“Writing a Series of Novels” is an interview with Mary Mackey whose most recent novel The Village of Bones is a prequel to her Earthsong Series. The interview was conducted by writer, author, and editor Charlotte Seaberry; and first appeared in the literary blog How To Write a Book. The Village of Bones has recently become available as an Audible Book.
Getting Started: The First Steps to Writing a Book
Charlotte: Mary, your new book, The Village of Bones, is a prequel to the Earthsong Trilogy, which includes The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring. Why did you decide to write this newest book? What inspired you?
Mary: I decided to write The Village of Bones, because I knew this was a book whose time had come. I thought it might, in some small way, help stop the on-going violence we are witnessing on a daily basis. And I was eager to explore the backstory of the Earthsong Trilogy.
I was inspired by two nonfiction books: The Civilization of the Goddess and The Language of the Goddess by Dr. Marija Gimbutas, a Professor of Archaeology at UCLA. Her extensive research on the Goddess-worshiping people of Prehistoric Europe is a treasure-trove for any writer of historical fiction. I was also inspired by European legends, fairy tales, and myths; and by the hundreds of beautiful statues of of goddesses, some no larger than my thumb, which I saw in museums during my research trips to Romania and Bulgaria.
European legends were a particularly important source of inspiration since The Village of Bones is more magical and myth-based than the other novels in the series. This is because in the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe, prophecy and magic played major religious roles. For example, an important section of The Village of Bones takes place in Greece at Delphi, where in classical times the Delphic Oracle made predictions that often changed history. I researched the pre-classical myths of Delphi, which led me to the conclusion that it was a site of magic, prophecy, and Goddess-worship thousands of years before the Greeks claimed it for their own.
In a similar way, I drew on the ancient Icelandic, Scottish, and Irish myths of Silkies. These are powerful, shape-shifting creatures who lived as seals in the sea but became human on land. They were so human that they could mate with human beings and produce magical children who could also shape-shift.
Charlotte: How did you know your series needed a prequel? Did you have new ideas or themes you wanted to write about? Or did you want to give more background context to the series?
Mary: My sense that I needed to write a prequel grew increasingly stronger as I wrote the first three novels in the Earthsong Series. To be specific: The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring all deal with the Earth-centered, Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe at a crucial turning point in human history. About 6,000 years ago, the horse was reintroduced into Europe during a great invasion of Sky-worshiping nomads who swept down from the steppes of what is now Ukraine. They brought patriarchy, genocidal warfare, and slavery to a people who had lived in relative peace for thousands of years. It’s an exciting story of struggle and massive culture upheaval. After I finished those three, I wanted to know more about what the Goddess People were like before the invasion.
I also wanted to know more more about Sabalah, the mother of Marrah, the main character in The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring. Marrah is a brave, strong, passionate woman who is utterly devoted to defending her people. How did Sabalah raise such an exceptional child? I already knew Sabalah had fled with baby Marrah across Europe to save her from the marauding nomads. What dangers did Sabalah encounter on that flight? Who was Marrah’s father? Was Marrah the result of a passionate love affair? I had to know.
Inspired by my own curiosity and my sources of inspiration, I set out to write The Village of Bones. As I did, I fell in love with Sabalah, baby Marrah, and a whole host of new characters. In fact, I liked living in the pre-invasion world of the Goddess People so much that it was sometimes hard for me to stop writing about them long enough to pay my bills and the get dust balls out from under the beds.
The Process: Writing One Part of a Series
Charlotte: Can you tell us about your writing process while writing The Village of Bones? Was it different from writing the other books of the series? If so, how? Did you have to write it while keeping the other books’ plots in mind? Or did you find yourself able to write this as its own separate project?
Mary: Writing The Village of Bones was very different from writing the other three books in the series, because I had to constantly keep the plots of the other books in mind. The story unfolds twelve years before the the opening of The Year the Horses Came, which means that I couldn’t contradict anything I had said about the past in The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring. This presented some real challenges.
For example, when Sabalah appears in the first chapter of The Year the Horses Came, we learn that she has never seen the nomads, never seen a horse for that matter. It was hard to figure out how to make this work in The Village of Bones. But I found a solution that not only solved the problem but became one of the most important moments in the novel. By the time I finished, it didn’t feel like a work-around. It felt perfectly natural. I think trying to overcome difficulties like this turned out to be a plus. I suspect that having to keep four plots in mind at the same time even made me more creative.
Charlotte: How do you think writing for a series is different from writing a standalone book? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to writing a series versus a standalone book? Were there any issues with writing or publishing you faced specific to writing a series?
