again adding a modern twist.
Here’s a peak at my bookshelf behind my desk, and the practice swords I use to work out fights. My kids enjoy beating up on each other with them when I need them to.
Once I was done with the manuscript, I sent it off to my Celtic expert for a last look at the mythology tapped into. After all that was said and done, I went back to Ireland, to County Meath, to the many mounds in Knowth, Dowth, Fourknocks, Loughcrew and Tara. At the Hill of Tara, I drank from the wells, and gave an offering to the fairy trees, the Hawthorn trees, all of which led to the final touches on Game of Shadows.
For fun, here, in the image on the right, are some of the pictures from that magical trip. Only in Ireland would you be driving down the road and see a sign that leads you to where one of their biggest heroes, Cú Chulainn, died. The stone he tied himself to, to keep fighting, was in the middle of someone’s barley field.
Oh and one word of warning. When wandering past a fairy tree, it’s always good to leave an offering. They can be rather nasty when they want to be. Best to appease them with a bit of IRISH whiskey (never Scottish.)
Here (image on the left) is a look at a couple of the fairy mounds. The top picture is of Newgrange, and underneath that, one at Dowth.
As I deep dive into the next installment of the Game of Shadows series, I’m still researching, still peppering my expert with questions, and planning yet another trip to Ireland! Sláinte!
Readers, comment below for a chance to win a copy of Game of Shadows. U.S. or Canada-based addresses only, please.