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Cait Stevenson: On Bringing the Middle Ages to Life

Debut author Cait Stevenson discusses how regret led her to write her debut historical fantasy novel, How to Slay a Dragon, and what she hopes readers learn about the Middle Ages.

Cait Stevenson earned her Ph.D. in medieval history from the University of Notre Dame. She concentrates on breaking down the barriers and hierarchy between academic and popular history. Online, her writing can be found at Medievalists.net, AskHistorians, and the Medieval Studies Research Blog, which allows her to write on topics ranging from medieval inheritance laws to whether 17th century children playing with toy guns said their equivalent of “Pew, pew, pew.”

Cait Stevenson: On Bringing the Middle Ages to Life

In this post, Cait discusses how regret led her to write her debut historical fantasy novel, How to Slay a Dragon, what she hopes readers learn about the Middle Ages, and more!

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Name: Cait Stevenson
Book title: How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages
Publisher: Tiller Press (Simon & Schuster)
Expected release date: August 17, 2021
Genre/category: History/fantasy
Elevator pitch for the book: Got a tavern to find, a sea-monster to slay, or a princess who insists on saving herself? Grab your sword and sidekicks, and take the place of your favorite fantasy hero with this historically accurate guide to success in your epic quest using facts and advice from actual medieval history.

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon [WD uses affiliate links.]

How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages by Cait Stevenson

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

What prompted you to write this book?

While I was working on my Ph.D. in medieval history, someone asked me whether nobles made plans for what to do if a dragon attacked their castle. I kind of brushed them off with a few words about how the Dark Ages weren’t actually dark and medieval people understood dragons were mythical creatures, etc., etc. But where was the fun in my answer? Where was the love; where was the history? I’ve spent the intervening years regretting that response, and writing a book about how to put up with the bard is a much nicer penance than bread and water.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

The core idea has always been there—use fantasy tropes to help show how awesome the Middle Ages were and are. Initially, though, it wasn’t anything more than that: “How to Survive a Dragon Attack” would be a section about medieval firefighting, with little mention of dragons beyond the chapter title. The epiphany—or conversio, as medieval people would have said—was turning it into a real guidebook with the reader as a central “you” hero, and working the real history into the tropes. So “How to Cross the Cursed Swamp” isn’t just a chapter about medieval toilets. It became a battle of anecdotes to help you decide whether medieval toilets were cursed, swamps, neither…or both.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

Can I say “everything”? I guess everyone wants to write a book someday, but apparently I never got past the writing part in my mind. The first time my editor said “cover art,” I nearly passed out.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

Maybe this will be useful to anyone else jumping across genres or entire styles of writing. I got to know myself as a writer exquisitely well the last few months of writing my Ph.D. thesis, and the knowledge carried over. I struggle to write in the mornings; I work really well when sitting on the floor; I have an upper limit on how much I can write each day without paying for it the next.

Cait Stevenson: On Bringing the Middle Ages to Life

In terms of the other kind of surprise, though—I discovered that the sample, theoretical magical spell in a 14th century academic treatise from Spain was actually used by a couple of housewives in 16th century Germany to hunt for buried treasure.

Truly, the Middle Ages love you and want you to be happy.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

A sense of the Middle Ages as full of life, not just death; an understanding of “medieval” that includes the Islamic world as well as the Christian; and a stash of period-appropriate pickup lines like “Hey, baby, want to step inside a Gothic cathedral and stain some glass?”

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Sony WH-1000XM4 noise-cancelling headphones. Plenty of noise-cancelling headphones are decent. The XM4 has ascended to godhood.

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