Hollow Road, by Dan Fitzgerald

As with all good speculative fiction, Fitzgerald has asked some hard questions about our society

I’m pleased to be participating in the Storytellers on Tour blog tour for Hollow Road, Book I of The Maer Cycle by Dan Fitzgerald.

Legends describe the Maer as savage man-beasts haunting the mountains, their bodies and faces covered with hair. Creatures of unimaginable strength, cunning, and cruelty. Bedtime stories to keep children indoors at night. Soldiers’ tales to frighten new recruits.

It is said the Maer once ruled the Silver Hills, but they have long since passed into oblivion.

This is the story of their return.

Carl, Sinnie and Finn, three companions since childhood, are tasked with bringing a friend’s body home for burial. Along the way, they find there is more to the stories than they ever imagined, and the mountains hold threats even darker than the Maer. What they discover on their journey will change the way they see the world forever.

Travel down Hollow Road to find out which legends are true, and which have been twisted.

Three friends on a journey together: what a classic start to a fantasy story! Two men: an apprentice mage and a soldier; one woman, a skilled archer. They’ve been hired (and well paid) to take the dead body of a friend back home for burial. Too well paid, in truth. Why?

Danger lies on the road home; danger that comes from legend and story: the Maer, a humanoid people reputed to be cruel, fierce fighters. But as Finn, Sinnie and Carl discover, the perceived danger from the Maer is mostly that: a perception, the result of fear and lack of communication. The Maer are as human as they are, although their appearance is different, and their culture perhaps more advanced than the three companions’ own.

Hollow Road is the first book of a trilogy. It serves as a wonderful introduction to Fitzgerald’s world, introducing the societies, the conflicts, and the main characters deftly. The three main characters are distinct personalities: conflicted Carl, who’d wanted to be a mage but had no skill; Sinnie, a woman who knows she can’t settle to the village life of her mother; Finn, the young adept who quickly will outstrip his mentors. Each has a role to play in the tentative alliance with the Maer, and each have things to learn from them.

The scale of Hollow Road appealed to me. The world is small (so far); the action takes place in a limited geography, devoid of huge armies, fortresses to storm, or vast distances to travel. Sufficient small details build the world without weighing down the story, building a believable iron-age society with some magic, but not so much that it dominates. Finn’s body magic assists the trio in their goals, but only in a way equivalent to Carl’s prowess with a sword and Sinnie’s skilled archery.

I had two small niggles with the story, neither major. One is the pacing of fighting scenes, where I felt tension could have been increased by a change in the rhythm of the narrative; the other is in some of the language in dialogue. Fitzgerald’s characters speak naturally, often using modern words in an iron-age setting, and while for the most part I didn’t find this jarring, one or two words did jump out at me as inappropriate.

As with all good speculative fiction, Fitzgerald has asked some hard questions about our society; about how we judge and fear people by their outward appearance. His characters – and readers – see that once true dialogue begins, commonalities outweigh differences. But while individuals learn this, and accept the Maer as human, will the Realm, the larger government which is only hinted at in this first book? Hollow Road ends with questions that should make the reader impatient for the next book in the trilogy, The Archive, due out December 4th. It certainly made me frustrated that I couldn’t keep reading the story immediately!  Strongly recommended for readers who like character-based fantasy with a solid plot.

Win a signed paperback copy (US only) of Hollow Road!

September 13, 2020 at 12:00am EDT to September 20, 2020 at 11:59pm EDT

Hollow Road by Dan Fitzgerald. Adult Fantasy, 243 pages, published: September 17, 2020 by Shadow Spark Publishing.

Book Links

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54801285-hollow-road

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08FDPR332

Author Information

Dan Fitzgerald is a fantasy writer living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When he is not writing, he might be gardening, doing yoga, cooking, or listening to French music.

Find out more about Dan and his books at www.danfitzwrites.com, or find him on Twitter or Instagram, with the handle danfitzwrites in both places.

Author Links

Website: http://www.danfitzwrites.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DanFitzWrites

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/danfitzwrites/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/danfitzwrites

Writing, Full Time…a Day in the Life.

11:30: Shouldn’t I have a shower today?

