Writing from the Oral Tradition: Guest Post with Clayton Callahan

There’s something special about seeing another writer hit his stride with a really great book. A couple weeks ago I finished The Spirit of Cahir Mullach by Clayton Callahan.  I loved the “voice” of this book and though I rarely (never) read books aloud, I couldn’t resist the occasional urge to don my improbable Irish accent and enjoy the sound of this tale.

Why did I “hear” this tale in my head…?

Clayton is a natural storyteller from the oral tradition. I’ll let him tell you about the inspiration for his book:

I have always had a deep fascination with history, culture, and people in general. It was that interest that led me to join a peculiar organization called the Society for Creative Anachronism when I was but a lad of seventeen. While other high school guys were perfecting their mullet (it was the 80’s), I was finishing work on my leather and chainmail armor for the upcoming tournament.

The SCA was a medieval extravaganza, complete with dancing, sword fighting, food, brews, music, and storytelling. Truth be told…I wasn’t too good at the dancing or the sword fighting. However, at storytelling, I can boast some talent. I’d pour through the public library for folk tales, mythology, and legends suitable for a fireside performance and worked hard to bring them to life before an audience of inebriated Vikings/college students.

One of the marvelous tales I discovered was The Great Mr. Berry of Cahir Tyrone. The traditional folktale is much the same as the book. However, since it blatantly takes place after the Middle Ages ended, I never was able to use it in the SCA.

Fortunately, a good tale is never forgotten, and now twenty-odd years later, I’ve given it another crack.

The Story:

The story starts in the Irish town of Baile with a fireside recounting of the time Lord Oisin defended the village against Viking raiders who attempted to abscond with his cows. As the legend goes, Oisin’s spirit still dwells within the ruins of his great castle, Cahir Mullach.

It’s now the end of the Revolutionary War in America, and thousands of redcoats return to Ireland in defeat, Michael Snodgrass among them. He marches across Ireland, a trek that takes him through Baile, where Mr. Terry plans to sell his cows, evict his tenants, and raise sheep.

Mr. Terry’s also the billetmaster, and he sends poor Michael to be quartered in the ruins of Cahir Mullach. The king’s law is clear that any subject must make welcome a soldier who holds an official billet in hand… and that includes a subject now eight hundred years dead.

My Review:

I thoroughly enjoyed this book for a whole bunch of reasons. Despite being a work of fiction, it’s well-researched and sprinkled with details that bring authenticity to both of the book’s settings – America at the end of the Revolutionary War and the rural Irish village of Baile.

The point of view is shared by a number of wonderfully rounded characters with distinct voices and personalities. Relationships feel genuine and are recognizable to anyone living in a small community where differences are dealt with peaceably and according to custom. The story has a load of warm humor amongst some darker moments. Beyond the tragedy of war, there’s minimal violence, just ordinary villagers going about their day and experiencing extraordinary events.

The main character Michael Snodgrass carries most of the story. It was interesting reading about the Revolutionary War from the point of view of an Irish redcoat who had no stake in the conflict other than to stay alive. Michael has a true heart and guileless nature that’s endearing.

What I loved best about the story, and where Callahan truly shines, is in the authentic voices of the narration and characters. I read many parts of this story aloud just to bask in the lilt of the language.

The souls of his shoes were so worn that every chunk of gravel in the road seemed to take time out of its busy day to introduce itself personally to the feet of one Corporal Snodgrass.

Granny Collins had been laying out gifts of buttered leeks, biscuits, and milk by a hole in the old castle wall for the “good folk” of the hill. And kind as the father was, she’d no intention of abusing his good graces with her less than Catholic ways. But Christian or no, it was always best to be on the good side of fairies, lest children start coming up missing in the town.

The first chapter of the book is a long one and recounts the tale of Cahir Mullach in a more stylized voice. After that, the book transitions to the “modern” 18th century and the pace picks up. The book suffered from poor editing, but that appears to have been corrected by the author.

A delightful read that I recommend to all ages, and particularly to those who love myths, legends, and tales full of personality.


A final note: Clayton has written across several genres. Though he writes primarily space opera, he also has a historical spy novel and non-fiction book: Armed Professions: A Writer’s Guide that I’ve referred to many times.

Iraq Vet, RPG Game Master turns Sci-Fi Author

Clayton Callahan

Clayton Callahan

Clayton J. Callahan is one of my writer’s critique group buds. Every other week, we scour each other’s chapters, make suggestions, call out problems, and cheer for those perfect paragraphs. I love talking with authors about writing, learning how the creative spark ignited, exploring their choices, and seeing how they work through the creative and occasionally grueling process of bringing a story to life.

When Clayton offered to give away a war-game on my blog, I suggested an interview. Below you get both. Enjoy.

DWP: Welcome to my blog, Clayton. You only started writing only a few years ago. What was the motivation?

