Most of the books I write are about history because the subject is so fascinating. History is made by remarkable people who do remarkable things. Heroes and villains, courage and cowardice, love and hate, it's all there in the past, waiting to be discovered.
The first novel I ever wrote was taken from the life of an ancestor of mine. This led me to do more family research, which led in turn to Brian Boru. With him I struck gold. He was much larger than life, yet he really lived. He was one of us, perhaps the best of us, and his story was more exciting and colourful than any Hollywood movie. There was a wealth of information about Brian Boru that no novelist had put together before. It was like being a detective, the bits and pieces had to be found in lots of different places. By the time I finished researching Brian's life I was hooked. I had discovered that the research was almost more fun than the writing. But the writing was necessary too -- I wanted to make this man come alive for the readers, so they could see him striding off the page and feel the wind as his sword whistled through the air.
Brian Boru led me to other Irish heroes and villains. A writer needs to understand both sides, and someone who is a hero to us may well be a villain to someone else. Brian Boru was a villain to the Vikings. The Mayo pirate queen, Granuaile, was a villain to her enemy, the English queen, Elizabeth. Strongbow, who invaded Ireland, was a hero to the Normans who followed him. I let him tell his story in his own words, but the Irish girl Aoife, who married him, tells the story from the Irish point of view.
As a writer I have to put myself inside the head of the person I am writing about. For a while I almost am that person. I must know what he or she thought, felt, dared and feared. To do that, I need to find out everything I can about the life and times of my subject.
I have a lot of fun writing. I don't just sit in my study tapping away on a word processor. I spent two weeks on a tallship, walking out on the yardarms and learning how to rig sail, so I could write convincingly of Granuaile's life at sea. I acquired several Irish swords and a battleaxe and practised using them hour after hour, so I could describe the exact pain in Brian's neck and shoulders after a day's battle. I have ridden 'heavy horses' of the type that carried Strongbow and his knights to victory. I have slept in ancient ring forts, snared my own meat and lived off the land for weeks to experience something of life in Cúchulainn's Ireland.
We Irish call ourselves a Celtic people. To understand what the early Celts were like and where they came from originally, I spent time in Hallstatt, in the Austrian Alps. There is a reconstructed village there, modelled on one built by the Celts eight hundred years before Christ. The people who lived there learned how to ride horses and forge iron. They were magnificent craftsmen, as their artefacts show. Just being in those great timber lodges was a powerful experience. I could almost sense our ancestors in the shadows, watching me. But it was not frightening; I felt surprisingly at home.
History is a time machine. With an historical novel we can open a door into the past any time we want and join the heroes and villains there. In Ireland we have had more gallant heroes -- and dreadful villains -- than most countries. Every one of them has a story to tell.
I write books both for adults and for young readers. My adult novels are read by people all over the world who want to learn more about Ireland. In this country, the O'Brien Press publishes my books for young readers. Not all of my books are fiction, however. Remember that I said one had to understand both sides? O'Brien published my non-fiction history, The Vikings in Ireland, to show that the Vikings were people like you and me.
That is my biggest discovery: History consists of people like us. Perhaps some day in the future other writers will be writing about the history we make.