Archive for May, 2011

In Transit: part one

Yes, I’m late posting this week’s blog. Reason: I’ve been on the road, traveling from the Gulf Coast toward Canada, a transition marked by dramatic differences in the natural world.
Texas was drenched in sunshine, but deep in a three-year drought. Magnolias were in bloom, but their dry, crisp leaves crunched underfoot like crackers. In Arkansas we met torrential rain – good for the rice fields there, but no help for Texas. Nearing Memphis, Tennessee, we wondered about flooding along the Mississippi, and finally encountered it on a freeway in Missouri, sandbagged with pumps working to keep water off the highway. We drove through four inches of river water before crossing the Mississippi on the high bridge at Cairo.
Catalpa trees were blooming in southern Illinois; in southern Indiana there were locust trees adding a gauzy white contrast to the multi-greens of spring. Northern Indiana was a different story: miles and miles of wind farms dominated the landscape with their white, whirling arms high in the sky. We’d passed flatbed semis loaded with individual turbine blades, big as beached whales, which gave us some idea of their scale.
Gigantic grain silos and storage bins marched across northern Illinois, in stark relief to the absolute flatness of the fertile farmland.
Wisconsin and Minnesota brought us back to rolling hills and forests.
We’ll pause now to add supplies and repack before the next push – to Lake Superior and finally, Canada, our destination for the summer. There I’ll be working on the second book in my Women of Beowulf series, based at our island cabin on Lake of the Woods – a perfect writer’s retreat.



Revenge – Relief – Retaliation – Repeat
The recent killing of Osama bin Laden as a payback for the lives lost in the 9/11 bombing brings to mind the code of revenge practiced by the Vikings centuries ago. It was a matter of both duty and honor for them to take a life for a life taken – or at least burn down the other guy’s mead hall! Blood feuds were a regular and accepted feature of Viking life.
They did, however, have an alternative solution: one could pay wergild, a “man- price”, in a system where each person literally had a price, an agreed-upon value according to rank and status, a legally fixed compensation. Thus the payment of gold or other goods could sometimes appease the family or the tribe of the person slain.
Another way around the demands of this revenge ethic involved Viking women. They could be married off to rival and warring chieftains with the duty of becoming “peace-weavers”, charged with using their female talents for reconciliation to end old feuds and prevent new ones. In my novel, Faces in the Fire, King Hrothgar’s daughter Freawaru finds herself in this position; married to Ingeld of the Heathobards, she is expected to ward off a resumption of the feud which has killed family members on both sides.
In modern times we still use the death penalty. Exacting it is sometimes said to bring “closure” to the survivors of a killing. Watching the convicted person die in the electric chair apparently now provides the “compensation” that wergild once provided for the Vikings.
In the 21st century we may view ourselves as more “civilized” than the old Vikings, but in fact we continue the cyclical pattern of revenge-relief-retaliation-repeat. A common expression among Quakers is that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Are they right?

Viking for a day: deep in the heart of Texas

Have you ever heard of an Althing? Used historically in Iceland, it was a coming-together of Viking peoples in a sort of town meeting where grievances could be brought and justice meted out, goods bought and sold, and time taken for fun and games.

The recreated Althing I attended last Saturday, held outdoors at a nature center east of San Antonio, Texas, drew over a hundred SCA members (Society for Creative Anachronism) from Texas and Oklahoma, the states which make up the “Kingdom of Ansteorra.” As a first-time visitor I was careful to dress the part in a borrowed costume of long under-dress and long over-apron, complete with the requisite breast brooches and hanging chains. I felt thoroughly “period,” as they say in SCA.

The central meeting area, ringed with tents, pavilions and even a small Viking longship, featured armed clashes between steel-helmeted men clad in heavy cloaks, sweating in the Texas sun. I was more attracted to the gentler arts of Norse embroidery, nalbinding ( a form of one-needle knitting using felted wool thread) and a very informative session on writing skaldic poetry. Vikings with more strength and stamina could tackle metal working, wood carving, blacksmithing and wire weaving.

A boasting contest was also offered, in praise of King Ulstead the Unsteady and his consort, Queen Ebergardis. This pair held court before the evening’s great feast, dispensing awards and honors to those who had done notable service to the “Barony of Bjornsborg.”

Throughout the event I felt as if I had stepped into a time machine, emerging to join in the life of a Viking gathering. It was a unique experience, one I shall long remember: my chance to be a “Viking for a day.”

Hunting for buried treasure in the Viking past

Have you ever taken part in a treasure hunt, racing from clue to clue, each one leading you on…and on…and on? The excitement of the search is often as much fun as the reward! Researching the background for a historical novel is much like this adventurous game, but research is a hunt for answers.

To use a different analogy, research is like archaeology: you search for clues – often faint and barely discernible (like post holes that outline a long-vanished mead hall) or obvious, concrete and visible (like a Viking ship resurrected from a watery grave and put on display in a museum). Archaeological excavations can be a major source of information. For example, the bones found in a kitchen midden (i.e. trash dump) may reveal which animals were cooked and eaten there, or what household objects were in everyday use before being thrown away  – such as Viking hair combs fashioned from deer antlers.

Scientific data about historical weather patterns can be mined for answers. While writing Faces in the Fire, I wondered if it snowed in Denmark when Freawaru was a girl. Answer: yes, but only a little. Was the water level in Roskilde harbor high enough to accommodate Viking longships? Answer: Yes. Aerial photography shows details not easily observable from the ground, like grave sites in the shape of ships. Even tiny objects can yield much information. For instance, one small cast silver figure designed as a pendant reveals specific details about female hair styles and clothing.

To be a successful time-traveler in foreign lands and ancient places, you must being along your curiosity, an eye for telling details, and a zest for research. How else can you create a believable world for your readers? I found researching sixth-century Scandinavian life for my novel about the women of Beowulf to be great fun, an adventure in itself.

Do you want to write? Join the treasure hunt!