[GUEST POST] Daniel Diehl on Hard Fact to Fantasy
Daniel Diehl has been a full-time writer, author and lecturer since 1995. He has written twenty historical based, non-fiction books whose subjects range from medieval warfare to cannibalism and from inventions to pirates. His current book is a fantasy novel, Revelations: book one of the Merlin Chronicles. The second book in the Merlin trilogy, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” will be released by GMTA/Mythos Publishing in May 2014.
by Daniel Diehl
Lord Byron once wrote “I hate things all fiction…there should always be some foundation of fact”. As a writer who spent two decades churning out twenty non-fiction books and more than 170 hours of documentary television scripts I know a fair amount about the ‘foundation of fact’ part of His Lordship’s statement. For the non-fiction writer, research is a way of life. But it was only when I began writing fantasy that I learned that a factual foundation is one of the best allies a writer of fiction could ask for.
My recently released book Revelations: book one of The Merlin Chronicles (GMTA/Mythos) is a marvelous case in point. The basic plotline – which brings Merlin the magician into the twenty-first century – is about as far removed from anything factual as you can get, but the vast majority of people and places which appear in the story are based on real (or at least well established) locations and individuals and, as such, required a substantial amount of background research.
The locations part was easy. Much of the early story takes place in the city of York, England and since I lived near York for nearly a decade I knew the old, medieval city pretty well. A map and the occasional trip to Google filled in the blank spots. Similarly, locations as far flung as the Russian/ Chinese border and the Mongolian wastes of the Gobi Desert were pretty easy to research. This information provided me with the physical landscape against which my fictional characters would play-out their make believe adventures. It was only when I started researching the characters and things got a little weird.
My twenty-first century characters are, as fictional characters tend to be, conglomerates of characteristics taken from real people. This part was easy – no research necessary. Among the remaining characters, one is based loosely on Sax Rohmer’s marvelously evil character Dr Fu Manchu and another was the gloriously wicked sorcerous (and half-sister to King Arthur) Morgana le Fay. Ms Le Fay, like many Arthurian characters, was created by the twelfth century Welsh cleric Geoffrey on Monmouth in his Vita Merlini, written about 1150. Then I started working on Merlin who, I assumed, was also a complete fiction based on ancient Welsh sagas and expanded on by everyone from Monmouth to Roger Zelazny. I mean, how many wizards are there in the historical record?
Exercising the same frantic research methods I used during decades of non-fiction research, I came to learn that Merlin the magician – that most implausible of characters – was actually based on at least one, possibly two, very real people and it is on one of these – Myrddin Emrys ap Morfryn – that I based my own character. Although I researched the Merlin character extensively online my best information came the old fashioned way: out of hardcopy books. Particularly important were The Quest for Merlin by Nikolai Tolstoy and Chasing Merlin by Sarah White.
So what did I learn about Merlin and how did it help me to create a believable fantasy character? The real Merlin, like my character, was Welch. He lived roughly between 480 and 570 A.D. and he was either a Christian monk or a priest or one of the last of the ancient Celtic holy men known as druids.
It would seem that he attended a battle to give spiritual support to his liege lord and that the sight of the slaughter drove him mad. What, precisely, he raved about as he wandered through Wales, northwestern England and southwestern Scotland is unknown but villagers were frightened by this half wild man and drove him off in a hail of sticks and stones, calling him Myrddin Wyllt, meaning Merlin the wild. Supposedly, in his madness, Merlin gained the ability to ‘see’ or make prophecies and the belief in his power to foretell the future brought him to the attention of many people in high places.
Whatever it was that the old man was raving about it seems to have hit too close to home for a petty Scottish war lord named Rhydderich Hael (translated as Roderick the Generous, which he obviously was not) because it appears that Hael ordered the old man’s murder.
There are numerous surviving, prophetic writings supposedly uttered by Merlin but there is scant evidence to support these claims. But that’s ok. The vast amount of sound research into the origins of Merlin gave me the foundation I needed to make him live again as a fully rounded human being with roots deep in historical fact – and a solid basis in fact always makes fiction a lot more believable.
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