An Interview with Cindy Vallar
The Scottish Thistle
1. Please tell us about yourself – where you grew up, went to school, live now, etc.
I was born and raised in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Lancaster County, and I’m the oldest of four daughters, whom my mother fondly referred to as her ‘Little Women.’
I graduated from Towson University with a degree in education and later earned my master’s degree in library science (yes, you have to go to school to become a librarian) from the University of Maryland. During my twenty-year career as a librarian, I worked mostly in private schools, but I also worked as a part-time reference librarian for Baltimore County Public Library and as a special librarian for a company that writes income tax software.
Two years ago my husband was transferred from Maryland to Kansas, which is where we make our home. The move allowed me to retire from library work to pursue a career in writing.
My favorite authors are Nigel Tranter, Leon Uris, Stuart Woods, Clive Cussler, and LaVryle Spencer. I enjoy listening to Celtic music. I collect teddy bears and I’m a fan of professional bull riding.
2. What got you interested in writing?
It was probably a combination of my mother and school. Mom kept a scribbler’s book, one of those blank books where you jot down thoughts or place clippings of memorable quotations. The first writing assignment that I remember doing for school was to write a descriptive paragraph of a picture. Mom gave me a page from her Girl Scout calendar. The next time I wrote a descriptive paragraph for school it was three pages long. When bored in class, I often wrote poetry to pass the time. I didn’t consider writing a novel until I saw Frank Langella in a television series about the Swiss Family Robinson. He played Jean Laffite and the privateer’s story so intrigued me that I started writing a book about him.
3. Is there a work or book you are known for?
I’m known as ‘the Pirate Lady’ because I write a monthly history column on maritime piracy. When someone on an e-mail list couldn’t remember my name, she sent out a post asking the Pirate Lady to help.
Pulsar Books published my first novel, “The Scottish Thistle,” in January 2001. It’s a historical set in Scotland during the Rising of 1745 when Bonnie Prince Charlie sought to reclaim the British throne for the Stuarts from George II and the House of Hanover. “The Scottish Thistle” is also the story of two clans – the Camerons and the MacGregors – and how the war impacts their lives.
4. What are you trying to do when you write?
I try to tell a good story that transports the reader to another place and time. If the history intrigues the reader enough, perhaps he/she will want to learn more.
5. Have you had literary failures/ What did you learn from them?
I’ve submitted a few stories to publishers that were rejected, and looking back I know they deserved to be rejected. Since I never received any feedback with the rejections, I learned more about writing from the book reviews that I write. After the reviews are published, I compare them to the ones I submitted and study the changes made by my editors. By doing this, I’ve learned to write succinctly.
6. What do you read?
In addition to being a librarian, I also taught computers. I worked with severely emotionally challenged teenagers and getting them to read anything was often a struggle. Their preference to talk about “Star Trek the Next Generation” rather than the day’s computer lesson gave me a perfect opportunity to combine reading with computers. I think we read most of the first 20 books in the series, and sometimes I still read one when my husband borrows them from the library.
For the most part, though, I read historical fiction, romance, mystery and suspense. I also read a wide variety of non-fiction in connection with my research. Reviewing books and e-books means that some of what I read isn’t necessarily what I would select on my own, but I’ve discovered quite a few gems that I would have missed otherwise. I highlight the best of these books at my web site – Thistles & Pirates (http://www.cindyvallar.com) – so others can enjoy them, too.
7. What are you working on now? Is it a departure from the past?
I prefer to write historical fiction, so that’s what I’m working on two novels right now.
“Rebel’s Heart” is set in New Orleans during the War of 1812. Nikki Laffite is the younger sister of Jean Laffite, the pirate/privateer who provided Andrew Jackson with the necessary armament and men for the Americans to win the Battle of New Orleans. Lucas Remington, who works for Jackson, joins Laffite’s smuggling/privateering operations to find out how best to bring Laffite to heel. He’s also looking for his older brother who was impressed by the Royal Navy and then joined up with pirates to escape the brutality of navy life. Lucas knows that Nikki is tied to his brother, but he doesn’t know how and once he uncovers the truth, that knowledge drives a wedge between Lucas and Nikki.
