In LONGBOW GIRL, teenager and skilled archer Merry Owen faces the loss of her family’s farm in the wild Welsh mountains but upon discovering an archaeological treasure, she is plunged into a dangerous past filled with dark secrets–and the chance to change history.
Linda Davies deftly blends real-life issues, the challenges of a remote landscape, and the supernatural in this young adult novel The Daily Telegraph picked as one of the top 45 Y/A books of 2015. Stepping away from her financial thrillers, Davies returns to writing thrillers for children and young adults in this novel of mystery, adventure, and history that draws on her life as a longbow archer growing up in Wales.
Davies’ career as an investment banker fuelled her first financial thriller, Nest of Vipers, and launched her career writing thrillers for adults and children. Having lived in London, Peru, and the Middle East, Davies own life became a harrowing thriller when she and her husband were kidnapped by Iranian forces and held hostage for two weeks before being released. Her highly acclaimed memoir, Hostage, Kidnapped on the High Seas, The True Story of My Captivity in Iran, was published last year.
This month, she spoke to The Big Thrill about the inspiration, and history, behind LONGBOW GIRL.
LONGBOW GIRL is steeped in your own youth, from having lived in Wales as a young girl (with your own Welsh pony that you rode bareback!) to your longbow expertise. How did this story come about at this particular moment in your life–or was it long in the making?
The roots of Longbowgirl go back many years to my own childhood. The longbow that my father gave me when I was eight definitely inspired me to create Merry. She wields her bow to save her family. I just wielded mine for fun, but I always used to feel different whenever I picked up my bow. There’s something very satisfying about using a long slender piece of wood and a shorter pointed piece of wood with feathers and a bit of skill and strength to hit a target. Longbows were and still are lethal weapons. They changed the course of history, they won unwinnable wars. In a weird way I felt like just by picking one up I was stepping back in time. It’s a talisman for a story-teller!
The other connection and inspiration for Longbow Girl was the black Welsh Mountain Section B pony, Jacintha, my parents gave me when I was nine. I would roam the nearby hills for hours on end riding Jacintha and daydreaming. I relished that freedom. I think it’s what helped turned me into a writer. I could explore both geographically and in my head during those long hours alone.
Two things crystallised my desire to write the story. The first was that I discovered en edict ordained by Henry VIII that certain ‘nags of a small stature,’ should be destroyed in order to improve the breeding stock of war horses, or destriers. I imagined a girl witnessing such a hunt and asked myself, ‘what if she tried to save some of these ponies?’ I had my central character! The next catalyst was having written Ark Storm and Hostage, both dealing with a dark world of kidnap, terrorism, counter-terrorism and the dark angels and demons that stalk that world, I needed an antidote. I wanted to write about a noble quest, adventure, heroism, bravery and fantasy, from the perspective of young adults with most of their innocence, bravado, and optimism intact.
LONGBOW GIRL is set in the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains, the Welsh mountains of your childhood. Did you return to this area in writing the book to enrich your setting and memories?
I had a deep old stack of memories to draw on: family marches up Pen Y Fan in all weathers were a regular feature of my childhood, but I did go back twice to refresh my memories. And to have fun It’s such a beautiful and wild part of the world, so rich in myth and legend that you can practically feel the enchantment as you explore the waterfalls and bleak mountains. I hiked, I swam in waterfall pools, I explored ancient castles, and ate lots of Welsh cakes!
LONGBOW GIRL takes place in the 16th century during the time of King Henry VIII. Your book blends history, legend, and mythology. How much liberty did you take with each and how challenging was it to find a balance between all three and real-life aspects of the story?
I read a huge variety of books on the various periods covered or alluded too: Neolithic standing stones in Wales, the history of the Longbow and the battles of Crécy and Agincourt, the Tudor period and Henry VIII, the Medieval world of the Mabinogion. I aimed to recreate the history as accurately and vividly as possible. I did invent the ‘Lost Tales of the Mabinogion,’ but the Mabinogion itself does exist and I reckoned there was a good chance that some of its tales had been lost. It wouldn’t surprise me if some came to light one day! The legends of Macsen Wledig and Sarn Helen are written about in the Mabinogion and are based on Magnus Maximus who was Western Roman Emperor from 383 to 388 and commander of Britain.
There was so much fascinating history I had to make sure I didn’t let it bog down the story. I reckon my experience in writing about financial derivatives without sinking adult thrillers helped!
What drew you to this time period and what sort of research did you undertake to write the book? Did any discoveries affect the plot?
