Chatting with May McGoldrick on Co-Writing, Why the Past is Important and How Their Characters are Modeled After Real Women

chatting with May McGoldrick

Frolic featured an exclusive excerpt of Highland Jewel by May McGoldrick last week. After reading it, I couldn’t wait to dive into reading the book, and it was superb. I loved the first book Highland Crown as well. So I am excited to introduce you to the wonderful authors who write as May McGoldrick. 

Exclusive Interview

Keira Soleore: Welcome to Frolic! It is wonderful to have a chance for a quick chat with you about your two newest books in the Royal Highlander series.

May McGoldrick: Thank you so much, Keira, for this opportunity. We’re a big fan of Frolic Media and of you personally, since (like you) we’re both engineer (Nikoo) and medievalist (Jim). We’re, like, clones!

Keira: How wonderful! We are truly connected. I love discovering people with similar interests.  

Before we get to the books, Nikoo and Jim, readers have been curious how your writing partnership came about. How do you brainstorm characters and plots? How do you divide up who writes what?

May: To answer these questions, we’ll have to set up a week-long conference, a writing and/or relationship retreat (which would actually be really fun!). What we’ve been able to accomplish (40 years together, 25 years of writing/publishing, 50 books) involves a long, long, long and complicated journey. One thing we can tell you, we were both hesitant to start down that road, as neither of us had any idea about the rules. But we knew we had a lot at stake. To give you a short glimpse of that time twenty-five years ago, Jim was a college professor teaching Chaucer and Shakespeare and other things, and Nikoo was an engineer in a Fortune 500 company. And on top of that, we had a marriage and two small children who demanded every hour of our non-work hours. 

The trigger to do it, however, was our love of writing and reading, as well as Nikoo’s desire to stop working 60+ hours a week away from the family. We both had always wanted to be writers, and we’d tried individually but hadn’t succeeded, financially anyway. So, sitting side-by-side one winter night, we drafted a short story for a magazine contest.

Our combined talent, hard work, and luck paid off. The universe aligned itself for us. That short story was followed by the idea of a novel based on Jim’s PhD dissertation. In less than a week, we had an agent. In six months, a multi-book contract with Penguin.

How we work together and why it works was a mystery to us until Heinemann Publishers asked us to write a book about it a decade later. Marriage of Minds: Collaborative Fiction Writing explains some of our changing process, as well as how a dozen other writing teams manage it and remain friends (with some casualties mixed in). In our case, we’ve remained happily married.

We still occasionally sit side-by-side as we try to wrestle a difficult plot point to the ground, but we mostly work separately on whatever scene is next. Then we swap and revise each other’s work. It takes about three times longer, but we both have to be happy with it before we move on. As far as brainstorming plots and characters, we walk and talk and walk and talk and walk and talk. And then walk some more. One of us (Nikoo) needs to move to think creatively.

Keira: Walking and talking and thinking leading to creativity has a long history as the Romantic Era poets have shown. I know that if you were to organize a writing and relationship retreat, you will find that you will have a long waiting list of people trying to get in.

You have now written many books together as May McGoldrick and Jan Coffey. What was your impetus behind the Royal Highlander series? How was your writing partnership part of the story behind the series?

May: We’re both fascinated with history. We believe that human nature doesn’t change, and we also believe there’s so much to learn from the past. It goes with that old saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When we were researching and writing Romancing the Scot, the first book in our Pennington Family series, we came across references to the fears that the aristocrats in England had about losing power. After the Napoleonic Wars were over, people wanted a fair wage and a say in government. Parliament and the Crown would not allow it, but those same leaders were afraid that all those highly trained, discontented soldiers would rise up, a revolution would take place and aristocrats’ blood would flow in the streets, as it had done in France just a few decades before. So the British government enacted law after law aimed at crushing and silencing all opposition. They took away the civil rights of the people in the name of security and national interest. What followed was the Radical War of 1820 — the events are eerily similar to things happening today. We thought the turmoil of 1820 would be an awesome moment for our heroines and heroes to find themselves and each other.

Keira: In your own words, could you tell the readers about Highland Crown and Highland Jewel?

May:  Isabella Drummond is the protagonist in Highland Crown. She is a physician who was educated in Germany. Her “marriage of convenience” husband had been one of the radical reformers in Edinburgh before he was killed. So at the beginning of the story, Isabella has escaped into the Highlands with her younger sister and the daughter of her late husband. They are being hunted by English soldiers and Scottish rebels alike. 

When a shipwreck occurs off the northern coast, Isabella saves the life of Cinaed Mackintosh, a fierce soul who is aiding the clans’ continuing resistance to English domination. Sparks fly between them, but Cinaed harbors dangerous secrets as well.  

In Highland Jewel, The Radical War of 1820 has extended into the Highlands. Maisie Murray and her family have found shelter at Dalmigavie Castle, the heart of the rising in the north. The dangers of their past have followed them, but they are committed to Scotland’s fight for freedom. A messenger brings the promise of an important ally to their cause, but only Maisie recognizes that falsehood and betrayal has also arrived at their door.

Six months earlier, Maisie had been the picture of docility, quiet and compliant in the eyes of her family. To her activist friends, however, she is a fearless crusader for women’s rights. In the wake of the Peterloo Massacre, Maisie and a friend had founded the Edinburgh Female Reform Society, and she had carried the banner for universal suffrage. Caught up in the wave of her enthusiasm, Maisie never expects to fall in love with the man who saves her life during one of their protests, the brother of her friend and fellow reformer.

Niall Campbell, a hero of the wars and a decorated officer of the Royal Highland Regiment, is battle weary and searching for stability in his life. A fierce warrior by training and a poet at heart, Niall walks away from the shining career that lies ahead of him, to the dismay of his superiors.

Niall is frustrated by his inability to curtail his sister’s involvement in the women’s reform movement. A widow with two children, she is determined to ignore the dangers of her radical positions. In saving his sister when a protest turns violent, he meets Maisie. Their relationship begins as one of experience versus idealism, of scars versus hope. Soon, however, he finds in Maisie the heart he longs for. When Niall’s sister is arrested and disappears, he quickly realizes his life is not his own, for the British authorities have a mission for him to accomplish in exchange for his sister’s freedom.

Overnight, Maisie loses Niall, her friend, and her home. In the wake of the riots that sweep through the cities of Scotland, her own sister Isabella is branded a traitor to the Crown, and the family must flee to the Highlands. They take shelter at Dalmigavie Castle, under the protection of the charismatic Cinaed Mackintosh. Here in the heart of the Highlands, Maisie runs into Niall again. He has a new name and carries a message of hope. But Niall has a task to complete.

Maisie and Niall’s future rests on their ability to overcome the forces that divide them or, for the future of Scotland, she must stop the man who owns her heart.

Keira: In both your stories, your protagonists meet in highly charged situations when the plot is fully in motion and the stories continue moving fast from there. Is this your usual storytelling style or is this how the series is playing out?

May: We love throwing our readers into the middle of action. We might have developed this style by writing thrillers and suspense. Carrying it into historical novels came naturally.

Keira: Your heroines are courageous, enterprising, passionate women. Isbella is a doctor and Maisie fights for women’s suffrage. What led you to choosing these professions for your protagonists? What was your inspiration behind them?  

May: These two characters were really modeled in some ways by real women from history, and then we threw obstacles in their way that were almost impossible to overcome. Dorothea Erxleben was our inspiration for Isabella. She was a university-trained physician who lived in Germany about seventy years before our story takes place. Maisie was modeled after a reform activist named Mary Fildes, who was on the speakers’ platform at the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, England, a few months before our story starts. In real life, she was actually run through by a sabre wielded by a soldier who was part of the militia who attacked the peaceful, unarmed citizens who had gathered to protest the government’s actions. Mary survived and went on to lead the movement for women’s suffrage until her death decades later.

Keira: When readers think of the Regency, they think of pretty gowns and balls, not the rawness of these stories. On some level, these lives and the events that unfold have a medieval feel to them. Was Scotland that far different from England in those times?

May:  We’re glad you mention that. If readers are looking for pretty gowns and polite courting rituals, our stories might not be for them. We have real people engaged in real struggles of life and death. Our characters, in these novels, find love that is deep and lasting, but it’s not love that is based on a clever bon mot or a shapely leg. As far as Scotland being different from England, we believe that many widely held views of history are skewed and inaccurate. Most of us have a perception of the time period that is based on what we’ve read in novels or seen in films. And many of those stories have been colored by the way some people in our society want to see the world. The reality of the Regency period — in Scotland and in England — has a great deal in common with our own era. It was a period of change and struggle and exploitation — the Radical War of 1820 took place in England and Scotland during the Regency Period. But, like the 21st century, it was also a time of romance and family and philosophy and science and, well, fashion.

Keira: I was pleased to see Niall address how the British Empire was for the financial benefit of the nobility and wealthy financiers (and the government higher-ups). Having him show what the East India Company did in Asia felt not only like you had done your research but also that you understood the ethos behind their actions. What made you choose this as a reason for Niall’s change of allegiance?

May: In Highland Jewel, Niall has seen first-hand the way the British military were being used to promote business interests, such as those of the East India Company. Niall is a war-scarred veteran of the Napoleonic War, and he realizes that Scottish regiments are now being shipped out to Ireland and India and Australia and New Zealand and South Africa to conquer lands for a growing empire that would be exploited for their natural resources. But he also sees that the policy is being used to keep trained Scottish soldiers out of their homeland. In the Highlands, poor farm families were being violently evicted, workers in the growing industrialized cities are being exploited, and the middle class is being denied a voice in government. Deep down, Niall wants life in Scotland to be better, and joining the opposition is the only way to create change. Luckily, he meets Maisie, and that makes his journey all the more exciting and, ultimately, satisfying.

Keira: The mystery of Cinaed’s past is superbly done, and I liked how it spans the two books. Are there story threads that were started in the first book that were then continued in the second? Do you have seeds planted in the first book that will then grow across the entire series?

May: Thanks. Cinaed and Isabella’s story is just too big to fit into one book. As we hinted at earlier, this is the Royal Highlander series. We’ll see more of Cinaed’s mother (who was scorned and nearly erased from history by the Prince Regent and his minions) as well as more of the efforts of the British Crown to crush Cinaed and the Scottish resistance. And we’ve got a lot more romance and adventure in store for all of our characters.

Keira: How many books have you planned for the Royal Highlander series? Whose story is next? Would you please share a teaser with Frolic’s readers?

May: Right now, we’re planning on finishing up after three books, but you never can tell. Here is a little more about the story than readers will read on the back cover of Highland Sword, the third book in the series:

Three extraordinary women escaped to the Highlands of Scotland at a tumultuous moment in time. Hunted by the British authorities, each of them had to find her identity and her place in history. In this conclusion to the Royal Highlander series, the reader meets Morrigan Drummond.

Independent and fiery, Morrigan lost everything when her father was killed while caring for Scots wounded by English dragoons during a day of protests in Edinburgh. After fleeing to the Highlands, she discovered her gift. Training with Mackintosh fighters at Dalmigavie Castle, Morrigan can now shoot a pistol and handle a dagger better than any man. She is ready to use her deadly skills on the enemies of her nation. And she wants revenge on Sir Rupert Burney, the English spymaster who ordered the attack on peaceful people and the death of her father.

Aidan Grant is a Highland lawyer, at odds with the Crown for his fearless stands against the government on issues of representation, slavery and the violent Highland Clearances. Quick-witted and popular with the Scottish people, he is a nemesis in the eyes of the repressive Crown forces seeking to crush reform across the land.

These two meet and the battle of wills begins. She wants war; he wants peace. She is after revenge; he is after justice. She is ready to spill blood; he believes too much has already been shed. Neither one will surrender their ideals, but neither can ignore their attraction for the other.

Highland Sword is an emotional ride, but we feel reasonably confident everyone will be satisfied with how everything wraps up at the end. That being said, there is still one more very cool historical event connected to our series that may just need to be explored in another book. We’ll see.

Keira: Having loved Highland Crown and Highland Jewel, I am now fascinated by Highland Sword and can’t wait to read it.

Could you tell us one thing about you that might surprise readers? 

May: We’ve both been married three times…to each other!

Keira: And you’re just going to leave me hanging with that tidbit and no more details? Thank you for visiting Frolic. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

May:  We’re delighted that you asked us, Keira. We love living in the world of fiction, and writing for our readers gives us more joy than we can express. So thanks for the opportunity to reach out. We’d love hearing from everyone.

About Highland Crown

A true beauty and trained physician, Isabella has inspired longing and mystery — and fury — in a great many men. Hunted by both the British government and Scottish rebels, she comes to the Highlands in search of survival. But a dying ship’s captain will steer her fate into even stormier waters…and her heart into flames.

Cast from his home as a child, Cinaed is a fierce soul whose allegiance is only to himself…until Isabella saves his life — and adds more risk to her own. Now the only way Cinaed can keep her safe is to seek refuge at Dalmigavie Castle, the Mackintosh family seat. But when the scandalous truth of his past comes out, any chance Cinaed may have of having a bright future with Isabella is thrown into complete darkness. What will these two ill-fated lovers have to sacrifice to be together for eternity?

About Highland Jewel

Maisie Murray’s sweet, docile exterior masks the courageous spirit of a firebrand determined to champion women’s suffrage with like-minded friends. But fighting for her principles has swept her directly into harm’s way–and into the arms of a man she cannot resist.

A trained officer with the Royal Highland Regiment, Niall Campbell has spent his life serving the Crown. Battle-weary and searching for peace, he nothing to do with trouble — until he meets Maisie. But unless Niall and Maisie can find a way to stand up to the destructive forces that threaten to divide them, long-buried secrets and political schemes are destined to stand in the way of the glorious love they’ve found.

Buy Links

About the Author:

USA Today Bestselling Authors Nikoo and Jim wrote their first MAY MCGOLDRICK romance using historical figures that Jim researched while earning a PhD in sixteenth-century Scottish and English literature. Nikoo, a mechanical engineer, is a born storyteller. She is all about characters and feeling. Jim is about action and sense of place. Together, they have crafted over forty fast-paced, conflict-filled historical and contemporary novels and two works of nonfiction under the pseudonyms May McGoldrick and Jan Coffey.

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1 thought on “Chatting with May McGoldrick on Co-Writing, Why the Past is Important and How Their Characters are Modeled After Real Women”

  1. I am reading an ARC copy of Highland Sword now and I will read the other books in the series. Great read and a stand alone, which I always like.

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