6:30:  Wake up, hoping the plot problem’s solved itself overnight. It hasn’t.

6:45:  Make coffee.  Nothing happens without coffee. Feed the cat.

7:00:  Sit at desk. Remove cat from keyboard.

7:15:  Check social media. Attempt to refrain from checking sales stats. Fail. Sigh today. (Cheered yesterday.)

7:45:  Stop procrastinating. Check e-mail for business-related items. Answer 5 emails. Remove cat from in front of computer screen.

8:30:  Look at whiteboard. Realize with horror there are three deadlines looming.

8:45:  Finish community newsletter column.

9:15:  Finish drafting the promotional ‘blurb’ for another author’s book.  More coffee.

9:30: Write and schedule social media promos for the next week.

10:15: Becoming one with desk chair. Go for a walk and think about (a) the book review due and (b) the knotty plot point. Apologize to neighbours whom you’ve ignored because you’re deep in thought.

11:30: Shouldn’t I have a shower today?

12:00:  Food might help. And more coffee.

12:30: Check social media. Type one-handed because cat is insisting on cuddles.

1:00:  Solve some problems for the community newsletter. Apologize to a contributor whose article had a typo.

1:30: Begin the book review.

1:35: Clean up cat’s hairball. Return to book review.

2:30:  Ask writer friends via DMs about the plot point. Much discussion….not all on topic.

3:30:  Break time. Discuss plot point with husband…or whoever this man I live with is.

4:00: Dear gods, is that the time?  Open WIP document.

5:30:  Cat is being very loud. Oh. She’s hungry. Oh. Dinner. Good: it’s husband’s turn to cook. Pour wine.

6:00:  Eat. 

6:30: Clean up. Write a grocery list. Return to desk. Read what I wrote in the WIP. Sigh.

7:30: Couch and tv time. Watch with half an eye. Make hopefully relevant comments to husband about what’s happening on-screen. Write ideas in notebook with the other eye-and-a-half.

10:00: Return to keyboard. Write for a bit.

11:00: Pour scotch. Look at whiteboard of writing/marketing/editorial tasks. Swear. Feed cat.  Pour more scotch to counteract too much coffee. Go to bed, plot point still unsolved.

Adaptation

I miss, sometimes horribly, the ability to write outside my home.

Adaptation: Noun

  1. the action or process of adapting or being adapted.
  2. a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment.

I’ve been thinking a lot about adaptation recently, from three viewpoints: that of one of my characters; that of our lives under COVID, and that of the lives of all living beings on this planet in the face of ecological change. (The latter came about from my last birding column – I write one monthly for a small community publication- where I looked at the spread of turkey vultures into Canada in the last 50 years, and the reasons for it.)

My character, who is physically disabled as a result of war wounds, is also aging. His eyesight is beginning to fail, and he’s a teacher, a reader and a writer. As my books are set in early medieval times, there are a limited number of solutions. A long follower of Stoic philosophy, he’ll approach this with the same calm exterior as he has his physical limitations, although interior frustrations exist.

Write what you know. I’ve experienced a period in my life where medical treatments made a few things in my life physically impossible or limited my ability to be active. I’m pulling on how that felt; I’m also conscious of my own poorer eyesight, and the limits it’s already forcing. I use an big external screen, and my magnification in Word is set at 140%.  But right now, what I use the most in thinking about his frustrations are my frustrations at the changes COVID has imposed on my writing life.

Full disclosure : what I’m whining about here is incredibly minor. It’s ridiculous to even complain. But we feel what we feel, sometimes, regardless of what Stoic philosophy or any other belief system tells us. I miss, sometimes horribly, the ability to write outside my home. I used to write, for part of my day, in coffee shops and the university library. Coffee shops when I needed the buzz of conversation, the supply of good coffee, and the occasional cookie – and almost always a writing friend to chat to about our respective work for a few minutes. The university library when I needed silence and access to books for research. (There was also our Monday morning writing group, three hours of coffee-and-tea fueled silent writing in a bar space above our town’s indie bookstore, followed by a two-hour writing-and-book-discussion lunch at the adjoining café.)

