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November 17, 2015

A lot of authors will tell you that research is paramount to writing a good novel. Even if you’re working on a piece of fiction, you want it to breathe with authenticity --- the issues should be dealt with in realistic ways, events should be historically accurate and settings should look like the real thing.

Luckily, Monica McGurk, author of the Archangel Prophecies series, is an expert at this, and dug into all kinds of fascinating (and at times upsetting) research for DARK HOPE and DARK RISING (and the final book, DARK BEFORE DAWN); she studied angels, child trafficking and even took trips to Las Vegas and Istanbul!

Monica talks about her research below, as well as the hardest scene to write, why she loves writing young adult fiction and the most interesting thing about forbidden love (a major plot point in the series). Read the full interview, below, and be sure to check out DARK HOPE and DARK RISING!


Teenreads: What inspired you to write the Archangel Prophecies series?

Monica McGurk: I loved reading YA fantasy and wanted to write something in that tradition, but wanted to avoid some of the things that often bother me about some works in the genre ---heroines who rely on male characters to rescue them, an over-reliance on love triangles and situations where characters don’t respond realistically to danger or don’t really face the consequences of their choices.  Ultimately, I was inspired by my daughter --- I wanted to write a character she could look up to, a character whom I wouldn’t cringe having her read!

TRC: We read that you partially wrote the Archangel Prophecies series to bring attention to the issue of human trafficking. Why did you choose to tackle this topic within the fantasy/magical realism genre?

MM: I really stumbled into it.  I had outlined the plot for the trilogy and knew that I wanted to start the first book with a child abduction.  One of the things I pride myself on is doing great research, and this was no exception --- I set about learning all I could about this subject.  You can imagine my surprise when my first Google search turned up a ton of links about human trafficking and, even more upsetting, child domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST), pointing out that it was a serious problem in the United States and right here in my hometown of Atlanta.  Once I learned about this issue, I couldn’t look away.  I wanted to use the books, which are really written for the age group that is most victimized by this horrible crime, to raise awareness about the issue and hopefully arm young people with the knowledge to avoid becoming victims.

TRC: Did you always know that the Archangel Prophecies were going to be YA books? Why did you choose to write for teens rather than adults?

MM: I chose to write for teens because it is a genre I love and love to read with my own children.  The reality is that a lot of adults read YA, too, so the books are written in a way that can appeal to both audiences and I have found that I have readers in both camps, so to speak.  At a deeper level, I love being able to reflect the trials of growing into your own identity in this series --- something every teen has to grapple with.  Identity is a major theme in The Archangel Prophecies so in that sense, it is very much written for a teen reader.

TRC: Hope, the protagonist of the series, is an incredibly courageous and emotionally strong character. Did you base her off of anyone you know in real life?

MM:Not really.  But I did name her Hope in part because it is just such the perfect name for her, but also after the daughter of a friend.

TRC: What was the most difficult scene to write in DARK RISING?

MM: There were a few that were quite challenging.  The scene on the cliff on Skellig Michael was difficult because I didn’t want readers to feel manipulated by Hope’s emotions at that point, and I didn’t want to glamorize any thoughts of doing oneself harm.  That said, I thought it was important to acknowledge the depth of emotion that young people go through and felt it was a realistic response to the weighty knowledge and choice that had been thrust upon Hope at that point in the story.

The combative scenes between Michael and Hope were also challenging.  I did not want anyone to walk away after reading those scenes thinking abusive relationships are okay, but clearly, the anger and coldness with which Michael treats Hope in his attempt to protect her can be interpreted that way.  The idea that their relationship at this point in the story parallels some of the things experienced by victims of DMST is not accidental.  I wanted it to serve as a jumping off point for discussion about how people get trapped in relationships that are not healthy.

TRC: I noticed a lot of allusions to the Bible in the series. Some of your characters share names and characteristics with biblical figures (Michael is referred to as “the archangel”, Raphael is an angel known for healing and Gabriel was a messenger to key figures in the Bible), and Hope’s father quotes the Bible throughout DARK HOPE. Why did you decide to include these biblical references, and did you plan to do that from the start of the series, or did it happen naturally?

MM: Once I decided the supernatural element of my story was going to focus on angels, it seemed to happen very naturally.  I spent a lot of time researching the mythology of angels in different religious traditions.

TRC: It seems like almost everyone is trying to separate Hope and Michael throughout DARK HOPE. What inspired you to write about forbidden love?

