Wednesday, September 19, 2012

An interview with Kim Rendfeld, author of The Cross and the Dragon

Today I'm welcoming Kim Rendfeld to the blog for an interview about her debut novel The Cross and the Dragon (Fireship Press, July), a tale of revenge, sacrifice, and enduring love set in the Kingdom of the Franks during the beginning of Charlemagne's reign.  I first met Kim through our involvement with the Historical Novel Society and couldn't pass up the opportunity to speak with her about her characters, writing style, and original and compelling setting, among other things.

The Cross and the Dragon opens with the viewpoint of Alda, a 14-year-old noblewoman from 8th-century Francia (present-day Germany). Alda's brother has betrothed her to Count Ganelon of Dormagen, who she knows will treat her cruelly.  Although she eventually succeeds in winning the man she loves, Prince Hruodland, their marriage incites the anger of Ganelon, who vows revenge.  Worried about her husband's safety when King Charles calls him away to fight for a Christian stronghold in Hispania, Alda gives him her dragon amulet.  The story takes an unpredictable route during their separation from one another.

Kim was inspired by an old German tale involving Hruodland, who is best known as the hero from the epic poem "The Song of Roland."  I enjoyed seeing how she wove material from this ancient story into a historically accurate backdrop, one full of beautiful descriptions of the Rhine Valley, while fleshing out the characters and their motivations.  The plot moves from Alda's family home at Drachenhaus to King Charles' court to the battlefields of Hispania and, in the second half of the book, to Francia's religious houses.  The novel also includes a great scene in which Hruodland listens, in puzzlement and dismay, to a song recounting his purported actions at the Battle of Roncevaux (see more at Kim's guest blog for Unusual Historicals). This had me musing about the process through which history is transformed into legend.

What appeals to you about the era and realm of Charlemagne, so much so that you decided to use it as a setting for your historical fiction?

A romantic legend about Roland (Hruodland in The Cross and the Dragon) drew me to this period. When I started writing, I knew very little about the Middle Ages, let alone the Carolingian era (eighth and ninth centuries). As I learned about the history, I became fascinated by the personalities and the culture. Among aristocrats, the personal and the political were intertwined. The king’s marriage made a direct impact on his country’s politics and international relations.

This was also an age that believed in divine intervention, in which Christians held litanies in the hopes of victory. Yet vestiges of paganism remained. It was common for medieval people to wear amulets for magical protection, as Alda does.

All these elements are great fodder for a writer.

Given the limited number of sources, how did you go about researching the daily lives of women in the Carolingian era? 

This period lends itself to a paucity of information in general. Few people could read, and even fewer could write. It also predates the printing press, which means information was not mass produced.

Fortunately, scholars have found some sources and shared what they know. Among the resources are Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché (translated by Jo Ann McNamara) and articles by Janet Nelson, including “Women in Charlemagne’s Court: A Case of Monstrous Regiment.” Sometimes when I had a hole to fill, I would use Daily Life in Medieval Times (three books in one) by Frances and Joseph Gies, keeping in mind that this was a different country and century. I’ve posted more resources for historical research on my website,

I could not have written The Cross and the Dragon without the work of scholars and will repeat the historical novelist’s disclaimer: any mistakes are mine and mine alone.

You've written about being inspired by a romantic legend surrounding the ruins at Rolandsbogen in Germany, one that reinterprets characters from “The Song of Roland.”  What inspired you to work in mentions of the myth of Siegfried and the dragon as well?

Part of it is geography. Drachenfels, the legendary mountain (technically a high hill) where Siegfried killed the dragon, is across the Rhine from my heroine’s home. Worms, where Siegfried was murdered, is a seven- to ten-day journey upriver. In an age when storytelling was a form of entertainment, Alda would have heard the tales repeatedly, made all the more real because Drachenfels is so close.

The Siegfried myth also opens a window on the society in which The Cross and the Dragon takes place. Every culture has legends that reflect and shape its identity. A young man slaying a powerful monster reveals how the Franks saw the ideal warrior.

This circa 1830 illustration shows Nonnenwerth Island. In the distance are
Rolandsbogen and Drachenfels.
(Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)

I especially enjoyed the many scenes that were set in the Benedictine abbey at Nonnenwerth and the Abbey of St. Stephen, since they emphasized the importance of religion, as well as people's internal conflicts between godliness and worldliness.  How did you set out to re-create the mindset of this very different time?

The desire to explain our world is part of human nature. In the 21st century, science plays a large part in our understanding when we ask why. In the Middle Ages, religion and magic filled that role. Once you realize that medieval people had their own logic, the mindset falls into place.

Writings from medieval people also reveal to how they saw the divine and provide some tools to getting into the mindset. Written in the sixth century, The Rule of Saint Benedict outlines how the saint wants monasteries to be run. Eighth- and ninth-century Frankish annals and letters cite Scripture and use such phrases as “through the grace of God” when recounting a victory and “hateful to God” to describe an enemy.

In reading The Cross and the Dragon, I got the impression you gave considerable thought to character names.  Was there ever any question in your mind about using Frankish names for your main characters, rather than the more familiar ones taken from the poem?

Using the Frankish variant of the names is another way to transport readers to another time and place, although I occasionally questioned the decision when I got rejections. I wanted names appropriate to the characters’ ethnicity yet accessible to modern readers.