Plus I’d bike or walk downtown, and back, unless the weather was really horrible. So my days had their exercise built in. There’s a big hill between me and downtown, so walking was only an 8 km round trip, but biking needed an extended trip that gave me about 15 km of riding. I’m 62: I have arthritis in both my upper and lower spine; I have Dupuytren’s contracture in both hands, which makes my fingers ache after a while (thanks, Viking ancestor.) Posterior vitreous detachment has left me with more floaters than clarity in my left eye, and the right one’s not great either. All these aggravations of aging mean that taking lots of breaks, and changing my writing position during the day, are beneficial. Writing downtown meant that happened more or less naturally.   

But this is all at a standstill. Now I write for two hours at my desk (and get up frequently to make coffee, eat breakfast, feed the cat, during that time) and then I go biking or walking for 90 minutes, come home, shower, and it’s just about time for lunch. That’s the morning taken care of.  Afternoons – when I’m still on the computer, but doing other tasks – editing, beta reading, writing articles or blog posts, marketing – are not so well disciplined. I miss my in-the-flesh writing friends, but I’ve made several good virtual friends via Twitter, and we spend time chatting back and forth. A much needed and appreciated interaction, but I’m still at the computer. My phone timer goes off every 45 minutes, reminding me to get up. I clean the house 15 minutes at a time, to make myself move. I do floor exercises. I do laundry. I water our pots of tomatoes and peppers. I walk to the mailbox. I’m adapting my behaviour, because changes in our ecology – the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – has forced me to.

I consider myself lucky that I have somewhere to channel these feelings, into the frustrations felt by my characters as their own lives are constrained by circumstance. Not just the one character’s physical limitations, but others, too: my characters all regret, for various reasons, their distance from family; the inability to hug or kiss many of those they love; the constraints on travel. They too are privileged, within their society; they too have adapted. But I’m guessing the book I’m writing, and the books still to be written, will be subtly different than they would have been if COVID hadn’t come. Adapted, you might say.

Hero’s Journeys and Ritual Landscapes #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop

The most effective hero’s journey stories use landscape as an important part of the journey

“Ritual landscape” is a term coined by archaeologists originally to refer to the concentration of ceremonial sites of Neolithic and Bronze Age people in one geographic area. Stonehenge, with expansive earthworks extending out from the central henge for at least 6 km, is probably the best known English example. In recent years the term has been extended to refer to later periods, and I have argued in papers for landscape archaeology courses that it can be used as a basis to examine how even the landscape of a stately home can be structured to create a sense of awe and ceremony, with the house taking the place of the central temple. But here, I’d like to think about the purposes of a ritual landscape, and how they might align with the concept of the hero’s journey in fiction.

Archaeologists argue that ritual landscapes are in part about places of protection and renewal. Francis Pryor writes:

I sometimes wonder whether ritual landscapes are indeed just a prehistoric phenomenon. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I realise that the need to travel, discover and re-imagine is part of the human condition. In the Middle Ages people from all walks of life regularly went on pilgrimages and of course they were familiar with what the various places they were travelling through signified. Pilgrimages, just like their pre-Roman antecedents, were never about exploration, de novo. Instead the exploration was personal and introspective.

The hero’s journey is also about pilgrimage:

 the common template of a broad category of tales and lore that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.

And at this point, you may well be thinking, OK, but how does this all fit into a blog about tools for writers? Bear with me. Because my point is this: the most effective hero’s journey books, whether they are high fantasy or not, use landscape as an important part of the journey. The ritual landscape becomes infused and integrated into the journey, the pilgrimage, and in is part what helps to transform the ‘hero’. It’s a force in the story, not just a background to the adventure.

The first example that came to mind when as I contemplated this idea is from The Lord of the Rings, as the fellowship travel down the Anduin and pass through the Pillars of the Kings. It is a dangerous place, guarded by the two ancient carved likenesses of two kings:

Awe and fear fell upon Frodo, and he cowered down….even Boromir bowed his head as the boats whirled by, under the enduring shadow of the guardians of Númenor…. “Fear not!” said a strange voice behind him. Frodo turned and saw Strider, and yet not Strider; for the weatherworn Ranger was no longer there. In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skillful strokes; his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes: a King returning from exile to his own land.

