Karen Harper And Erin Quinn On Writing Irish Characters - With Giveaway!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! We celebrating the holiday with a very special interview. Karen Harper and Erin Quinn two of our favorite authors who bring the Emerald Isle to life in fiction with their Ireland-set tales! And don’t miss your chance to win Karen Harper’s The Irish Princess and an ADVANCED READER COPY of Erin Quinn’s Haunting Desire at the end of this interview


Both of you are obviously attracted to Ireland as a setting for your historicals. What drew you to use Ireland, other, perhaps, than Irish descent?

Karen Harper: Two things got me going on The Irish Princess. First of all, a trip to Ireland where I fell in love with the land and the people, but more about that later. Secondly, I stumbled on a historic Irish woman I could not resist researching. In reading about Queen Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting, I read that she had a long-time Irish woman as a confidant, and a beautiful redhead at that. I knew this woman, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, called Gera, must be an amazing person, for the queen mistrusted the Irish and was always jealous of beautiful women around her. As I researched Gera and her life and loves, I knew I’d found a fabulous heroine. Her story seemed to have it all. Terrible trials. A revenge story. Forbidden love. Finally, a happy ending with her beloved, seafaring Captain Clinton. 

Erin Quinn: For me it was the sheer depth of its history—thousands of years of it. I love to research and I found that the more I learned about Ireland, the more I wanted to learn. From the manner of speech, to the colorful slang, to the traditions that make Ireland what it is, to the myths and legends of the people—I found everything fascinating. Ireland is more than a country; it’s a land with mysticism in every color, every rock and every storm.

So I’m assuming you have both been to visit “The Old Sod”? What do you love best about the Irish and their country? How good a job do the Irish do with preserving their history from the eras you chose to write in?

EQ: I visit the land of mist and blarney every night…in my dreams. Unfortunately, my budget hasn’t stretched overseas as of yet—but I can dream with the best of them. I’m a first class researcher though and I love to dig for the details. The Irish have such an amazing history and so many incredible storytellers that finding each new fact is like a treasure hunt. At first I found it daunting to write about a country where I’ve yet to set foot, but then I reminded myself that I dare to write eras I’ve never lived and from the point of view of males which I’ll never be. Obviously, I’m quite daring—must be the Irish in me. And with Irish friends to guide me on local customs, culture and slang, I try very hard to be true to the land and people I write about.

KH: My husband and I had a wonderful trip to Ireland. We visited Dublin, of course, and the Ring of Kerry… How well I remember all of it, from kissing the Blarney stone—and I’ve always been full of blarney—to little pubs and how green, green, green the countryside really is. However, I didn’t have my heroine or plot in mind then, so I had to really draw on my memories of Old Ireland to write the story. Of course, like the Brits, the Irish do a wonderful job of preserving their past—castles, prehistoric standing stones, you name it. 

Is there an “Irish character” of the people beyond the stereotype of great storytelling and friendliness? And, if so, how have you used that in your Irish novels?

KH: First of all, I love the Irish lilt when they speak, how the ends of their sentences often rise in tone, as if asking a question. That alone seems magical, and I have tried to suggest the brogue in my secondary characters in The Irish Princess. Also, I really picked up on the sense of nostalgia for the past, however much the Irish were into enjoying their “Celtic Tiger” modern society when I visited. (Like the rest of the world, they’ve had a downturn in their economy and tough financial times the last few years.) The other thing that permeates the character of the Irish is the essence of magic—not that they believe in ‘the little people’ anymore or put stock in their magic wells or such, but I picked up enough of that that I could put some touches of a Brigadoon feeling in my story.

EQ: I love the grit and humor of the Irish—and of course the pride. I really work to bring this out in the characters I write. One of my favorite characters is Colleen Ballagh. She has a wicked sense of humor, never gives a straight answer and will fight to the death against anyone who threatens those she loves. She is as reverent as she is irreverent and if you get down to her gooey center, you find a heart that has withstood the kind of adversity that would break a lesser person. Yet you won’t catch Colleen crying in her coddle. She’s larger than life and yet she’s very human. In a nutshell, she’s Irish.

How did you go about getting background material for your Irish novels?

EQ: Research, research, research. I always cast my net wide and then narrow down my research. I read everything from popular fiction by local writers to travelogues to history to fairy tales. Diaries are my favorite source of research but they were harder to get my hands on when I turned my pen to Ireland. I loved how rich and (sometimes) twisted many of the Irish legends are. In Haunting Warrior, I used a variation of the Connla's Well mythology (since it’s Irish, it’s also known by a dozen different names including the Well of Wisdom). In this mystical pool, the salmon swimming about are filled with knowledge and the hazelnut trees deposit chunks of wisdom into the water (which the salmon then consume). Drinking from this well or eating the salmon can greatly boost your IQ. It certainly helped Ruairi MacGrath (hero of Haunting Warrior) in his time of need.

