Interviews in Sherwood

N. B. Dixon

Interview conducted and transcribed
by Allen W. Wright

Introduction

N.B. Dixon is the author of The Outlaw's Legacy series that began with the 2016 novel Heir of Locksley. The series continued with  Knight of Sherwood in 2017 and Earl of Huntingdon in 2019.

The novel series is a result of her passion for both books and history. She also is an avid theatre goer and plays the piano.

Click here to visit her website.

This interview was conducted by e-mail in June 2019.

Discovering Robin Hood on audio

AWW: I'm always fascinated how people first encounter the Robin Hood legend. What were some of your earliest encounters with Robin Hood? I understand audiobooks played a big part in your love of the legend.

NBD: I remember it so well. I spent most of my growing up years at a boarding school, and a lot of my free time was spent in the library. Knowing how much I enjoyed audiobooks, the librarian gave me a cassette tape one day, and yes, I am showing my age.It happened to be the story of Robin Hood. I only wish I could remember the author, as I’ve been unable to find this particular version and I’ve read many since. Anyway, I absolutely fell in love with the story. The librarian allowed me to take it home for the weekend, and my love of the legend was born. 

LGBTQ Themes and Robin Hood

AWW: One of the most striking aspects of the Outlaw's Legacy series are the strong LGBTQ elements in the stories. What inspired you?

NBD: It was actually a bit of an accident. I always intended to have a slight LGBT element in there, but I was nervous at the time in case people would read it and be furious that I had dared to suggest Robin Hood might not have fancied Marian after all. Their love story is one of those famous ones that everyone’s heard of, like Romeo and Juliet or Helen and Paris. So the original idea was to keep the Robin and Marian romance and have an unrequited love story with one of Robin’s band fancying him

   However, I then heard about Professor Stephen Knight, who I believe worked at Melbourne University. It seems he caused a bit of an uproar by suggesting that Robin Hood may well have been gay and that there are hints of it in the legend. (Click here for Stephen Knight's reflections on the LGBTQ themes in the legend and the uproar his comments caused.)

   The more I thought about it, the more what he said made sense to me. After all, Marian isn’t even in the earliest versions of the legend, and when she does make an appearance, she doesn’t have a massive role. It’s Hollywood that’s given her more of a presence. Generally when you read the legends, some of them mentioned that Robin has a love interest, and that’s all you really hear.

   There have been many interpretations of the Robin Hood legend over the years, but what always stands out is his devotion to his men and their devotion to him. I don’t think it’s a massive stretch of the imagination to consider a group of men living together and struggling to survive, bonded by a common goal, forming attachments deeper than friendship.

Reactions to an LGBTQ Robin Hood

AWW: What reactions -- both positive and negative -- did you receive for having gay and bisexual characters in your Robin Hood novels?

NBD: I expected there would be an uproar because I had dared to suggest that Robin might be gay or bisexual, but that didn’t seem to bother people. In fact, what upset them the most was how I spun the romance out over three books, and the fact that I didn’t include enough sex scenes. They seemed to be looking for pornography.

   Some people also decided I was misogynistic, which, considering I am a woman myself, is utterly ridiculous. They utterly missed the point of the series. 

   If I had got Robin and his lover together in the first book, what would have been the point in writing the rest of the series? A love story isn’t a good love story unless you put in some suspense and conflict, and I was more interested in the emotional side than the physical. I wanted to show what it would be like to have a different sexual orientation in medieval England. Of course sex comes into it. If two people fall in love they are bound to end up in bed at some point, but really if these people had wanted a story where some couple is leaping into bed every five minutes, they shouldn’t have picked up my series.

   On the other hand, some people thought the romance was beautiful. I even got compared to Homer once. One reviewer described it as being tastefully written. It just goes to show you can’t please everybody and at the end of the day you have to write the type of story that feels right for you. All you can do is hope your readers will agree. To be honest, I don’t read reviews much anymore unless it’s a review I’ve specifically asked for.

The Role of Marian

AWW: With Will being the true love of Robin Hood's life, how did you approach the character of Marian?

NBD: I’m glad you asked me this one. In many respects, Marian’s journey was the most interesting for me. First of all I’ll start off by saying I never liked her. I didn’t like her in the early versions of the legend and I hated almost every incarnation of her from Hollywood as well. She always seems to have a major attitude problem or she’s a doormat or she’s annoying in some other way and I often think the story would do very well without her.

   However, not having her in the series seemed wrong. I was originally planning to be faithful to their romance and have Robin and Marian get together, but the more I tried to write it the more it simply didn’t work for me. So one day I abandoned the unrequited love idea and tried writing a scene between Robin and Will, and the rest, as they say is history. So what to do with Marian?

   I know of at least one other series where Robin Hood is gay, and that author had Marian as his sister. I didn’t want to copy that, and I was more intrigued by keeping my unrequited love idea but having Marian be the one whose love is not returned rather than Will. 

    Also, rather than creating some modern girl power character who just so happen to live in medieval England, I was more interested in taking a medieval English woman of her time who is more intelligent than a lot of the men around her, who finds herself in a difficult position and does her best to get out of it, not always using methods that show her morals in a good light. In fairness to Marian, she won’t have had a whole lot of choices. Women were told who they were to marry by their fathers, and rarely if ever had a say in it. I was curious as to what lengths Marian would go to in order to be with the man she loved. 

    Also it’s a common and probably arrogant belief among humans that they will be able to change the one they love. So what would Marian do when she found out her husband preferred men? She would fight for what she wanted. She would hope that the love of a good woman would change him, and she would do whatever it took to separate them for Robin’s own good. 

