Today I have an interview with historical novelist Kim Rendfeld. She’s published The Cross and the Dragon with Fireship Press, which is a novel of the Middle Ages (during the early years of Charlemagne) with a extremely courageous and endearing protagonist. I’ll be posting the review tomorrow. Until then, hope you have some time to read the discussion Kim and I had about writing, the Middle Ages, research, and getting published.
Erin: Hi, Kim! Welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! We are happy you’ve stopped by today to share your love of historical fiction and all things about being a writer. How are you enjoying this wintery weather?
Kim Rendfeld: Thanks for having me, Erin. This winter seems to be overcompensating for the extremely mild one we had last year. Fortunately, my houseplants are blooming or sending up buds to remind me winter won’t last forever.
Well, the groundhog says Spring will be right around the corner, so let’s hope! Let’s sit back, enjoy some tea (since we’re both in colder states!!) and get to know one another.
Q: Your novel, The Cross and the Dragon, takes on historical legend during the Middle Ages. Having a second degree in History myself, I’ve taken courses on the Middle Ages. Seemingly a time of legend and romantic endeavors that are quite entertaining to read and watch, I know from my studies that it was also a time of horrid living conditions and multiple wars. Do you think this is why legends and stories came about?
A: Regardless of the age we live in, we want to escape our reality from time to time, and storytelling around the fire is the oldest form of entertainment. In stories, we can make the world as it should be. Heroes surmount their challenges. Villains get their just deserts. It’s a universal wish.
Throughout history, stories were also used as propaganda, and the Middle Ages is no exception. To illustrate my point, I’m going to use a spoiler, so readers who would like to avoid it should skip ahead. The 778 ambush at the Pass of Roncevaux by Christian Basques was such a disaster for the Franks that it was not written about while King Charles (Charlemagne) was alive. Fast forward a few centuries to the time of the Crusades, and an anonymous poet transforms the event into a heroic stand against overwhelming odds in the form of a Muslim army.
Q: Where did you come across the legend you base your novel around? Can you explain to us the legend and how it inspired your book?
A: There are a few spoilers in this answer, too. I encountered the legend behind Rolandsbogen in a guide book during a family vacation in Germany. Rolandsbogen is an ivy covered arch on a high hill overlooking the Rhine. The legend is that Roland (Hruodland in The Cross and the Dragon) built the castle for his bride and went off to war in Spain. The bride heard false news that her beloved had been killed at the Pass of Roncevaux. She took a vow chastity and joined the convent on nearby Nonnenwerth Island. Roland returned too late. Heartbroken, he spent the rest of his days at his window in Rolandsbogen, trying to get a glimpse of her as she went to and from prayers.
This story would not leave me alone until I sat at my chair and started writing, even though I knew little of the real Middle Ages.
Q: What do you think really defined love during the Medieval times? How has romance changed today?
A: In an age of arranged marriages to build wealth or alliances, medieval folk might have been happy if the husband didn’t beat the living daylights out the wife and the wife was faithful to the husband. Still, primary sources that focus on politics and battles reveal hints of affection in a married couple.
A pair of rare sentences in the Royal Frankish Annals describe Charlemagne’s return to Francia after months in Italy: “The same most gracious king reached his wife, the Lady Fastrada, in the city of Worms. There they rejoiced over each other and were happy together and praised God’s mercy.”
A few years later, Charles sent a letter to Fastrada before a war with the Avars. Among other things, he refers to her having an infirmity and asks her to write to him more often and tell him about her health. It gives meaning to his greeting her as his “beloved and most loving wife.”
Even though Charles and Fastrada lived 1,200 years ago, their sentiments–joy when reunited, worry about your spouse’s health–are remarkably similar to modern times.
Q: What do you feel is the main message within The Cross and the Dragon? If not a message, what do you hope the reader leaves with when they complete your novel?
A: I hope readers will understand not only how much times have changed, but how much human nature remains the same. Although their world view and expectations of marriage differed from ours, medieval folk felt the same emotions we do. They grieved, they loved, they felt joy and anger.
Q: Who was your favorite character to write about and why?
A: For this book, it’s Alda. There is so much to like about her. She’s intelligent, compassionate, and fiercely loyal. But I what I most admire about her is her courage.
Q: How did you research your novel? What avenues did you take, how were discoveries made, and how much time was involved?