“Two Hearts Against the Wind” is set in western Kansas during the 1930s. Rafe, who some consider coming from the wrong side of the tracks, is a descendant of William Quantrill, the notorious Confederate raider who terrorized Kansas and Missouri during the Civil War. Maddie is the daughter of one of the town’s prominent citizens. William Quantrill murdered her great-grandfather, and her father’s hatred for the Quantrills runs deep. Through the machinations of a lawyer’s daughter, Maddie and Rafe must wed because they’re caught kissing in public ten times (this is based on a real law that’s still on the books). The novel is about life during the Depression and the struggle to survive the Dust Bowl when massive clouds of parched earth blew across the prairie, turning day into night and suffocating animals and humans alike.
8. What literary goals do you have?
My most immediate goal is to see “Rebel’s Heart” published. I wrote the first draft, which was horrendous, back in college, so I’ve been working on it for over twenty years. Other goals would be to see my books in print in addition to being available as e-books. I’d also like to be able to turn all the story projects that I have on hold at the moment into successful and enjoyable novels. If I can help convince publishers that a market does exist for historical fiction, then I’ll have achieved the ultimate goal of all historical novelists – to have our books published because they are historicals rather than romance or mystery or adventure.
9. Would you rather win a Nobel Prize or earn a million dollars?
Winning a Nobel Prize would be a great honor, but I’d rather earn the money. Not because I’m greedy, but because I could endow libraries, particularly those that seek to offer e-books to their patrons, and donate money to other worthwhile causes. I’d also be able to travel to the countries where I set my stories to explore them firsthand and research the primary documents necessary in my research.
Read an extract from The Scottish Thistle:
Earlier, Thistle had blessed the torrential rain. Now, the smuggler cursed it. A lightning bolt slashed the ink-black sky. The shadows of the night blurred, and Thistle shuddered. The premonition descended with the finality of a coffin lid being nailed shut.
Thistle stood at the left hand of a dark-haired man. Swirls of mist curled around their feet and shadowy forms rose up between them, separating Thistle from the stranger. A flash of steel pierced the darkness. The white mist turned bright red, then faded to nothingness.
The smuggler’s eyes flew open. Thistle strained to hear, but thunder and wind obliterated other sounds. Lightning flashed, and in the instant it illuminated mountain and glen, Thistle glimpsed the peril.
A lone rider spurred his mount along the rough Highland track bordered by tall firs. He stiffened, then toppled from his horse. Two caterans emerged from the trees and crept forward. While one searched their unconscious victim, the other rifled his satchel.
As the smuggler’s four companions surrounded the caterans, Thistle stepped onto a wind-smoothed boulder. With an arrow nocked against the string of the black longbow, Thistle aimed the lethal missile at one cateran’s heart and waited.
A flash of white light followed by a jarring thunderclap startled the thief. He raised his head and screamed. His companion dropped his pilfered booty. He fell to his knees and crossed himself.
“Please, Thistle, spare us!” he said. “We meant no harm.”
Thistle smelled their fear and snickered beneath the mask.
“Are ye saying the man sprawled in the mud is after taking a wee nap during such a fierce storm?”
They cried out, each trying to shout down the other.
“We found him here!”
“He is dead!”
The rider moaned.
“Dead, ye say? Then he comes back to haunt ye.” Thistle stepped closer and spoke words laced with menace. “Truis! Be gone! If ever I find ye in these glens again, I willna be so forgiving.”
The caterans scrambled over each other in their haste to escape. Thistle waited until the darkness swallowed them before jumping from the boulder to kneel beside the stranger. The short wooden hilt of a sgian protruded from the man’s upper back. Thistle extracted the knife, then bandaged the wound with a piece of black cloth ripped from the smuggler’s own shirt.
The stranger moaned. Easing him onto his back, Thistle braced the stranger’s head and shoulder against a thigh. The man’s eyes fluttered open.
“Can ye ride?” Thistle asked. Time grew short. If the Watch discovered them, they would all hang.
The rider nodded. Thistle gave him over to the other smugglers and went to collect the stranger’s stallion. When Thistle reached for its reins, the horse flared its nostrils and snorted. Its hooves clattered on stones. Thistle grabbed its halter, stroked its neck, and whispered soothing words in Gaelic. The stallion whinnied, ceased its clawing of the earth, and grew calm. After the others helped the rider remount, Thistle swung up behind him. The two men who took the van wove their way through the rocks and into the woods. Thistle followed while the remaining pair brought up the rear.
Fallen pine needles muffled their footfalls. Firs towered over them, providing some respite from the rain. They climbed the mountain in a zigzag fashion. When they reached the northern edge of the pine canopy, Thistle nudged the stallion onto a rough dirt track along a bluff of jagged cliffs. Immense sea waves crashed against the rocks below, forcing white spume high into the air. The crescendo rivaled the beating of a thousand war drums, while the roiling tempest matched the frenzied turmoil that churned within Thistle.