KH: Besides the things I’d brought back from my trip to Ireland, I corresponded with Irish caretakers of certain sites. I had not visited Maynooth Castle in County Kildare when I was there, and this is Gera’s home castle, so the caretakers sent me information, and I went through Interlibrary Loan to find books they suggested. I poured over online pictures and read what I could find on the characters. I had to glean information on Gera’s early days through reading about her father “the uncrowned king of Ireland,” and her rebel brother Silken Thomas, who got the entire family in trouble with King Henry VIII.

Also, since there is a real seafaring, swashbuckling hero in The Irish Princess, I relied on that sense of adventure and romance from movies with the likes of Johnny Depp and Liam Neeson—even the feel of those old Errol Flynn flicks. I love the sea and sailing, which is very Irish, and so do Gera and the love of her life, Captain (and later, Lord High Admiral) Edward Clinton. And my hero is not the only “swashbuckler” in the book. Once when her husband was Lord High Admiral, Gera actually commanded a ship to chase pirates in the name of the queen, so of course, I had to include that.

Tell us a bit about your heroines. Are they uniquely Irish in anyway?

KH: At first glance, Gera Fitzgerald seems to be almost stereotypically Irish in that she was redheaded and had a temper. Even under terrible persecution, she was loyal to her family and her home country, and that seems very Irish to me. But she is not a stereotype. She learns to bridle her anger and is also loyal to an English husband she had married for the wrong reasons and didn’t really love, until she was widowed and could marry the love of her life. She forged a lifelong friendship with her rival, the Princess Elizabeth Tudor, someone she originally hated. 

EQ: I like to think my Irish heroines are the perfect mix of honor and heart. They know life is rarely easy and at times it tries to grind them down, but they have spirit and backbone and they believe that tomorrow will be a better day. I think this is a trait shared by most women, regardless of their culture, but it’s the humor that goes with the trials and tribulations that make the Irish heroine so fun to write. For Shealy O’Leary who travels into the past, it is her ability to face the unbelievable without losing sight of who she is or what she wants that makes her such a formidable—and yet vulnerable—heroine.

Is there a special allure to an Irish hero?

KH: I love a hero who is dark haired, but to also have him blue-eyed is especially alluring! Sounds like the so-called ‘black Irish’ to me and partly inspired my hero, sea captain Edward Clinton—even though he’s English. One of the big conflicts in my novel between the hero and heroine is that she’s Irish and he’s English, and that makes their passion for each other forbidden and even more intriguing.

EQ: Oh yeah. 

How do you usually celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?

EQ: We do the standard corned beef, cabbage and boiled potatoes with soda bread feast in my house on St. Patrick’s Day. My husband is Hispanic (yes, we are an Irish/Mexican household and let me tell you, it’s never dull around here) and he had never eaten corned beef before he met me. Interesting little bit of food trivia—the potato came to Ireland by way of Peru where archeologists say it originated. The Spaniards noticed that scurvy was less prevalent when their sailors ate potatoes and were the first to incorporate it into their kitchens. It wasn’t until the late 1500’s that the potato found its place to a table in Cork, Ireland. Legend weaves a tale of it being served to royalty—except the cooks didn’t really know how to prepare the potato and served the boiled stems and leaves among the gray mush. Stems and leaves are poisonous and they made everyone violently ill. It’s safe to say, it was not one of the better celebrations. Of course the potato has come to symbolize both life and death to the Irish since then, but that’s another story…

KH: We live in South Florida during that time of year and always attend the St. Patrick’s Day parade downtown. My husband used to play the bagpipes, so we usually end up walking the parade route with a pipe band. We also attend a St. Pat’s Day poolside party at our condo, complete with the singing of typical Irish songs like Molly Malone, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, etc. Of course, I deck myself in green and wear my shamrock jewelry from Ireland. And, perhaps not right on that day because we’re so busy, I always fix a corned beef and cabbage meal, with potatoes and carrots—and soda bread, if we can get it.

How can readers get in touch with you?

Karen Harper: I’d love to have them visit my website www.KarenHarperAuthor.com. I’m so pleased that Gera on the book’s cover greatly resembles the real woman. Take a look at the portraits I have posted on my website and see if you agree.

Erin Quinn: I love talking to readers and book clubs! Anyone interested can reach me at www.erinquinnbooks.com where I have information about my titles, book trailers, reviews and contests! I’m always giving something away so stop on by!


GIVEAWAY ALERT: Three lucky readers will win a set of these author’s latest Ireland-set stories, Karen Harper’s The Irish Princess and an ADVANCED READER COPY of Erin Quinn’s Haunting Desire. To be entered to win leave a comment on this blog about why you love stories set in Ireland or Irish characters. Or you can email your comment here with your US shipping address and the subject line “Karen Harper and Erin Quinn’s Ireland-Set Stories Giveaway.” The winners will be announced on March 31st. 


BLOG UPDATE 3/31/11: And the winners are Nancye Davis, Kaya Hack and kelly