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Monday, September 16, 2013

GUEST POST: How Heroic Is Your Homework? On Research In Historical Fantasy by Snorri Kristjansson

I am Icelandic. This is pretty much not debatable. Like the Vikings in Led Zeppelin‘s ‘Immigrant Song’ I come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow, and it is only natural to assume that as I am Icelandic I should therefore know everything there is to know about Vikings, right? I mean, we learn that stuff at school.

Or so I thought when I had my novel idea, which went something like: “Okay so there’s these two guys – and then they get all badass and then – ooh! Cake! Om nom nom. Twitter. Hang on! Novel. Two guys – what’s cool? Vikings! Vikings are cool! I can totally write a book about Vikings. I’m Icelandic!*” Now, anyone else with this idea and an ounce of sense would have asked questions. Shortly after that they would have either gone and sourced a lot of knowledge, or possibly given up on the whole thing and written a novel about people exactly like them doing exactly their job in exactly their world, which would be a darn sight easier.

Me? I started writing. No word of a lie, I did not think for one moment that I’d need to research before I sat down and started. I just went for it – and found out about fifteen minutes later that my passport did apparently not contain fountains of Viking-related knowledge.

Words cannot describe how annoyed I was by this. In my mind writing was supposed to be fun, and research sounded a little too much like work. However, even in my flights of wild optimism I couldn’t look past the fact that the stuff I’d written (and have since scrupulously deleted, then eradicated and obliterated) just didn’t sit right. What I discovered, and aforementioned people with sense will have known already, was that writing a novel with a non-made up setting requires research. The other kind requires world-building, which is like research except that you get to make it up, and in retrospect sounds a lot more clever to me. (Stay tuned for me going ‘Ooh! Worldbuilding!’ and then fifteen minutes later going ‘…hang on a minute! This is hard tooo!’ with wailing)

So I got started. I read books. I googled. (Seriously - HOW did ANY books get written before Wikipedia?) I went to the Jorvik Centre in York, which was inspirational – and I kept going back to the research, because I needed to tell a story and it felt like I needed to learn about the people in it. Incidentally, in this story I have a character who knows about herbs. Do you know what I found out? That’s right – I found out that I therefore needed to know about herbs. Try to explain to your significant other a search history that involves seven links on poisonous plants.

However, the more research I accrued the more I started to finally ask semi-sensible questions. The biggest one was the following: “If given a choice, who would like less badass Vikings and more of Snorri’s homework?” The more I wrote and the more research I stuffed in, the more the answer to that became ‘no-one, really’. This rather predictably threw me into a deep funk – my fourteen-year old self reared up somewhere at the back and screamed “WHAT? You made me do work I didn’t HAVE TO do??” – and I grumbled at the world in general for a while. Then, one day I was editing and I spotted a detail that I knew was factually correct – and everything started to make sense.

My writing rhythm had fallen into three phases. In the first I’d charge ahead, all inspiration and fury. In the second I’d slow down, annoyed by the fact that I didn’t know how sails were reinforced (leather straps) or what Viking houses were made of (wattle and daub, mostly – wood for the bigger ones). In the third I’d read up, answer the questions that slowed me down and find something cool that would then send me back to phase one. Add to that meticulous editing and I found my take on how much research I wanted.

Accuracy in historical fiction should be, in my opinion, like a skilled butler. It should be there, ready to help you out and hopefully supplied with drinks, but the moment it gets in the way or draws attention to itself it should be dunked in custard and pelted with raisins until it dies(as is the traditional punishment for a bad butler).

I hope I’ve found a level of research and precision in the world of Swords of Good Men that will satisfy the reader looking for a taste of Viking Flavour** in amongst the action without infuriating the Viking purists out there too much. Still, a little annoyance is quite good for the heart rate…

With secret berserker’s handshake, Snorri

 *This flashback is depressingly un-embellished.
 ** Mostly sweat, wool and blood.

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Snorri Kristjansson is an Icelandic man who has spent more than three and half decades on the face of the Earth. He is currently living in London and while he doesn't love rice and tuna, he has survived on it long enough to know its importance. He is a professional stage comedian and occasionally teaches at Southbank International School

NOTE: Vikings picture courtesy of HDwallpaperfresh. Author picture and book cover courtesy of the author.


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