MM: In my own experience as a reader, forbidden or thwarted love always makes for a compelling story!  In the case of Michael and Hope, there are lots of good reasons for them to be kept apart: the rules of Heaven, the physical danger Michael could pose toward Hope, the shifting alliances between the angels themselves.

TRC: Hope travels to many places in DARK HOPE. How did you select the places she visits? Have you gone to any, yourself?

MM: I chose the settings for DARK HOPE (and later, for DARK RISING and the forthcoming final book, DARK BEFORE DAWN) based in part from my research --- where does the story naturally want to go? Where would this part of the plot likely take place if we are looking for a place where human trafficking is a problem, for example, or for a place that is linked by religious history to the Archangel Michael?  I also chose based on where I personally wanted to go (as I like to do a lot of on-the-ground research --- I might as well make it fun!). 

Atlanta is my hometown, so it was easy to pick places here, but I treated them just as seriously as locations with which I was not familiar, doing site visits and researching their history.  I did make a research trip to Las Vegas early in the writing of DARK  HOPE, spending time with locals and interviewing them to get their take on the growth of the Chinese gambling industry, for example. 

For DARK RISING, after a great deal of research into modern day Turkey and the history of the region, I made a special trip to Istanbul, spending a week literally following my plot, going everywhere mentioned in the book, to check for accuracy but also to gain new inspiration.

One of the other locations in DARK RISING I found serendipitously, well before I had even started writing, stumbling into the perfect setting in France for one of the most climactic scenes.  Many of my ramblings during my research trips, along with pictures, can be found on my website, blog and social media platforms, all of which can be found at monicamcgurk.com

TRC: What are your usual pre-writing habits?

MM: I tend to start with a fairly clear outline of where I am headed, but usually with one or two big issues or holes I need to figure out.  At that stage, I ruminate quite a bit and immerse myself in research.  If I am writing about an unfamiliar setting, I will plunge into books about the history of the place or read novels set in the place but in completely different genres, such as murder mysteries, to get a sense of it.  I will cover the walls of my office with inspiration --- photos I have found on pinterest or Instagram, for example.

I also put together playlists that seem to capture the mood I am writing, adding to them and refining them as I go.  Those playlists can be found on my website or on Spotify.

TRC: You wrote MORNING STAR, an alternate ending to TWILIGHT, and won the 2013 TwiFic Fandom Undiscovered Gem award. What motivated you to write MORNING STAR, and did you learn anything from that experience that helped you when working on your own full-length novels?

MM: MORNING STAR was how I got back into writing after a very long hiatus!  At the time I wrote it, the final book in The Twilight Series had not yet been written, so I decided to write my own ending to the story --- I was too eager to wait!  It was a great way to ease back into writing, basing my story on familiar characters but giving it my own twist.

One thing I learned from that experience is that feedback is so helpful --- good or bad, the comments and questions posed by readers really helped me sharpen my writing and hone my craft.  So now I always turn to a small army of “beta readers” to fact check me and critique the early drafts of my manuscripts.

Another thing I learned is that discipline is important.  If I did not produce at a fast enough rate, I got complaints from readers.  That encouraged me to pace myself, to set aside time, and to keep to some semblance of a schedule, something I still strive to do.

My final takeaway from the experience of writing MORNING STAR was that while editing is hard, it is important --- in fact, it may be the most important part of writing a novel.  I completely rewrote the ending to MORNING STAR after one of my beta readers hated my first attempt.  While it was hard to let go of that version of the story, I realized she was right, and the end result is much better than it would have been.  Now, when my editors suggest significant changes to my manuscripts, it might take me a while to come around but I try to approach it with an open mind and ask myself why they would be making that suggestion, realizing that they always have the readers’ and the characters’ best interests at heart.

I highly encourage any young aspiring authors to take a crack at fan fiction --- it provides a great platform to practice, which is what anybody who wants to be a writer needs to do.

TRC: Can you give us any hints about what will happen in the third book in the Archangel Prophecies series, which is coming out in 2016?

MM: DARK BEFORE DAWN will introduce readers to Hope’s younger sister, Aurora, and go forward in time a bit to advance the story.  Favorite characters such as Tabby and Enoch will be back in full force.  There will be danger, of course --- picking up the human trafficking subplots that have been interwoven into the plots of the prior two books.  And the book will resolve the question of what happened to Michael, and how it affects Hope, once and for all. 

As always, the themes of identity, choice, sacrifice and forgiveness will remain paramount.  My 13-year-old daughter has read the outline and gave it the official “thumbs up,” for those of you who might be concerned about romance and happy endings!  And as it is the final book in the trilogy, I promise to tie up all the loose ends that have been plaguing readers.