A: In an age when few people could read and even fewer could write, this era lends itself to a dearth of information, but fortunately some people did write a few things down for us. Even though the authors are biased and don’t always let the facts get in the way of their stories, I love primary sources, and I owe a great deal to scholars who’ve translated and interpreted them.
It’s hard for me to say how much time was involved. I spent a few months reading, but as I started writing, I would constantly find that I needed to look something up. Even as I neared the end of my revisions, questions would pop up such as whether bishops at the time wore miters (they didn’t).
Q: What is your writing process like? Do you form an outline or write at will? Do you set writing goals?
A: When it comes to fiction, I plunge right on in. I’d get stuck on an outline if I started with it. I wrote an outline partially through the process, only to throw two-thirds of it away. My writing goal is to spend at least an hour a day working on the story. If I set a word goal, I’d get so flustered on not making my numbers, I’d choke.
Q: How long did it take you to complete your novel?
A: Like the question about research, this is not an easy one to quantify. I spent a year or two with the earliest draft of the manuscript and thought it was done. After year or so of unsuccessful queries, I joined a critique group who kindly told me otherwise. Two more years of revisions, and again I thought it was done and tried to interest an agent or editor. For several years, I would revise the manuscript whenever I got a useful rejection. If I had to total up the time, I would estimate five years or so. However, I also had a full-time job.
Q: You have a day job and a family. How did you make the time for such as accomplishment as writing a novel?
A: My stepdaughter is grown and has children of her own, so my husband and I don’t have small children to look after or teenagers to chauffer. Still, finding time to write is my biggest challenge.
I am blessed to have not only a very supportive husband, but one who cooks. I often squeeze in time to write in the evenings after I’ve fed the cats and on weekends. Part of my time to write comes at the expense of housekeeping and some sleep. I don’t watch a lot of TV and have a few yet-to-be-watched episodes of Downton Abbey on my DVR, and I’ve had to refrain from getting into lively but time-consuming discussions on Facebook.
Q: What did you learn about yourself through the writing process and with the completion of the book?
A: Despite the problems our society faces these days, I truly am grateful for what we have today. I like our instant communication, women’s rights, mostly scientific medical care, and my morning coffee.
In finishing the book, I proved to myself that I could create something that required that kind of discipline and commitment.
Q: How did you begin the process of publication?
A: If you can’t stand rejection, don’t try to get published. I am not kidding when I say I have enough rejection letters to paper a good-sized walk-in closet.
After I had finished revisions based on feedback from my critique group, I queried agents and a few editors. An editor I met at a Historical Novel Society conference wrote a useful rejection letter, which led to more revisions, and more queries. I finally found an agent in the fall of 2007, and the manuscript was revised again. Still, she was not able to sell it, and the relationship ended.
You know that definition of insanity as repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results? In 2011, I knew I needed to do something different. That something was then entering the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition, where I finished as a quarterfinalist. My consolation prize was a favorable review of the unedited manuscript from Publishers Weekly. The endorsement itself was wonderful, but it gave me a boost in self-confidence when I really needed it.
I queried a few more agents and Fireship Press, an independent publisher I had read about on another author’s blog. Fireship liked the manuscript, and I could not be happier with the way the book turned out.
Le 25 décembre de l’an 800, à Saint-Pierre de Rome, Charlemagne est couronné empereur par le pape Léon III. Sacre de Charlemagne
Q: How do you feel about the book publishing industry in today’s society? How does it help and/or hinder the historical fiction genre?
A: I am concerned with large-scale publishing being concentrated in fewer hands. It is not good for society for only a few corporations to control anything, whether that’s airline travel or information. The Big 5 (or whatever the correct number is these days) is less and less willing to take a chance on a new voice, a new story, or a new setting, historical fiction included.
Too many authors see their choice as either the Big 5 or self-publishing. There is a third alternative, the small press, the choice I made. I am grateful that my independent publisher, Fireship Press, was willing to take a chance on a story set in an uncommon era and uncommon place.
In my own experience with the small press, I had much more control than I expected over the process. The title is mine. I was able to have readers weigh in on the image that graces the cover—and they have great taste.
Q: You and your husband have also worked in the journalism field. What do you feel makes Journalists successful when they cross over into fiction work?