The Watch, who safeguarded against further rebellion, kept a lookout for outlaws and smugglers, especially those with bounties on their heads. By rescuing the stranger, Thistle had compounded the danger faced on their occasional midnight sojourns. Yet, having suffered injustice at the hands of others, the smuggler refused to ignore the stranger who had needed help. Thistle prodded the stallion toward the ruins of a stone tower, aware that it was foolhardy to remain in the vicinity any longer. When they reached the broch, two men lifted the stranger from the horse and carried him inside. Thistle turned to the remaining smugglers.
“Take the horse to Andrew. He will see to its keeping. Keep a sharp lookout.”
With a nod, they hurried on their way. Thistle stooped and entered the narrow passageway of the broch, whose ancient builders had constructed the high circular walls of stone without benefit of mortar. Continuing past a tiny guard chamber on the left until reaching a spacious center courtyard, Thistle straightened and looked heavenward. Instead of a sloping thatched roof, the tower opened to a purplish-pink sky. The deluge of the past two days had ended; the sun would again shine on the Highlands.
The windowless broch consisted of two tapering concave walls with a staircase between them. Hundreds of years ago the steps had led to wooden galleries, but the timbers had long since rotted away, leaving stairs that led nowhere. The entryway into the staircase was several feet off the ground. After clambering inside, Thistle felt along the outer wall. There was a soft click, then rumbling echoed through the ruin as a stone slab opened.
The small group descended the hidden steps added by smugglers many years after the original inhabitants of the broch had disappeared. Thistle extracted a burning torch from its holder on the wall, and the secret entrance to the stairs closed. They wound their way through a tunnel to an underground chamber where the men propped the stranger against a damp wall.
Thistle doffed a tricorn hat and squatted to examine the man’s face in the flickering light. Thistle gasped. The face in my vision! The crooked nose indicated that it had been broken more than once. A small scar creased his chin. Dark brown curls fell across a brow bloodied by a ragged gash several inches in length. When Thistle dabbed at the dried blood, the stranger’s hand encircled Thistle’s wrist and held tight.
“Who?” the stranger whispered.
“Who am I?” Thistle asked, transfixed by the man’s purple eyes. The same hue as in the vision.
The stranger nodded.
Surprise, then pain, flashed across the man’s face. His hand fell to his side.
“Ye must wait a wee longer before I tend to your wounds. Until then, perhaps ye might be after answering a few questions.”
The man gave a slight nod.
“‘Tis unusual to find a stranger riding alone in these parts. Caterans prey on unsuspecting travelers, especially those daft enough to travel at night. If not daft, then perhaps ye are a spy sent to ferret me out for the excise men.”
“I search for a man.”
“He calls himself Angus.” “Of what clan? ‘Tis a common enough name among Highlanders.”
“The nameless clan.”
“The outlawed Clan Gregor.”
It was a statement, not a question. Thistle despised the necessity of hiding behind a mask, but the law had left little choice. The king had handed down a royal edict against the Macgregors during the previous century; and while other clans had been forgiven for past wrongdoings, Thistle’s had not.
“Mayhap I can help, stranger. What business have ye with Angus?”
“I bring a message from Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel. Angus will understand.”
“And have ye a name?”
“Duncan of Clan Cameron.”
“How do I ken ye are not a spy come to harm the Macgregors? Can ye prove what ye say?”
The man grimaced. Thistle waited until the pain passed from his face before repeating the question.
“Can ye prove what ye say?”
Festering memories assaulted Thistle. Baying hounds. Bloodied swords. Tormented wails. The stench of death. Thistle’s throat constricted. Gasping for air, unable to breathe, Thistle yanked off the dank, woolen mask.
Duncan’s eyes widened and he drew a sharp breath. His lips moved, but no words came. His eyes closed and his head sank onto his chest.
Thistle’s companions drew near.
“Dead?” Thistle asked.
“No, I think he fainted,” one answered, in a voice laced with amusement.
Cindy Vallar, firstname.lastname@example.org
Author of The Scottish Thistle
More succinctly told than Diane Gabaldon with more sympathetic and believable characters, fans of Nigel of Nigel Tranter will enjoy this one. Highly recommended! – Rachel Hyde, Myshelf.com