This is a striking and almost obvious example of the power of landscape, but the concept can also be used more subtly (there are many examples in LOTR: Tolkien understood the power of landscape long before the term ‘ritual landscape’ became an archaeological term – nor was he the first.)

In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, in the last volume, Silver on the Tree, she uses ritual landscape as a turning point in the story:

Jane said … “What an enormous lot of flat land there is on the other side of the river. Miles of it, miles and miles, before the mountains start again.” … Will stood up and came quietly forward to stand beside [Bran], looking down at the estuary. He tried to keep the excitement from his voice. “Drowned,” he said. “Lost.” The mountain was very quiet. The skylark had finished its song. Very far away once more they heard gulls faintly crying, out over the sea. Bran stood very still, without turning. “Dear God,” he said. The others scrambled to their feet. Simon said, “The Lost Land?

These are only two many many examples. I use the concept in my own books, both consciously and unconsciously. If you are writing a ‘hero’s journey’ structure, I’d encourage you to seriously consider the idea of how landscape can inform the travel and transformation of your characters. It adds another dimension to the story, one that embeds it further into its time and place, strengthening the connection to your world – whether it is real or imagined – and creating a setting that will resonate in the minds of your readers.  

Featured image: Sí an Bhrú (Newgrange), Ireland. Tjp Finn, CC 4.0 license.

Music’s Memory

Write what you know, right? Then why do I write about music?

Why is music so important in my books?  I’m not a musician; I can’t play an instrument, carry a tune, or even keep time.  Write what you know, right? You wouldn’t think I’d write about music.

But one of the themes of my books is language, and what it can and can’t do: in my protagonist Lena’s words, they are in part

about language, and meaning, and if all concepts were universal, and could be translated. About the gap between intent and comprehension, between what was meant and what was understood, and the assumptions and shared experience encompassed—or not—in any exchange.

Empire’s Exile

Music, in my books, is another form of language, a way to communicate that goes beyond words to invoke memory and emotion. I introduce this in the very first book, Empire’s Daughter, when the character Tice teaches Lena a song about exile and lost love (introducing another major theme of the series).  In book 2, Empire’s Hostage, Lena learns that in Linrathe, the country north of the Wall, song is used to teach history – and more than history, in truth – a sense of national identity.

Song weaves its way through the next book, Empire’s Exile, too: its role in entertainment, in ritual, in status among a group of warriors. It communicates regret, love, loss – and is a vehicle to bring two people together.

But it’s in the two books that the musician Sorley narrates: Oraiáphon and Empire’s Reckoning, that music takes centre stage. Its role in Oraiáphon is pivotal to the story – without giving away the plot, I’ll just say that Oraiáphon is my world’s equivalent of classical mythology’s Orpheus.  

Music is central to Sorley’s identity, and as the author I take advantage of that. Music highlights the differences between him and the two men in his life: with pragmatic Druisius, the instruments they play are similar, but the tunings are different, and to Druisius, all Sorley’s songs are sad. With Cillian, whose use of language is precise and subtle, honed by his years as a diplomat, Sorley’s contrasting use of song to influence through emotion reflects their characters:

“Stories told by you, with all your scáeli’s skills?” Cillian asked. “A tale spun to coerce and convince, my lord Sorley?”

Empire’s Reckoning

Of all the books in the series, Empire’s Reckoning focuses most on the influence and limitations of language: of oaths made and broken, of the power of words spoken and unspoken – and the role of music in conveying what words cannot. That’s why I, a weaver of words, write about music.

You can hear Sorley sing his beautiful Paths Untrodden here.

Purchase links for all my books here.

Want to know more about the world of my books, the real history that informs them, or read vignettes and updates on the work in progress, Empire’s Heir? Sign up for my monthly News from the Empire.

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Ruskin’s Copper Shadow, by Jennifer Wineberg

A modern Victorian novel.

Ruskin’s Copper Shadow is set in Victorian times, and it has the feel of a Victorian novel, a mix of Dickens and Trollope and a touch of Wilkie Collins. Not quite a roman à clef, nonetheless the life and passions of its central character, the Canon, reflect and mirror in spirit some of the life of the polymath and social reformer John Ruskin.