CJC: Boredom. I’ve always enjoyed doing creative things. I met my wife in a medieval reenactment troop (the SCA), I’ve painted models, and played role playing games all my life. My last tour in Iraq was in 2011 and, to be frank, there wasn’t much to do at the end of the drawdown. But I had a laptop my daughter gave me and a story idea I always wanted to try. The rest is history…or mythology…or whatever.

StarTrekTOSDWP: What drew you to science fiction as a starting place?

CJC: Are you kidding? I was ten years old when Star Wars came out (1977). People forget what passed for entertainment in the 1970s. Action movies with happy endings were considered passé and you only need watch one Planet Of The Apes film to see what I mean. My dad took me to the vintage theater so I could watch old Errol Flynn films and get something out of a movie besides popcorn and soda. Then Star Wars came out and suddenly there was this fun and exciting world to play in. When I had my fill of Star Wars, I flipped the channels to find Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek re-runs. My father’s generation had swashbucklers, I had space ships.

DWP: Science fiction is a broad genre. How would you describe your books to a potential reader?

CJC: I’d call it “space opera.” First and foremost, I write entertainment. I’m working on the assumption that people don’t have a lot of time, and when they pick up a novel, they want to enjoy themselves. My work features lovable characters, bar fights and space battles. After that, I tackle politics, religion and ethics. But I truly believe you’ve got to entertain folks first or they’ll donate your book to the church thrift sale before they finish chapter one.

star-run-physical-copy-e1413446087963DWP: You created role-playing games before you began writing. How has your experience with RPG’s translated to writing?

CJC: Very well actually. In a role playing game, you sit around a table with friends and engage in a mutual storytelling exercise. I started with Dungeons & Dragons back in the 1980s but soon moved on to science fiction games like Traveler.  Funny thing, I often found myself in the position of “Game Master,” meaning it was my job to create the setting and the plot for the game. I must have been good at it because at 16 I was running standing room only games for players in their 20s and 30s. Again, it’s about engaging with an audience that makes it fun for all involved.

DWP: Your most recent book, Red Coat Running, is a completely different genre. Why the change?

CJC: As you mentioned at the beginning, I’m new to writing. That being said, I’m still in the process of learning how to craft a story. For my first book I wrote a series of interconnected short stories (a framed novel). My second book was a chapter by chapter space adventure and my third book a non-fiction.

For my fourth book, I wanted to try something completely different just to see if I could pull it off. In the army I served as a counterintelligence agent, and I thought that experience could translate well into a spy novel. I set the book in 1948 so I wouldn’t have to cover any aspect of modern electronic surveillance (and so I wouldn’t slip out anything classified). Frankly, I think it’s my best work yet. We’ll see how the public reacts when it’s released in the fall of 2015.

DWP: As a new writer, what advice do you have for other new writers?

CJC: I get that question a lot. Co-workers will congratulate me on my books and then mention that they have always wanted to try it. Honestly, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t. There is no special magic to writing. You just have to be willing to put in the work and learn from your mistakes. In college I used to say, “I let the red pen guide me.” I’d write a paper, and when it came back all marked up, I’d learn what to do and not do next time. Writing fiction is no different for me.

2nd-edition-coverDWP: You’re offering a free miniatures war game as part of this interview. Tell me about it.

CJC: I’ve also always loved modeling and history. The hobby that puts the two together is war-gaming. The first set of rules were written by (no kidding) H.G. Wells and involved model soldiers being moved across model terrain to simulate a battle.

It’s a great hobby and I’ve had a lot of fun with it over the years, however two recent trends in the hobby tick me off. First is that the model soldiers are getting very expensive; and second the rules are often too cumbersome and slow moving. So I wrote a game especially for the cheapest (and most widely available) model soldiers with a set of easy to learn, fast moving rules.

The soldiers are known as HO or 1/72nd scale and they come in every historical period from the 300 Spartans to the modern US Army. I wrote the rules to cover every conceivable historical era (it’s much easier to do than you’d think). Since that went so well I added rules for fantasy armies (orcs vs. elves), post-apocalyptic survivors and even zombies (why not?).

Download the full PDF here: From Broadswords to Bullets

cover-screaming-eagleDWP: Finally, give us a run down on your books.

CJC: Here you go.

  • Tales of The Screaming Eagle is available as an e-book on Amazon, Books-a-Million and Barns & Noble’s sites. Paperback copies are available through Double Dragon Publishing.
  • Beer Today Gone Tomorrow is a sci-fi short story, available on Amazon.
  • The Adventures of Crazy Liddy will be released by Double Dragon this summer (June?)
  • Red Coat Running, the spy thriller, will be released by World Castle this fall.
  • A Writer’s Guide to Adventurous Professions sold well, but is currently seeking a new publisher and hopefully will be available later this year. It’s a long story…
  • If folks are interested in my games, they can visit my blog wordpress.com or buy them from Indie Press Revolution.