My discovery of Henry V111’s edict about ‘nags of small stature’ drew me to the Tudor era and as above, I read extensively, but I also spoke at length to the bowyer who made my longbow, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of the longbow. I also spoke to the horse breeder who sold my family my pony Jacintha. He’s written countless books on Welsh Ponies and their history. It was a lovely excuse to visit him and his Ceulen stud in South Wales.
I did make some strange discoveries directly linked to the plot, but weirdly I discovered these after writing it, not before. In a strange co-incidence, mirroring one of the central plot lines from Longbow Girl, I discovered that in 1346 the Longbowmen of Llantrisant (one mile from where I grew up!) fought for the Black Prince at the Battle of Crécy. They fought in the Black Prince’s own division and when he was knocked to the ground they formed a protective ring around him until he recovered. They saved his life. The grateful Prince granted them a piece of land to be held in perpetuity. To this day, nearly seven hundred years later, the direct descendants of these longbowmen hold this parcel of land in Llantrisant.
There is another intriguing connection, more than a discovery, that probably danced round in my subconscious for decades: a personal link that also goes all the way back to the Battle of Crécy. During the battle, the Black Prince and his army defeated the King of Bohemia and the prince claimed the Bohemian King’s emblem of three ostrich feathers for his own. This emblem has been adopted by every Prince of Wales since. I was given a ‘Royal’ ring bearing the crest with the three ostrich feathers when I was a little girl when our current Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales. My father was involved in the Investiture and gave me the ring to mark the occasion. I still wear it now! I have never taken it off.
Merry is an admirable, strong female lead. Having the strong spirit to survive being an Iranian hostage for two-weeks is there a bit of your own survival spirit and strength in Merry and if so, what did you draw on from your hostage situation in creating her?
I’ve always been drawn to write about strong women. It made sense to write about strong girls. I have a daughter I want to inspire, and sons too, the forging of identity and empowerment of young adults are recurring themes of mine, but I tend to write more from a female perspective. I think we all wonder how we would fare when thrown into extreme peril. That’s one of the reasons why we love thrillers so much. I know how it feels to be imprisoned, to fear for your life, to yearn for those you love, to be seemingly utterly powerless, but how to keep your head together and how to fight for your freedom. The emotions are all there to call on, to remember. Without doubt, I did draw on them.
Merry must not only face difficult situations to save her family in two time periods, but has the additional challenge of having lost an eye due to a longbow accident. Why did you give Merry this disability and how does it affect her place in the present, and past, world?
I have a lovely domestic editorial team that see my books long before my agents and publishers do. My husband reads drafts aloud to me and our three children. It was one of my sons, Tom, who observed of the original Merry, who had two eyes, ‘Mummy, she’s amazing, but she’s too perfect!’ That night, falling asleep, the real Merry stalked into my dreams: a powerful, one-eyed, piratical beauty, made vulnerable by the loss of one eye in a longbow accident, given a shade of adult knowledge about life’s risks and costs that influence her and the story strongly.
LONGBOW GIRL’s theme is about breaking free from history and being true to your own identity in the face of great danger to save those you love. Is there a message you want readers to embrace from your story?
Absolutely. I think a strong sense of identity, forged by the individual, not simply assumed by him or her because of their birth and upbringing, is vital to our happiness and well-being. This philosophy does away with concepts of either victimhood or entitlement, both of which are damaging and hindering in forging a happy, successful and useful life. Be courageous. Take risks….
I read that LONGBOW GIRL is to be a trilogy. Congratulations! Can you share what we can expect from Merry in upcoming stories?
Thank you! I’m writing a different book at the moment, but Merry still stalks my dreams. Watch this space.
Linda Davies worked as an investment banker before escaping to write the international bestseller NEST OF VIPERS. She has written multiple books since, Financial Thrillers and Young Adult thrillers. She writes about the tightrope we often walk unknowingly, with safety and normality on one side and howling chaos on the other. She spent three years living in Peru and eight years living in the Middle East. In 2005 she and her husband were kidnapped at sea by Iranian government forces and held hostage in Iran for two weeks before being released. She has written about her experiences in her first non-fiction book, HOSTAGE (published August 2014). Her latest thriller, ARK STORM, also published last year is described by former US Secretary of Defense, William S Cohen, as: “A brilliantly crafted thriller. Science, sex, murder and meteorology are all stirred up and served in this stunning novel that will shock and awe you.” Kirkus Reviews say this: “A plausible and stormy thriller that might presage future events. Read it, and be glad it’s only fiction.” Linda now lives by the sea, where she swims, but chooses not to sail.
To learn more about Linda, please visit her website.