John Ruskin

For a modern novel, the pacing is slow and the story, like a stream in summer, slowly meanders among characters and settings, but if you relax and drift along, the view is enjoyable. A debut novel based to some extent on some unexplained history in the author’s family, it examines the all-to-frequent occurrence in Victorian (and later) society – who fathered the child of a servant? It looks at the manners and expectations of Victorian society, and the gulf between the strict propriety of the Church and the upper classes, and humane behavior; it examines guilt and redemption.

Ruskin’s Copper Shadow won’t appeal to everyone. It’s very much an allegory: several characters have no identity beyond their titles: the Canon, the Magistrate; others are stock figures. But they were in Dickens, too, many times. Sometimes the reasons for the Canon’s behaviour are unclear, as that meandering stream divides and one stream goes underground for a while here and there, but it always re-emerges.  I enjoyed where its currents took me.

Amazon.com

Photo credits:

Featured Image: Wallington Hall, Northumbria: Glen Bowman, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Portrait of John Ruskin by W.& D. Downey, Photographers, London. Public Domain.

(By one of those strange 6 degrees of separation coincidences, the photographer William Downey was the grandfather (or maybe great uncle) of a friend of my father’s here in Canada.)

Chapter Length: Author Intent and Reader Response: #authortoolboxbloghop

How can chapter length serve the intent of the author, and affect mood, theme, and character?

Best-selling author James Patterson famously writes very short chapters, short enough to be read in a few minutes. Many readers like this. In part, it’s because a chapter or a few can be read between stops on the commuter train, or for ten minutes before bed, or on a coffee break. It also suits the genre: fast action, short chapters, focused on one event.

But I write historical fiction (of a sort), and this genre tends to longer chapters. The hero’s journey also underlies all my books, and again, this structure beloved of epic fantasy tends not to be expressed in short chapters. In my first trilogy, Empire’s Legacy, all three books have a chapter length around 5000 words. My new release, Empire’s Reckoning, has an average chapter length of just under 1700 words. Why the change?

I’ll start by saying it had nothing to do with Patterson’s reasons. The new book is still a hero’s journey, but it’s told in two timelines – the present and 14 years earlier, and with a structure that involves the protagonist recalling events from the past timeline. Memory is key to this story, and memories rarely occur in long unbroken segments. By breaking what the protagonist is remembering into shorter sections, it’s a better mirror of how memory works. (It also cues the reader that in each of these chapters, what the protagonist is recalling has its own value. In a long chapter, it would be easier for an important point to be lost in the flow.)

There’s a second reason, too. The narrator of Empire’s Reckoning is a scáeli, a position based on the skalds of Scandinavian society: storytellers, poets and musicians. By dividing the story into discrete sections, I was purposely mirroring the structure of a Scandinavian saga[i], because that is how Sorley, the narrator, would tell it.

That’s how I used chapter structure for my purposes. What about reader reaction?  Well, none of the reviews have complained, so far! More interestingly, three have used the world ‘saga’ in their write-ups. While I know this has a second meaning – a long family history – in literature, I can’t help wonder if the structure triggered this reference. Reader response is not always conscious.

I’ve just beta read another historical fiction book of almost the exact length of mine, and with the same number of chapters – and it’s written that way for almost the same reason. A two-timeline structure, involving a journey, and stories being told on that journey. There’s a classic story structure being mirrored here, too (I’ll give you a hint: the stories are told each night) and it worked extremely well, even though it’s unusual for the genre.

So, when you’re thinking about your chapter length, give some thought not just to Patterson’s reasons – they are completely valid, especially in today’s fast-paced world – but to how it reflects and serves the mood and message and even the characters of your story. I can’t imagine, for example, The Lord of The Rings being written in short chapters: it would go against the epic nature of the story. That The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a chapter of one paragraph also makes perfect sense (as much as anything does, in a Douglas Adams book) given the nature of that tale.

What examples come to mind for you of the chapter length strengthening – or weakening – the mood or theme of a novel?


