Posts tagged “women of Beowulf

Walk Right In!

I’ve heard about this sort of thing happening to other authors – i.e. a character appearing unbidden, “out of the blue” (or perhaps from the author’s subconscious) – but I had not personally experienced it before. Now, I have.

Recently a character “walked right in” to the novel I’m currently working on, second in my Women of Beowulf trilogy. Her name is Runa, she’s Finnish, and she’s a young slave in Beowulf’s home territory in Sweden.

The sudden appearance of Runa has opened up a whole new area of research for me: Finnish folk culture and particularly the national epic, The Kalevala. I’ve been devouring this fascinating document for several days and nights. The work had been on the periphery of my vision for years; I used to read aloud to high school students a story taken from The Kalevala, “Louhi, Witch of North Farm.” Now, I’m absorbing the richness of folklore and characters it has to offer.

Since Finland is now “on my radar,” so to speak, Finnish sources have been popping up all around me. For example, I recently discovered that a longtime friend here in the U.S. is of Finnish descent. She loaned me two books on Finnish history which are turning out to be a goldmine of information. So it goes. When “way opens,” as we Quakers say, you just don’t know who will walk through that door or where they will take you.

In Faces in the Fire I went to Denmark and Germany. With Book Two (as yet untitled) I’m journeying to Sweden and now Finland. I wonder where Book Three will lead me? Time will tell – or an unexpected character!

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Birch Bark Bonanza

Hello again! I’ve been working on my next novel for the past two months, but now I’m back to blogging.

In researching life in sixth century Sweden and Finland as background for book # 2 of The Women of Beowulf series , I came across many references to the use of birch trees or birch bark in everyday life. Since birch forests covered a large area of those countries, one would expect the inhabitants to use birch for fuel and timber, but its various domestic applications surprised and delighted me. I just couldn’t wait until publication of the second book to share this amazing information – so here it is!

Baskets of birch bark held the seeds (e.g. hemp and barley) while fields were sown. Smaller baskets became baking pans for a dough mixture of flour, salt and blood. Birch bark could also be fashioned into salt containers, or made into satchels to transport provisions for work and travel.

In the spring, birch sap was tapped to be drunk by humans and/or given to cattle to supplement their fodder. In times of famine, dried and ground birch bark could be added to flour as a filler.

The ash from burned birch logs was turned into lye for soap-making. Birch was also used to tan  the hides of cows and oxen for making shoes. Birch was burned to produce a tar used for lubricating tools and machinery. On a more fragrant note,  fresh birch branches were used as whisks to stimulate circulation after a sauna bath. Birch branches also became part of the decorations used inside and outside the house on the summer solstice.

I have always loved the beauty of fluttering birch leaves, and we wrap the trunk of birch trees at our northern cabin to protect them from the gnawing teeth of beaver. I’ve used birch bark to write love notes to my sweetheart, just as my father once used birch bark to write a journal of his fishing adventures in the wilderness. Now, after what I’ve learned, I have even more respect for birch and for the ingenuity of our ancestors.


Feasting on Crayfish

August in Scandinavia means crayfish parties, traditionally held outdoors as an end-of -summer ritual. But not everyone is so enamored of these small crustaceans.

Growing up as a kid in the midwest, I knew of “crawdads” or “mudbugs” only as fish bait. Certainly nobody ate them – ugh! At our cabin in Canada crayfish are the preferred food of mink, who scatter remains on our dock after an evening’s dining.

In Texas and Louisiana crayfish boils are a popular social event. Farm-raised in large commercial operations, gunny sacks full of live crayfish are dumped into huge pots of highly seasoned boiling water in which potatoes and corn-on-the-cob have already been cooked. The resulting spicy platters will bring tears to your eyes (literally) and the need to reach for a cold mug of beer.

Things are done differently in Scandinavia. They catch crayfish at night in chicken wire traps with funnel-shaped openings – very clever! A more restrained mix of seasonings is used in the cooking – water seasoned with only salt, sugar and quantities of dill. The crayfish are served with bread and butter, washed down with vodka, aquavit or beer.

The Swedes are famous for their crayfish parties, though the Finns are not far behind in their passion for this delicacy. No matter where you are, eating crayfish is a messy business requiring hands-on attentiion. You must twist off the head, split open the shell and suck out the meat! Fortunately the results are worth the effort. Short of eating lobster, nothing else measures up to these little gifts of summer – a delicious treat. Enjoy them while you can. I’m even including them in the second book of my Women of Beowulf series.