Mary: When I was writing The Village of Bones, I found myself in the peculiar position of writing a standalone book after I had already written three novels that under any other circumstances would have been sequels. Writing The Village of Bones also reordered the whole Earthsong Series, which is now (in chronological order) The Village of Bones, The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring. This is doing things the hard way, but it also had certain advantages. For one thing, I knew right from the start where I was going, which is not always the case when I begin a novel.
That said, probably the easiest way to write a series is to do it in chronological order. The benefits of a series are considerable. You get to create a long, complex, interesting story that develops over a years, giving you a chance to show major changes in your characters and the world they live in. You get to develop characters in a deep, consistent way that makes them come alive. A well-done series creates a world that feels real and compelling. Readers care about your characters as if they are real people. They want to know what Marrah, or Sabalah, or Claire and Jamie Fraser are going to do next. Personally, I love historical fiction series. I check in every few months to see if Diana Gabaldon has finished her next novel.
The downside is that if readers don’t like the first book in your series, the rest will probably not get published. Fortunately that wasn’t the case with the Earthsong Series which has had good reviews and a lot of enthusiastic readers over the years, but it’s always a risk when you start out.
The Backbone: Research and Background
Charlotte: Can you tell us about your research process? How much did you have to research for this book specifically? How did you translate that research into narrative writing? Did you have to look back at the other books of the series at all to make sure aspects lined up and connected?
Mary: I had to do less historical research on the Goddess people when I was writing The Village of Bones because I already knew their world right down to the clothes they wore and the kinds of cups they drank out of. But that didn’t let me off the hook, because Sabalah travels to places that aren’t mentioned in the other novels and participates in religious rites that I hadn’t described before. This meant that I had to do extensive research online, in libraries, and on location. For example, I had to travel to France, find a deep lake that had existed since ancient times, and take photos of it so I could describe it accurately. I needed to find out how much a lion heart weighs compared to a human heart, what herbs repel sharks, and if there were oysters in the Black Sea in 4387 B.C.E.
I believe in doing meticulous research and I work hard at it, but to tell the truth, it’s more like fun than a job. I’m fascinated by the details that can make the past come alive for me and my readers. I love what I call “fun facts.” For example, I found an account of the Delphic Oracle that claimed that when she uttered a prophecy her hair stood on end.
Charlotte: How much of the book would you say is based in factual history? How much was your own narrative and invention? Could you tell us a bit about the real history that is included in the book? While writing, did you consciously want to keep some factual accuracy throughout?
Mary: We don’t have any written history from 6000 years ago, but we do have the research of archaeologists, paleontologists, archaeomythologists, and other scientists and scholars. I drew on their findings whenever possible, because I wanted my readers to feel confident that they were getting as accurate a picture of the daily life of the Goddess people as they could have without actually stepping into a time machine. Whether I am writing about Europe 6000 years ago or Imperial Russia under the Tsars, my goal is always as much factual accuracy as possible.
Still, there are places where we have no facts, and those are the places that allow me to fill in the blanks with imagination, narrative, and invention. How did people think 6000 years ago? What did they feel? Did they experience love, hate, passion, despair, and joy the same way we do? They left behind religious objects, but how did they actually use them in their rituals?
In other words we have bones and bits of broken pottery, but we don’t have the people themselves. I was my job as a novelist to bring them alive using my imagination and my knowledge of human psychology. I had to put those pots back together and fill them with offerings and incense, raise up the bones of our long-lost ancestors and make them dance.
Between the Pages: Know Your Reader
Charlotte: Who do you envision as the audience for The Village of Bones, as well as for your other books? Did you envision readers to already have a knowledge or interest in this period of time? Did you write these books with a specific demographic in mind? If so, how did you use certain language, tone, themes, etc. to engage with that specific audience?
Mary: The only demographic I had in mind when I wrote The Village of Bones was adults. There is sex in the novels, which some parents might consider unsuitable for their children. As for audience, most, but not all, of my readers are women, so in general I envision women of all ages as my audience.
This is not surprising. Women buy the most historical fiction, as opposed to men who tend to buy mysteries, action-adventure, and science fiction. More importantly, the novels in the Earthsong Series celebrate women at a time when Europe was a place where the Earth itself was worshiped as a living female body—a Goddess—who brought forth all life. Women were powerful, adventurous, and independent. They fished, hunted, sat in council, performed religious rituals, but they did not, as far as we can tell, oppress men.