[i] Or at least in translation. When I took the sagas in school, this is what the translations looked like. I realize their original structure may well have been different, and differently presented.

Warrior Women: Archaeological Evidence

Lena and her fellow female warriors in my books draw on traditions from across a wide range of dates.

“But the world changes. In all the women’s villages of the Empire, this week or next, a soldier like myself will arrive to ask to live in the village, to take up a trade.” Casyn paused, for a breath, a heartbeat. “And to teach you and your daughters to fight.”

Empire’s Daughter

So begins the major conflict of Empire’s Daughter, the first book in my Empire’s Legacy trilogy. My protagonist Lena’s journey from fisherwoman to soldier, and the life-changing effects on her and the women of her village and her land is its theme and story. Lena is already competent with a hunting bow; now she must learn to use other weapons.

“But how realistic is this?” one of my reviewers asked. Far more so than people of my age were educated to believe, based on archaeological evidence coupled with advanced DNA analysis techniques.  In recent years, analysis or re-analysis of skeletal remains of bodies buried with weapons and other grave goods associated with warriors have shown up to a third of these are women.

In 1941, a grave was excavated at Birka, a town in Eastern Central Sweden and a centre for trade during the 8th–late 10th century. This was an exceptional grave: on a raised area between the town and a hillfort, the goods buried with the warrior included “a sword, an axe, a spear, armour‐piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion; thus, the complete equipment of a professional warrior. Furthermore, a full set of gaming pieces indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy, stressing the buried individual’s role as a high‐ranking officer.”[i]

So, of course, this was a man. Except she wasn’t, when the DNA work was done in 2017, confirming earlier analysis of the bones that had strongly suggested the skeleton was female. More than a ‘shield-maiden’ of the sagas, this was the grave of a high-ranking commander.

The Hårby Valkyrie, c 800 CE, Denmark. Gilwellian / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Later in the Empire’s Legacy series, Lena learns to use a bow from horseback as a weapon of war, a bow she’s never seen before: triple-layered and powerful. In January of this year, results of excavations in the western Russian village of Devitsa revealed two, or maybe three, generations of warrior women buried in one mound: Scythians from about 2500 BCE. Ranging in age from  12 or 13  between 45 to 50 years old, these women were buried with daggers and arrowheads and spears, and in the position of a someone riding a horse.[ii] Over a third of Scythian graves containing women also contain weapons, with skeletal remains showing injuries consistent with war wounds – and with changes to bone structure indicating long hours spent on horseback and using a bow.[iii]

(Archaeoolog.ru, via https://www.smithsonianmag.com)

Key to the involvement of Scythian women in warfare was likely the Scythian bow, a composite bow. Lena first sees one when she visits the horse archers’ training ground:

Compact and deeply curved, it reminded me of the bows we had taken from the plains riders. But I had never seen one constructed like this. It had three layers, I realized as I examined it: a central layer of wood between horn on the inside and what looked to me like sinew along the outer curve. As I compressed it to fasten the bowstring, I felt its resilience.

Empire’s Exile

Composite bows combine a smaller size with higher power, making them especially useful on horseback or from a chariot.  

“If you think about it, a woman on a horse with a bow, trained since childhood, can be just as fast and as deadly as a boy or man.”

Adrienne Mayor

Lena and her fellow female warriors in my books may draw on traditions from across a wide range of dates, but I write the history of an alternate world based on ours, not a faithful interpretation of events. Could she have wielded these weapons in defence of her land?  Recent research says a resounding yes.

Like what you’ve read? Sign up for my monthly newsletter, News from the Empire, for more history behind my books, updates on Empire’s Heir, the work-in-progress, and cat pictures. At the very least!

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[i]    https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.23308

[ii] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/tomb-containing-three-generations-amazon-warrior-women-unearthed-russia-180973877/

[iii]   The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, Adrienne Mayor, Princeton University Press, 2016/

Featured image: Statue of Boudicca at Westminter: Paul Walter: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

A Landscape of the Heart: Building the World of my Books, Part 1.

Norfolk has a firm hold on my heart, my imagination, and a place in the construction of my fictional world.

