Interview: Author Steven A. Mckay on the Dark Ages, Warrior Druids, and Pointy Hats
We absolutely loved 'The Druid' by Steven A. Mckay. In our recent review, we described it as a, "a taut and thrilling read". It was also a brilliantly exciting way to learn more about the Dark Ages, proving to be an eminently well-researched book with just the right amount of fantastical fantasy. As such, we were delighted to have the opportunity to chat to Steven and pick his bonce on all things Dark Ages.
If you want to learn more about the Dark Ages, about Steven's work, his approach to research, and writing process, then you've absolutely come to the right place. Enjoy!
Imagining History - Could you tell us a little more about your Warrior Druid of Britain book series?
Steven A. Mckay - It’s set in post-Roman Britain and deals with the issues the legions’ departure threw up, especially the influx of settlers and invaders known generally as ‘Saxons’. The books follow Bellicus, the warrior-druid, and his companions, including his wardogs, Cai and Eolas as they go on adventures around Britain, meeting (and/or fighting with!) Dalriadans, Picts, Saxons, and fellow Britons like Arthur and the Merlin.
How did you go about creating your awesome protagonist, Bellicus? What makes for a memorable lead character?
Readers of a certain age might remember a UK television show called Knightmare. I was watching a rerun of that and saw one of their actors portraying Merlin. I instantly decided I wanted to write a book about someone like that. However, druids all seem to be of a certain type in fiction – Merlin, and Gandalf, are generally older men with long, flowing beards, robes, and pointy hats. But surely not all druids were really like that? Some of them must have been young warriors too.
Personally, I enjoy reading about leading characters who don’t have superpowers but are somehow elevated above the rest of us. So, I decided to make my druid a young man who’s not only much taller than everyone else but also built like an MMA fighter. He’s not just a spiritual leader, he can outfight just about anyone thanks to his years of training. Real druids apparently did up to twenty years of training!
And the fact Bellicus has two ferocious, loyal dogs just makes him even more formidable…
With that said, I think a memorable lead character should seem human – not just physically, but mentally. Even the strongest person has doubts and weaknesses and flaws that can be shown and explored within the story. There should be something that readers can identify with, I think so, although my druid is prodigiously tall, strong, skilled at fighting, and can commune with the gods (or can he? I leave those questions to the imagination of the reader, there’s no ‘real’ magic as such in my Warrior Druid novels) he is still fallible and makes poor decisions just like the rest of us at times.
What was it about this era of history, Britain in the immediate absence of the Romans, that makes it so fascinating?
The civilisation that had built up to support the legions was gone and things were reverting to how they’d been hundreds of years before. The people stopped using money, for example, and had to return to bartering or trading services for the things they needed.
Enemies also saw this as an opportunity to attack – without the Roman legions there to protect British settlements the likes of the Picts and Saxons knew their raids would not be defended so ruthlessly. That meant the Britons had to move out of Roman-style towns and head back to live in hillforts and the like that were easier to defend against invaders. Of course, nowadays we know that many Saxons settled peacefully here, integrating with the natives and sharing their cultures with one another so that plays into things too.
You also had certain parts of the country, such as the north of Scotland, where the Romans had never gained a foothold, so those places remained much as they always had.
Of course, there were still remnants of the Romans left – one of my characters is a former centurion and there are other ex-legionaries populating the country who sometimes turn up. In The Bear of Britain, I had an older man who’d been a cavalry officer with the legions and this really gave me a chance to research and explore how the Romans used horses in battle. It really amazed me how skilled they were and how well designed their gear was, so I was happy to include much of that in the novel.
Christianity was also starting to grow and spread throughout Britain at this time, so you had the ‘old ways’ battling the ‘new’ in various different and interesting ways.
Basically, Britain at that point was a place of great change and that makes it the ideal period to set a series of novels.
With so few primary sources, how did you go about researching the so-called Dark Ages?
Well, this is one of the things that actually made the period so attractive to me as an author. Because there’s not much out there in terms of historical records it meant I had a certain amount of freedom which I didn’t have when writing my medieval, Forest Lord, series. We have a vague idea of what tribes were around, and there are a few names of kings and things like that, but I was almost able to create my own mythology. I did as much research as I could from books like Francis Pryor’s Britain A.D., Simon Young’s 500A.D., and many more including some Arthurian research and a lot of Osprey Publishing titles which describe the weapons, armour, clothes, and so on of the period, but after that, I let my imagination loose!
What was the most fascinating or plain weirdest piece of trivia that you uncovered during your research?
When I was writing the fourth book in the series, Bear of Britain, I discovered that two of the major forts on the so-called Saxon Shore, at Burgh Castle and Caister-on-Sea, were built in an area that is nowadays completely different. Back then there was a wide estuary between them, but now that’s gone, replaced by land, and Great Yarmouth is there instead! The whole landscape changed drastically over the past fifteen hundred years so the waterway that those forts protected is now a bustling town. I thought that was pretty interesting.
When it comes to writing historical fiction, how do you ensure that the setting feels authentic without getting bogged down in historical detail?
With a medieval or Roman novel, for example, you can mention the kings or emperors and the wider events that scholars and historians noted were happening around your period. That gives the book a solid grounding that readers can identify with. Of course, with my Druid novels, I can’t quite do that as there are no written records from the period, but you can make sure your characters are wearing authentic clothing, wielding period-correct weaponry, and mention things that happened in the recent past (in my case, the Romans leaving Britain). There are also things like having the right tribes and trying to be as accurate as possible with the names of places, although that can be hard. Ultimately, I’m trying to tell an exciting and enjoyable story so historical detail is just extra flavour to add to the tale.
You've written four books in the Warrior Druid of Britain series, what are some of your favourite or, in the case of villains, least favourite characters?
Bellicus, the druid himself, is my favourite character for obvious reasons. Tall, handsome, muscular, charismatic, skilled in all sorts of things…Wouldn’t we all like to be a bit like that?!
As for the villains, well, I generally try to write characters who are not “black and white”, or wholly good or evil. Even baddies must have good points, right? Every now and again I’ll come up with someone who’s pretty unpleasant though, and I think Horsa is a good villain. He has his good points, and some people are drawn to him, but he’s a bit of a nasty sod so it’s good fun any time he gets his comeuppance!
Judging by reader reviews, the Warrior Druid of Britain books keep on getting better and better, how do you keep on raising that bar?
Ah, well, there’s no real answer to that as I think an author can only do their best and hope readers enjoy what comes out. In theory, we learn and grow so everything we do shows improvement but, especially artistically, that’s not always the case. Think of music – I listen to mainly rock and heavy metal and my favourite bands – AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Jethro Tull, Def Leppard – all had their heyday in the 70’s and 80’s, although they’re still producing good music now. Sometimes an artist, or an author, is lucky enough to create something people enjoy and I’ve been very lucky that my readers do seem to think I’m getting better as I go, but I can’t claim to have any secret formula for that.
What are you working on next?
I’m just finishing off book 5 in the Warrior Druid of Britain series, Wrath of the Picts, it will be published on September 3rd 2022. Also, I’ve just started doing a podcast called Rock, Paper, Swords! with fellow historical fiction author Matthew Harffy and we’ve chatted with authors like Robyn Young and Tim Hodkinson as well as doing episodes on our own writing. Check us out on Spotify, Apple Podcasts etc, it’s a lot of fun!
After that, I’ll be moving on to a completely new series, but I can’t say anything about that just yet…
You tease you! Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Steven. Best of luck with all things!
If you'd like to find out more about Steven and his awesome books, follow the links below!
Amazon Author Page:
Rock, Paper, Swords! Podcast page: