INTERVIEW: The author of Highland Barbarian on why Jason Momoa's savage killer makes a swoon-worthy hero

Expert Opinion: Conan the Barbarian vs. Historical Romance Novelist

on August 30, 2011 by Hannah Howell

barbarian.jpgThe Highlanders were like the Barbarians of the Middle Ages. They're a goldmine of plots. These people were never completely peaceful. They're very independent, very tribal people. You have these clans and hardly any of the clans liked each othereven when there wasn't a war, there was still clan conflict. The whole structure of the society allows you a lot of freedom to run around with the plot, whereas the English society is very feudal and structured with sheriffs. If some English earl suddenly decided he wanted to go to war with another English earl, there'd be so much interference, even way back then, because they were so structured in their hierarchy. I mean, they had sheriffs in Scotland, too, but they were also clan people. And it's a very hard life.

All of the tribes in Conan were kind of the same. They were tribal and loosely structuredI mean, you have one bad guy who rules over the whole thingbut they still all have their own little worlds. Clan struggle is important because it makes it more believable to have people with an enemy without interference. Every king always had trouble with the Highland clans. The lords wrote a declaration that said, "We'll let you be our king, but if we don't like you, we'll get another one." The Declaration of Arbroath. They had an attitude.

People just find them very romantic. They never completely settled like the English who had a unified identity. Scotland never unified. It always had that tribal feel. I think modern couples could learn romance from the Highlanders. They had so many trials and hardships and they'd still end up together. I think my readers sometimes like my stories because they saw The Highlander or Braveheart. They've got the kilt image, the image of the guy in the nice pleated kilt. They didn't really look like that in the 1400s, but that's okay.

On Facebook, I have a lot of writers and readers and they tend to all watch movies like Conan. Fantasy and paranormal things are very popular at the moment, so you've got a double whammy with him: the big guy with a sward and the magic that's part of the culture. And then, of course, you have Jason Momoa. He's a big reason people want to go just to see him running around. He's does kind of look like the cover of my book Highland Barbarianhe's a good-looking guy and they want a good-looking guy on the front.

When I'm imagining my heroes as I write them, you're going to want a hero, so they've got to be at least six feet tall. And they've got to be big because I'm writing historicals and the things they've going to have to do during the course of the book mean they have to be strong because otherwise they'll be dead. I'm looking for someone who keeps his word, has a sense of humor, and in the end understands commitment. I just dress those three characteristics with little quirks. I think one of my Scottish guys has an obsession to woolI don't know what possessed me to do thatso he has to wear linen underwear.

I like Jason's Conan more than Arnold Schwarzenegger because he can actually act. Might not be perfect acting, not a huge number of lines of dialogue to judge, but he's much better with the delivery and the facial expressions. And he can actually put his arms down flat. Arnold was so pumped up, he couldn't put his arms all the way downit looked very weird. Jason at least moves properly.

The movie makes the point that Conan is very loyal. How do you reconcile being untamed with commitment? Usually, even if they're a rebel, they have someone or something they commit to. The clansmen were loyal to their clan. They were willing to go out and die for their clan, so they have that loyalty and that honoreven if it didn't extend much past the clan, it was still in there. And at the end of the romance, you want to see the man and the woman commit to each other after going through all their trials.

To be a romantic hero, you have to stay with the girl at the end. In every other way, the Conan character more or less was a good romantic hero. He wasn't perfect, but he fought against evil, he freed slaves. He had all the good qualities: big and strong, can save the girl. But he didn't stay with herhe dropped her off at home, kissed her goodbye and went. And there's nothing she could have done to make him staythat wouldn't have been Conan. Maybe when he gets a few more wounds, he'll settle down. But there's nothing in his character right then that would make him stay: he's got more places to be, more slaves to free, more evil to fight.

As far as Conan's "Woman come here," stuff, since my books take place in the 1400s and the men are usually soldiers, they're also not the most tactful people in the world. They'll decided they want this woman, but neglect to tell her. Yet, at the end, he'll commit to her. But in the Conan movies, the books, the comics, it's not till way later that he really commits to a woman if I'm remembering that. It isn't all that important to him. If they called him for help, he'll come back and help them. But he isn't going to stay with themhe isn't going to build anything with them. He doesn't make that final attachment.

I never have my men completely tamed at the end. I don't believe in that. You can't change the core of a person. But you can soften him a little bit. For instance, in my book Highland Barbarian, he's still tactless and clueless, but it doesn't matter because she knows he'll be with her forever and in his own tactless, clueless way, he loves her. Before he met her, he'll be wine, women and song and didn't think, "Oh, I should say thank you to that person." Now, he'll say thank you, but there's no major change.

I thought the romance in the movie was pretty good. They made the girl a strong female, although she did the typical sword and sorcery dumb move where she walks off on her own with all these people searching for her. That's just dumb. You have a big swordsmen and hundreds of people trying to find you for your blood, and you walk away through a place you don't know. It's romantic that the villain was doing everything to get his dead wife back. Although, of course for all the wrong reasons. He just wanted her power. And of course, his daughter was a psycho. She wanted to be mom. Creepy. That's kind of an ew.

I've got to admit, I was expecting that like the Spartacus show on TV, that Conan would do this thing where the action slows down and the blood spurts in slo-mo when the sword strikes, but they didn't have a lot of that. Which was good. And they didn't do that thing were you have 20 guys waiting to attack one person and they're just sort of dancing around and attacking one at a time. Conan actually got hurt a couple of times, which I thought was very realistic. And he got really filthy. Highlanders love to charge. They start yelling and chargeand it didn't work out that well for them. I read a book that says that why the Confederates liked to yell and charge, because a lot of them were from Scotland.

I'm fine with blood and gore. I did not go see the 3D just in case there were flying body parts. The little kid showing up with the heads, I thought, "Oh god. Yes he's a barbarian and he's good with swords, but four guys?" But they actually did that fight scene well because they had him going low, using his littleness to help him. And it was a desperate fight. If you want to think about it logically, it's still totally illogical, although at least they did it so you could halfway believe it. Although I don't believe he didn't' break the egghe was doing so much yelling, what did he do? Swallow it?

It's a sword and sorcery movie, so you're not expecting anything deep and philosophical. I think the paranormal stuff just deepens the fantasy. You can really lose yourself in it. There's plenty of just straight, contemporary romances-people buy a lot of thembut I think people want that romance with the extra step of fantasy.

Conan reminded me of Speed. It wasn't really a good movie, but it's moving so fast and the characters are in such constant danger that you don't notice. But that scene where Conan couldn't pull the girl up? He's whipping her around the whole movie and suddenly he can't lift her on that chain? If they just had some explanation like it was the magic? And then of course when the magic went, he pulled her right up and I was thinking, "Well, you should have said something."

I've never wanted to write scripts. I've looked at all the rules for them and it's like when people were writing romances in first person and that got really popular. I couldn't do thatI'm too interested in the other person. In scripts, there's only so much you could have them do.

When I tell people what I do, they always ask me if I design the hero after my husband. No, they're not anything like my husband. For one thing, my husband is 5'7". And he maybe weighs 140 soaking wet. I have occasionally thought I should try a book with a short, skinny guy, but no. They want that hero and there's a visual that goes with it. They don't all have to be like Jason Momoa, but they've still got to exude that they're bigger than life and could save the girl if she needs itif she needs it, is the key, because the heroines are supposed to be strong, too. Even if you've taken self defense classes, if you're running away from a bad guy, it kind of helps if there's someone who could slow them down. And you have to have trained your whole life. Like Conan, in historicals, men were trained as soon as they could pick up a weapon. They'd go hunting, they'd fence.

I do a lot of research. Actually, I don't have to do a huge amount anymore because I've been doing it for so long and I keep everything I findI have all these notebooks all over the place. My commitment to accuracy is kind of hard because there's a lot of stuff that didn't get recorded, and because I have deadlines, there's a limit to how long you can search for things. I remember trying to find out when they first had scones. The first written recipe for scones was in a cookbook that didn't get published until the 1800s. So I went by the fact that they didn't have yeast in them, which gives them kind of a time period during which they could have been made. And then I couldn't find how long people had made jelly or jam to put on the scones. Again, you can find recipes, but they aren't dated. So I went with the attitude that these people would waste absolutely nothing. If they had old berries, they would find a way to use them. If someone had a better fact and they wrote to me, I would write back and say, "Thank you very muchwhere did you find that?!" But nobody has. It's the more common stuff that it can be more difficult to find, the stupid little day-to-day stuff because most people back then couldn't write, so you're not going to get any diaries.

I was a stay-at-home mom who went to school to teach English and historyand they don't need many more English and History teachers. I thought it would be nice if I could bring in extra money and I read an article about what a huge chunk of the market romance novels make up. I went and read all the books and researched what was selling. I had no clue. But I figured that since there were no medieval romances out there, it was because people weren't writing them-that people must want one. Which is one of the reasons why it took me five years to break in. I was sending out what they weren't buying. I didn't know the business. In school, I was really good at the history and English and literature classesI was one of those annoying students who when the teacher asked you to write a paper, I always did it. On things like the Black Death or strange concoctions witches were said to make. I've always loved to write.

