Karen McCombie is a British children’s author whose 90+ books have been translated into many languages around the world. Originally from Scotland, Karen lives in London and began her writing career as a magazine journalist on teenage girls’ titles. Her novels and book series range in style and age and have mostly been contemporary, but she has moved towards writing historical fiction in the last few years. Her most recent novels – conceived as a pair – are ‘Little Bird Flies‘ (2019) and ‘Little Bird Lands’ (2020). They’re set in the 1860s in the Highlands of Scotland and America respectively, following the emigrant story of Bridie, a young Scottish girl, and her crofter family.
How did the ‘Little Bird’ duology come about? Was it the Scottish setting or a specific historical event that inspired you?
I’d had an urge for years to write something about my homeland of Scotland. I grew up in the city of Aberdeen – known as Britain’s ‘oil capital’ – which was home to many Americans and Europeans due to the oil industry. But as a child I always loved our family’s regular weekend trips to the countryside, to walk in forest trails, climb hills, visit castles and get lost in nature and history. Over the years, I’ve always held onto a jumble of Polaroid images in my head of the rugged rural landscapes: grey granite stone, green mosses and pine, mauve heather and bright yellow gorse.
My husband Tom always encouraged me to write my love letter to Scotland, but nothing seemed to crystallize as a story for me. He also knew about my life-long love of the ‘Little House’ series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and suggested that I consider writing my own pioneering tale. But I knew I couldn’t do that, not when so many American writers could tell that story much more authentically than me!
I can’t pin-point when the lightbulb moment happened, but suddenly my two beloved, back-burner book notions came into sharp focus, and I realized I could write a pair of books, set in the 1860s, focusing on a Scottish emigrant story. Many people are familiar with the history of emigration from Ireland to America in the 19th century, but the Scottish experience is less well-known. Even in Britain!
What kinds of sources did you use for both the Scottish setting in ‘Little Bird Flies’ and the various American locations in ‘Little Bird Lands’?
The backdrop for ‘Little Bird Flies’ was the Highland Clearances, a very dark time in Scottish history when poor tenant farmers (crofters) and their communities were forced off the land in their hundreds of thousands and became economic migrants. So I read plenty history books about that, but for the day-to-day life experience of ordinary working families, I found the open air Highland Folk Museum fascinating, as it’s filled with historic buildings gathered from across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. The founder of the museum also wrote the most fantastic resource book, ‘Highland Folk Ways’. For helpful pictorial images, I used this UK reference website.
‘Little Bird’ lands opens in New York, then follows the family as they move to a copper mining town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, then onto Minnesota. Barnum’s American Museum features in the NY section, and The Lost Museum website helped me visualize the interior. I stumbled upon a Michigan Government geological report about copper mining, which surprisingly gave the most wonderful social history of the Upper Peninsula. Books I found incredibly helpful for context were Louise Erdrich’s ‘Birchbark House’ series, ‘The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers’ by Anna-Lisa Cox and ‘They Chose Minnesota’, a historical reference book about the state’s different ethnic groups.
What did you stumble upon while researching that really grabbed your attention?
Like most people, I knew Ellis Island as the famous arrival point for emigrants from Europe. But as I researched the epilogue for ‘Little Bird Flies’, I realized Bridie and her family would be landing at the pre-Ellis Island immigration landing depot of Castle Garden. The changing fortunes of Castle Garden is so intriguing, from the circular building’s initial use as a military fort in the early 1800s, to its transformation into a fashionable theatre – where the legendary Jenny Lind performed sell-out shows! – to its final incarnation as an immigrant depot in the 1850s. I felt as if I could’ve set a whole novel there, rather than just a brief chapter!
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
Having to stop! If you were lucky enough to have lots of money and no pressing deadline, you could spend blissful and endless hours, days, weeks and months finding the next little bit of historical treasure to drool over. Sadly, I don’t have that luxury, so at some point I have to get practical and stop, while knowing that there could have been yet another tantalizing, unfound gem just around an internet corner!
Any drawbacks to writing historical fiction?
Yes; frustration and financial! Firstly, no matter how much research you do, some of the everyday detail of working-class people’s experience just eludes you. It leaves me aching to be able to step back in time so I could witness, ask and understand every seemingly ordinary aspect, every little nuance of their lives for myself.
Secondly, a publisher will pay me the same (not very big) advance, whether I write a contemporary or historic novel, but of course the latter takes three times as long to write, because of the extensive research. So in writing terms, I’m passionate about my historical novels, but in economic terms, they’re not the best bet!
Ultimately, what’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
Giving a voice to the voiceless. Even during my childhood visits to Scottish castles, I’d be more interested in knowing about the ‘long-ago’ servants rather than their grand and spoiled masters. For me, it’s about the beauty and importance of ‘ordinary’ lives, and especially those of girls and women, so very often in the background of history.
Anything you’d like to leave us with?
I used a little Scots’ Gaelic language in ‘Little Bird Flies’, and have Mairi Kidd, a native Gaelic-speaking friend, to thank for that. She suggested a saying to me that I’d never heard but thought was beautiful, and I went on to use it in a pivotal scene. So I’ll end with it…
‘A h-uile latha sona dhut, ’s gun latha idir dona dhut’
(‘May every day be happy for you, and no day ever bad’).
Marilyn Hilton says
I have been researching my Ulster-Scots family branch, who emigrated to the US in the mid-1800s and settled in Massachusetts, so these books are very interesting to me personally. Thank you both for this informative and eye-opening interview! (Also, I understand Karen’s love of historical research—it’s fascinating and addictive 🙂 )
I hope you might read them, Marilyn. They’re wonderful!