I think this sense of harmony between the sexes is why men also like the Earthsong novels. This is a time when men and women were equals, doing the same things, performing the same tasks. With the exception of a few bad apples (which you always need to have to keep a plot interesting), the men in the Earthsong Series are kind, considerate, intelligent, thoughtful, brave, and compassionate. They are also great in bed. They’re much better lovers than the nomads who keep their women in a state of near-slavery. Like the women, the men of the Goddess people are often talented artists. For example, the main male character in The Village of Bones is a troubadour who travels across Europe playing a lute-like instrument and singing the songs and poems he’s composed.
In order to engage a wide audience of both women and men, I used plain, contemporary American English with no slang words. I felt it would be artificial and off-putting to try to invent a language people spoke to one another 6000 years ago. After all, when we hear our own native language, we aren’t particularly conscious of the sound of it or how arbitrary the words are. “Chair” seems like the only right word for that object we sit on, but a Portuguese speaker probably feels the same way about the word “Cadeira.” I worked very hard to make The Village of Bones easy and enjoyable to read.
Charlotte: Your writing style and voice is so engaging in The Village of Bones. I read the first sentence and before I knew it, I was halfway through! Did you use the same voice throughout the series of books? Did you experiment with different styles or voices before writing or did the voice come naturally as you wrote?
Mary: The style came naturally as I wrote. I use the same third person narrative voice for all the novels in the Earthsong Series. I like third person and have used it extensively in the majority of my other novels. It allows me to get into the heads of different characters, whereas first person limits you to one point of view. Most of the action in The Village of Bones is seen from Sabalah’s perspective, but there are some very important moments when we learn what other characters are thinking. At that point, we as readers know things Sabalah doesn’t know.
Keep Going! Finding Ideas and Continuing a Series
Charlotte: You are quite a prolific writer, with fourteen novels published! How do you get the ideas for so many novels? Do you ever feel “stuck” or like you can’t come up with an idea that you like? If so, how do you overcome that issue? What are some tips you would give our readers who feel “stuck” trying to come up with book ideas?
Mary: I rarely feel stuck, because over the years, I’ve developed a simple trance technique for coming up with ideas. It’s very rich and productive and gives me more workable ideas than I could ever use. I don’t sell it or teach it, but so many people have asked me about it, that I’ve written a blog piece describing it entitled “Using Trance to Get Ideas for Novels and Poems”.
This trance technique is the best tip I can give you for mining your unconscious and coming up with ideas. I developed it, because over the years I discovered that struggling to think up an idea is one of the surest ways to get writers block. You need to relax so your unconscious can send you messages. I get ideas for novels and poems when I’m not focused on finding them, not only when I’m in a trance but other times: early in the morning when I wake up, when I’m cooking or walking or meditating. I actually got the idea for the entire plot of my bestselling novel A Grand Passion while taking a shower. There’s something about the feel of water falling on my head that relaxes me and lets my mind wander.
The moment I get an idea, I write it down as completely as I can without trying to figure out if it’s good or bad. It’s really important not to prejudge your ideas or, once again, you’ll freeze up. I’d say a good 80% to 85% of my ideas are either silly, impractical, or not things I want to pursue. But that leaves 15% to 20% that I might be able to use.
When I finish a novel, I wait a few months to recover. Then I open my journal, pick the idea I like best, and start the process of writing a new novel: research, first drafts, character development, etc. Sometimes I go on to the end. And sometimes I discover that this new novel is not working for reasons I can’t control. I have to abandon what I’ve written and start in on another idea and begin yet another new novel.
For example, I once wrote 350 pages of a novel about a passionate love affair. I became intoxicated with research. I had stories of the lovers’ families going back three generations. However, I wrote and wrote and couldn’t get the main characters to be born, much less fall in love. I later realized when I started the writing this doomed novel, I had given it the working title Parallel Lines. Apparently my unconscious knew something I didn’t know.
The next best tip I can give you is not to hesitate to abandon something that’s not working. So you spent months on it. So you wrote 350 pages. Forget it. Move on. Keep going and sooner or later, you’ll find the novel idea that works. And at that moment you will be very happy.
Charlotte: Do you have any plans to write another book for the Earthsong Series? When you write books in a series like this one, how do you know that the series is complete? Is there a part of you that will always want to go back and keep expanding the narrative of Earthsong? Or do you think it will feel complete?
Mary: I already have the beginnings of outlines for two more novels in the Earthsong Series. One begins right after the end of The Village of Bones and relates Sabalah’s search for her lover, Marrah’s father. The second is a sequel to The Fires of Spring, which tells the story of Marrah’s return to her home in the hope of finding her mother Sabalah still alive after many years. Both novels are stories of love, quest, and reunion. My only challenge is to figure out which one to write first.