    I had various reactions to Marian. Some reviewers hated her. Others liked the fact that she was a strong woman. For me, she ended up being one of the best characters and I really enjoyed writing her, so for once I actually have a portrayal of Marian that I like.

Taking stock in the stocks

AWW: I understand that you did a lot of historical research -- and research into the Robin Hood legend. Is there a favourite nugget from your research that you worked into the novels?

NBD: One highlight from my research that sadly I didn’t get to give much attention to was when I spent a minute in the stocks. I visited Nottingham and Sherwood as part of my research. Just before you walk into Sherwood Forest there is a shop and other sundry exhibits for you to look at. There were some stocks there, and I sat in them. I could only have been in there about 60 seconds, but they were the most uncomfortable 60 seconds of my life. Imagine your head being trapped in one position with a heavy weight on the back of your neck preventing you from pulling away. Your arms are pinned as well so there’s nothing you can do to stop people throwing whatever they like at you. Then imagine being trapped like that for hours, sometimes days. 

   After that, I went for a walk in Sherwood itself, and visited the ancient oak where Robin is supposed to have met with his men. The atmosphere of the forest really struck me. I hope I managed to do it justice in the series. You literally go from the sounds of civilisation into total and utter silence. Any moment you expect to hear the crack of a twig or a voice call out from behind a tree for you to hand over your valuables or lose your life. I would love to visit the forest again someday.

Planning and the Writing Process

AWW: How much of the three books did you have mapped out in advance?

NBD: Originally the series was meant to be longer. However, it became pretty obvious when I was writing the third book that the back story was going to be exhausted long before the actual historical events that make up the series, so I had to make an executive decision. I did do a lot of planning before I started the series, but the characters, and Marian in particular, had other ideas and the story went off on tangents of its own. I was happy enough to follow along.

   I have left the series slightly open ended in case I do come up with a way to extend it. The original plan was for it to be five books, and for it to end with the death of King John, however, as I said, it was impossible to extend the romantic relationships over five books. I think if I’d made readers wait any longer than three books to get Robin and Will together, they would have stopped reading. That was the main bugbear with reviewers, that they had to wait so long.

   I had other plotlines that I had to abandon altogether because they just didn’t fit with the story that was emerging. I intended Robin to have an illegitimate son whom he fathered on Crusade, but there was never a place to insert that storyline. In other words, it doesn’t matter how well you plan, once you start writing, the story tells itself and the author just has to follow along.

AWW: What is your writing process, and did it change much over the course of the books?

NBD: As I said previously, I do try and plan beforehand. I like to at least have a beginning and an end. The ending is the most important in my view is it gives you something to work towards. Some authors like to plan as much as possible, and that was certainly what I used to do, but as I found when I was writing Outlaws Legacy, my plans often got ignored as the story went down paths of its own.

  These days, I try and make sure I have at least a rough outline when I start. It’s essential to know the most important events and roughly in what order they take place, but apart from that, it’s fun to let your imagination take flight.

   With historical fiction though, you do have to do a certain amount of research, which means you need to know at least the main themes of your story before you start so that you know what topics to research. Generally I start off by writing a list of events, which usually then tells me what I need to research. Sometimes research opens up other avenues that I hadn’t considered, and I’m able to plan the story a bit more. Eventually there comes a time however when you have to stop planning and researching and just write. 

   You may hit stumbling blocks, but in my case I’m lucky enough to have a very understanding publisher who doesn’t hold me to deadlines. I’m not under any pressure to churn out a book within a certain number of months. I get to take my time. One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t force yourself to write if the story isn’t flowing well. Sometimes you need to take a break and step back, maybe read what you’ve written and see where you’ve gone wrong, or just have a complete break and do something else and come back to it. Often inspiration will come to you when you aren’t thinking about the story. The amount of brainwaves I’ve had at 3 o’clock in the morning.

The Life of an Outlaw and What's Next

AWW: In third book, Earl of Huntingdon, we find Robin Hood well into his pardoned, noble life. What was it like writing the outlaw hero as a former outlaw?

NBD: It was a lot of fun. In many ways, I enjoyed writing the first and third books more than the second. Knight of Sherwood was the story everyone was familiar with. It explored Robin’s outlaw days.Heir of Locksley was about Robin’s life before he became an outlaw and Earl of Huntingdon was about his life afterwards. Those are the two gaps the Robin Hood legend doesn’t really fill as it concentrates rightly on his time in Sherwood. 

  There have been several candidates suggested over the years as being the real Robin Hood, and it was interesting researching them to see what their lives were like. I took some inspiration from that.

   Also in the later versions, Robin is described as a nobleman. I really liked the idea of pitting him against another outlaw, which is why I chose to make Adam Bell his rival. There was a certain irony about sending Robin into Sherwood to put down outlaws. 

   I think in his heart though he was never happy as an earl. He would have found that staid and boring existence rather stifling I think. Certainly in the very early versions of the legend when Robin is described as a yeoman who is pardoned and goes into the service of the king, he quickly becomes bored and returns to the forest. I have a feeling that once an outlaw, always an outlaw.

AWW: What is next on the horizon for you?

NBD: As I said, I have the option of writing further Outlaws Legacy books, although I don’t intend to do that for quite a while,if ever. I have several ideas for other books that I can’t wait to get started on. I’m hoping to write a book about the Trojan War and also the story of King Arthur, and I’ve also been fascinated by the Scottish King Robert I, also known as Robert the Bruce. It would be great to write a book about him.

AWW: Thanks, and I loved your answers - very insightful.

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