I do two books and one novella of about 30,000 words a year. Romance novels used to be 100,000 words. They've squished that down to 95,000 now. It takes up a lot of time. I don't have a routine. That's part of my problemI'm not an organized person. I have a built-in rejection of schedules. The second I have a schedule, I do something to screw it up. And I'm not a morning person. Doesn't matter how many cups of coffee I drink, the creativity just isn't there.

I've got a lot of books on weaponry and how people fought. I like to be pre-gun. Right now, I'm working on a late Georgian series that has to have guns, but the guns weren't yet very accurate and you could only get one shot out. All I can think of when you get into the gun timeI've done a couple Westernsis that scene when Indiana Jones is standing in front of this guy who's twirling a huge sword and he just pulls out his gun and shoots. It makes for a very short scene. But if they don't have that kind of weaponry, you can have the face-off last a lot longer and have more tension. If someone gets murdered in one of my books, it's going to take a long time to figure out why did it because they didn't have forensics.

There's tons of books on costumes, but it's hard to find what the regular people wore. But to be honest, I'm not a big fashion person. If you're reading my book, you'll just find out she had a blue gown on. I know what she can't wearwhat fabrics they didn't have, even the colors you have to be careful with because they didn't have every color yet. And I know what he's wearing. If I have to mention how he's taking his clothes off, I can tell you. Or if she sees him and happens to think he's particularly handsome, I can describe an outfit from one of my books. But I'm just not that terribly interested in clothes.

I have a bunch of books on names. My favorite is called Names Through the Ages and it's divided up between England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France and the U.S. And also divided up by time period and first name, middle name, last name. I just pore through it. You just know the right name for a character when you come across it. Sometimes the names add something to your mind that forms the character. People don't like the heroine's names to be too hard, and in the Scottish name list, there's actually a number of hard female names. It doesn't sound romantic. It's an editorial decision. People will ask me how to pronounce the names, like I have one called Eada, and I'll say "Phonetically." It's how I say it, even if I'm not totally pronounced it as someone "Too much like Blazing Saddles?" and he hadn't even thought of thatthey really didn't like it! So I shoved it aside. I guess it can be a secondary character sometime.

When it comes to describing the actual body parts, I have it kind of easy because I don't have to be completely anatomically correct because they wouldn't have spoken that way. They wouldn't have been so blunt. They have "manhood," "womanhood," but back in 1480, they wouldn't have been so correct. I found in a book they used the word "belle chose." It means beautiful thing. So I have the hero call her vagina that. They wouldn't have talked like we do. They never would have said such things to a woman ever. Especially when they cared about her. The word "cock" is very old and they might have said that in heated moments.

As for the men not wearing underwear under their kilts, maybe if it was really hot. I'm sure they did sometimes. But they were warriors. Do you really think they were running into battle with that hanging free for someone to grab ahold of? You wouldn't have a very tender part that could cripple you waving around in the air. I don't believe it. They'd tuck it in. And Scotland is very cold. What happens to a man when it gets cold?! Why would they want someone to catch a peek at it when it's at its smallest? And Conan was also a warrior and he was leaping all around the place. No, he's not going to have that whapping around free. He might not have a protective cup over it, but he's going to have it secured. It just makes sense.

They didn't smell good. The wool was not the wool you know today so it had a very musky smell when it got wet. But they grew up with it. You know how some people go to Europe where people don't wear so much deodorant and they're all like, "Ew!" But those people don't notice it because that's what they grew up with. They had things they cleaned their teeth with and some could have the genetics for good teeth. But they didn't have all the scents to make themselves pretty. They didn't have water nearby that was clean-runningit was used like sewers. Plus, someone would have to heat it in a huge oak bucket-they didn't have little plastic ones. Bathing was a huge chore. And there were a fair number of people who thought that if you did it too often, you'd get sickand getting sick was terrifying. The girl wouldn't notice that he smelled bad because she'd smell bad, too. It was the same smell. Plus, everyone had horses. If the farm animals weren't in the damn house, they were right outside. But you just have to ignore that stuff in a romance. My heroes and heroines always smell good. It's softened history.


hannahhowellinterview.pngHannah Howell is the author of over 40 historical romances including Highland Barbarian, Highland Vow and Highland Conqueror. Her latest is Highland Hunger.

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