I changed several characters’ names after receiving a rejection for my second manuscript. Among other things, the editor said she wanted the historical characters to play a greater role. I went back to the manuscript for The Cross and the Dragon because it had more historical characters and well-known fictional ones, and I planned to submit it to the editor through my then agent. That was when I borrowed heavily from “The Song of Roland.”

Still, it was important that the characters’ names reflect their origins. So I stuck with Hruodland rather than Roland. Oliver, Roland’s best friend in the poem, sounded too French for a guy from a locality in today’s Germany, which is why he’s Alfihar in the novel.

Alda changes over the course of the novel from a romantically inclined teenager to a still willful but less impulsive young woman, one who matures after being touched by loss.  Did you find any stage in her life easier or more challenging to write about?

In the earlier stages of Alda’s life, I had to grapple with how mature a medieval teenager would be. Adolescence was not the special time it is today. Alda is considered a marriageable woman at the same age I was in middle school. I came to the conclusion that teenagers can and will rise to the challenges presented to them. It was a little easier to write about Alda when she was touched by loss because we all grieve, regardless of our era.

The greater challenge with Alda is that she is a medieval woman, and I must yield to her medieval sensibilities. For example, she believes caring for servants is an obligation, but she will slap them when they get out of line and resort to even harsher punishment if they threaten her honor and her marriage. Yet Alda will go to great lengths to protect the people she loves—something anyone can relate to.

The language you use is remarkably clear and easy to follow.  Is this style something that comes naturally to you, as a copy editor and former journalist?
Author Kim Rendfeld

It’s something I learned through journalism, and it has become natural to me. Time and space constraints taught me to get to the point. Maturing as a writer made me care more about the readers understanding the story than showing off my cleverness.

I also had to unlearn some habits. News writing is an objective report that allows both sides to tell their stories and lets the readers make their own conclusions. By nature, it’s distant. Fiction is intimate. You want the readers to feel your characters’ joys and sorrows. You want to manipulate sympathy and emotion.

Did your placing in the quarterfinals for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2011 assist in attracting a publisher?

It might have. Placing in the quarterfinals and getting a positive review of the unedited manuscript from Publishers Weekly gave me a boost when I really needed it. The editor I mentioned earlier had rejected The Cross and the Dragon with no explanation, and I had ended my relationship with my agent, who had given up on me. I was not sure of what to do next, but I knew I needed to do something different than the approaches that had failed so far. With nothing to lose, I entered ABNA.

The Publishers Weekly review gave me an endorsement I could use to promote the book as long as I did not make major changes to the novel and specified it was for the manuscript and not the final version. Agents didn’t seem to notice, but the Fireship Press editor who read my manuscript did.

My experience with ABNA gave me something else as important as the endorsement: the confidence to keep trying.


I'd like to thank Kim for taking the time to answer my questions. The Cross and the Dragon was published by Fireship Press (a specialist publisher for nautical and historical fiction and nonfiction) in in July at $23.95 in trade pb or $7.50 as an ebook.  Visit Kim online at or at her blog,


  1. I don't think I've run across any fiction about the Franks anytime recently. This looks like an interesting departure from the current obsession with the Tudors that I'm going to have to check out.

    1. Novels about the Franks are exceedingly rare. I can think of only a handful, which is odd considering how well known "The Song of Roland" and Charlemagne are.

  2. I think publishers and readers get wrapped up in a craze and then an era, reign, or person is overdone. Glad to see this novel diverts from that path! Great interview. :)

    1. Glad you enjoyed the interview! I'm happy there are publishers willing to take a chance on less common settings.

  3. A fascinating interview on Kim Rendfeld's research and writing approach.

    1. Thanks for your comments - I enjoyed reading Kim's responses as well!

  4. Sounds great- I've just ordered a copy :) I've never been able to understand why more historical novelists haven't tapped the potential of the Carolingian era as a setting. Good on Kim for sticking to her guns as far as authentic period names go - nothing kicks me out of a historical faster than inappropriate names. I remember once reading a historical romance set in the Merovingian period where the main female characters were called Deirdre and Felice. Good grief!

    1. I may have read (or tried to read) that same novel! The names sound very familiar. These days I'm more apt to put novels back on the shelf if the names are obviously not right.

      Today I read of a new deal for Iris Anthony's upcoming novel, set in 10th-century France and dealing with the marriage between Charles the Simple's daughter (as tradition has it) Gisela and her marriage to Rollo the Viking - an ancestor of William the Conqueror.

  5. Sounds interesting, Sarah. Gisela is a rather nebulous character, isn’t she? I believe that she isn’t mentioned in Frankish sources as a daughter of Charles the Simple - there has been some speculation that if she was connected to the royal family it might have been as an illegitimate child.

    Rollo’s origins are also pretty obscure. He has been associated with Rolf the Ganger, a legendary Norse figure from the Viking sagas, but whether he was actually Norse or Danish is disputed. A Norse historical research foundation currently has plans to use DNA material from some of Rollo’s descendants, like his grandson Richard the Fearless, in an attempt to answer this question.

    Of course, lack of confirmed detail is good news for historical novelists- gives a bit of room to play :)

    1. I hadn't heard anything about Gisela before this book deal came along but have been doing some googling around since :) Rollo I'd heard of, mostly because he appears on William I's family tree. That's interesting about the planned DNA research. I bet there's a ton of paperwork and permissions associated with a project like that.

      And yes, definitely true!

  6. Interesting how sometimes journalism can be such a good training ground for a writer.

    No wasting of words.

    1. There is no unnecessary repetition in this book, which was nice to see. Even the historical background to the story is smoothly woven in.