A: The time and space constraints of journalism taught me to get to the point. Maturing in the field taught me to be more concerned that my readers understood what I was saying rather than be impressed with my cleverness.
I also learned to question my sources and so-called conventional wisdom. Where is this information coming from? When was this written? What is the writer’s motivation? This mindset is especially useful in historical research, where the primary sources are fresh and colorful but not always accurate.
Q: Do you have plans for a sequel and/or separate novels? If so, please share with us.
A: I am polishing a companion novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, set in the same time period. Here is my latest version of the blurb:
Can a mother’s love triumph over war?
Charlemagne’s 772 battles in Saxony have left Leova with nothing but her two children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn. Her husband died in combat. Her faith lies in the ashes of the Irminsul, the Pillar of Heaven. And the relatives obligated to defend her and her family sold them into slavery, stealing their farm.
Taken in Francia, Leova will stop at nothing to protect her son and daughter, even if it means sacrificing her honor and her safety. Her determination only grows stronger as Sunwynn blossoms into a beautiful young woman attracting the lust of a cruel master and Deorlaf becomes a headstrong man willing to brave starvation and demons to free his family.
Yet Leova’s most difficult dilemma comes in the form of a Frankish friend, Hugh. He saves Deorlaf from a fanatical Saxon Christian and is Sunwynn’s champion—and he is the warrior who slew Leova’s husband.
Q: Who inspires you as a writer? What are some of your favorite books, movies, or the like?
A: As a teenager, my favorite fiction was the Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien. I admire how he can make an imaginary world seem real. As an adult, I owe a lot to my critique partners in the Lafayette Novel Group, one of whom was Roberta Gellis, who has written mysteries and romances set in the Middle Ages. Roberta helped me transform my characters from people in period clothing to true medieval folk.
Q: Favorite food your husband fed you to keep you eating during your writing process?
A: I was so obsessed with getting finished I can’t remember what my husband cooked for me, except for linguine with a meat and tomato sauce. Most of the fare was typical of what we normally eat.
Q: Where can readers connect with you?
A: Readers can connect with me on my website (www.kimrendfeld.com), my blog www.kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, Facebook (www.facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld), Twitter (www.twitter.com/kimrendfeld) or Goodreads (www.goodreads.com/Kim_Rendfeld).
Q: Please let us know where your books are available for purchase?
A: The Cross and the Dragon is available in print and e-book at Amazon U.S., U.K., and Canada as well as Barnes & Noble, iBookstore, Kobo, Indigo, and other outlets.
Erin: Thank you so very much for joining us and sharing on our site today. We hope you will stop by again and wish you the best of luck!
The Cross and the Dragon Synopsis~
Francia, 778: Alda has never forgotten Ganelon’s vow of vengeance when she married his rival, Hruodland. Yet the jilted suitor’s malice is nothing compared to Alda’s premonition of disaster for her beloved, battle-scarred husband.
Although the army invading Hispania is the largest ever and King Charles has never lost a war, Alda cannot shake her anxiety. Determined to keep Hruodland from harm, even if it exposes her to danger, Alda gives him a charmed dragon amulet.
Is its magic enough to keep Alda’s worst fears from coming true—and protect her from Ganelon?
Inspired by legend and painstakingly researched, The Cross and the Dragon is a story of tenderness, sacrifice, lies, and revenge in the early years of Charlemagne’s reign, told by a fresh, new voice in historical fiction.
Kim Rendfeld, Biography~
She grew up in New Jersey and attended Indiana University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English, with a minor in French. If it weren’t for feminism, she would be one of those junior high English teachers scaring the bejesus out of her students, correcting grammar to the point of obnoxiousness. Instead, her career has been in journalism, public relations, and now fiction.
Kim was a journalist for almost twenty years at Indiana newspapers, including the Journal and Courier in Lafayette, The Muncie Star, and The News and Sun in Dunkirk, and she won several awards from the Hoosier State Press Association. Her career changed in 2007, when she joined the marketing and communications team at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. She gets paid to agonize over commas and hyphens, along with suggesting ways to improve writing, and thoroughly enjoys it. She is proud to have been part of projects that have received national recognition.
Kim lives in Indiana with her husband, Randy, and their spoiled cats. They have a daughter and two granddaughters, with a third due in May 2013.