Once I finish these two novels, I think the Earthsong Series will be complete. But you never know . . .
The Last Steps: Publishing and Promotions
Charlotte: The Village of Bones had a different publisher than the rest of the series. Why did you decide to use a different publisher? What do you like about this publisher and their style of publishing and book promotion? What is some advice you have for how to decide what publisher to use?
Mary: It’s not uncommon for novels in a series to have different publishers. The Year the Horses Came and The Horses at the Gate were both published by a division of Harper Collins. The Fires of Spring was published by Onyx, an imprint of Penguin/Putnam.
However, The Village of Bones is an unusual case. I don’t think many writers, particularly debut novelists, will run into the same issues I did when deciding on a publisher. Thanks to my agent, I own the film rights to The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring. The Earthsong Series is an excellent candidate for either a feature film or a TV series, but that can’t happen if I don’t also own the film rights to The Village of Bones. At present, it is almost impossible to sell a book to a major publisher without giving up your film rights. That’s why I went with Lowenstein Associates, which made it possible for me to keep the film rights.
The best advice I can give someone is to get a good agent who will work on your behalf. Your agent should be the one helping you decide between publishers. If you don’t have an agent, then first take a look at who your editor is going to be. Can you work with this person? Do they get what you’re doing. Then look at the other books that publisher has published. Did the publisher stand behind them? Promote them? Make sure you don’t use a for-hire press that will charge you a lot and do nothing for you. It’s not enough for a book to be published no matter how good it looks. It needs promotion.
Charlotte: What are some things you are doing to promote The Village of Bones? Is it any different from how you promoted your previous books, including the ones in this series?
Mary: I started writing novels at a time when publishers still gave you a first-rate publicity person to handle promotion, sent out review copies to all major publications like The New York Times, and sent you on nation-wide tours. All that is history. Now, unless they are selling millions of copies, authors have to do their own promotion. This is a problem because it takes time away from writing and many authors are rather shy.
Fortunately, I’m not shy. I want readers to know about The Village of Bones, so I’ve been talking about it in person and online. I did 42 readings, interviews, and TV/radio appearances for the novel when it came out. My social media presence includes my website where I run an ongoing blog interview series with interesting writers entitled People Who Make Books Happen. I have two Facebook pages; Twitter; Linked In; Goodreads; and my Amazon Central Author’s Page. I also put out a quarterly newsletter, and encourage my readers to add their names to my mailing list so they can be the first to know when a new book is coming out or when something important has happened like an audio book or a movie deal. I also encourage them to send me their own good news so I can personally congratulate them in my newsletter. My aim is to build a community of people who share good news and rejoice in one another’s successes.
In addition, I’ve arranged to give subscribers to my newsletter birthday presents as a thank you. I was delighted to discover that it was possible to do this without running the risk of them being spammed. I believe in being good to my readers and am grateful that they read my novels.
Charlotte: What is some exciting feedback you’ve received since publishing The Village of Bones? Is the feedback different from your previous books? If so, how?
Mary: I’ve gotten some excellent reviews, which is very important to the success of a novel. Many cite the same things that made the first three novels in the series popular with readers including praise for my historical research and pleasure in a vision of a peaceful society where children are cherished, men and women are equal, and people live in harmony with the earth. The reviewers have also said that The Village of Bones is lively and entertaining.
The most exciting feedback has come directly from my readers who told me they love the magical, prophetic elements. One asked if I could see into the future like one of my characters does. I can’t, but the fact that she asked means I’m doing something right. Today, I got an email from a woman who said The Village of Bones gave her hope and provided refuge from all the bad news in the media. I treasure comments like that. They make all the hard work of writing novels worthwhile.
Charlotte: How can our readers reach you?
Mary: You can email me through my website. Find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @MMackeyAuthor, and put and put your name on my mailing list and receive a direct email address. If you’d like to write me a letter, email me and I’ll send you a physical address.
Mary Mackey is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Sacramento. Her books have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists, sold over a million and a half copies, and been translated into twelve foreign languages including Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Greek, and Finnish. Mackey’s nonfiction, scholarly works, and memoirs have appeared in various journals and anthologies.
She helped found the Women’s Studies Program and the English Department Graduate Creative Writing Program at CSUS. In 1978 she founded The Feminist Writers Guild with poets Adrienne Rich and Susan Griffin and novelist Valerie Miner.