The English county of Norfolk, as those who have been following my blog for some time know, is my second home. When I will see it again, in the wake of COVID-19, is another question, but it has a firm hold on my heart, my imagination, and a solid place in the construction of my fictional world.

Anyone who knows Norfolk – and my books – may now be asking how?  A flat land, for the most part; arable, with little rivers and chalky soils and patches of reedy fen. Not the hilly, sheep-grazed moorland that so much of my world encompasses. No, the influences are more subtle.

Firstly, Norfolk was part of the Danelaw, the part of England under Scandinavian rule. Twenty-nine existing places in Norfolk have ‘thorpe’ as a suffix or prefix, and while this happens to be my last name, its meaning ‘outlying hamlet, small village’ is from the Norse þorp, and from it I take my settlement names in Linrathe and Sorham.  In fact, Ingoldstorp, mentioned several times over the series, is the name of the village (Ingoldisthorpe, pronounced Inglesthorpe) just north of the one where I have spent my winters since retirement.

The next village north from that is Snettisham, and I borrowed Snetti’s name, too, for a minor character. There are more examples, but I won’t belabour this point. But in the last paragraph I wrote ‘twenty-nine existing places’.  There are also thirty-three ‘lost’ villages in Norfolk with ‘thorpe’ in their names, and it is these missing settlements that also inform my world.

Deserted medieval village is the correct term for these abandoned settlements.  In many cases there is nothing but a few lumps and bumps on the ground, and perhaps the ruins of a church. (Or sometimes, a church still in use, but standing in the middle of nowhere, apparently.) The reasons for abandonment are many, including land enclosure and parkland created for manor houses. Others suffered as rivers changed course or land flooded. But in Norfolk, one reason was simply depopulation.

Norfolk is now 40th of the 48 counties of England in population density, the number of people per unit of land. But in the middle ages, it was the most populous county, and its county town, Norwich, the second city of England. Until the plague: first the Black Death in 1349; then, two centuries later, a third of its population died in the  epidemic of 1579, and another third in 1665.  

The land Lena inhabits is like this, a depopulated land, villages scattered and distant, too few men to defend the land against threats from two directions. The reasons for the Empire’s depopulation and that of Norfolk are pretty much the same, although the Eastern Fever isn’t the Black Death.

But while Norfolk – and the Empire – are depopulated lands, they both have long histories. If Lena rides east from her coastal village, she will come to the military road, running north and south, wide and paved. If I walk or drive east from my Norfolk village, about, in my mind, the same distance, I come to a Roman road, running north and south. No longer paved; no longer very wide, but a reminder, every time I walk it, of a time there was a Roman fort on the coast, and villas along the ridge overlooking the Wash, and the coins in use bore the likenesses of emperors far away.

Peddar’s Way Roman Road, Norfolk

Danes and Romans; disease and depopulation; all these are important aspects of my books, influenced – sometimes consciously, sometimes not – by what I know. Not reproduced, but borrowed, moulded and transmuted into a different form, almost recognizable, almost history.

map of Scandinavian place names https://www.mygen.com/users/outlaw/Outlawe_Viking_Origins.htm

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Vikings and Buddhas

Viking-era trade created a network across and beyond Europe.

In Empire’s Reckoning, my newest book, the protagonist Sorley has returned home after an absence of a couple of years. His brother’s family has come out to greet him, but one member is missing.

I looked around, not seeing my half-brother. “Where’s Nyle?”

“Gone trading,” Roghan said. “He’s nineteen now, and there’s little for him here. So he took a place on a ship heading east to trade furs and amber.”

“East?” I said. “Down the Ubë?”

Sorley’s home is in the very north of his land, an area which I envision as equivalent to the Norse areas of early-medieval Scotland. And, as the Netflix series Vikings – if nothing else – has brought to more common knowledge, the Scandinavian people did explore, and trade, eastward.

Scandinavians, in fact, are often credited with creating a trading network in Europe, but that may be because the archaeological record is more perceptible for the Viking era than any other. Much of that network, in truth, already existed in the Baltic and the coastal areas of the North Sea. The Frisians dominated this trade, using early forms of the cog (a flat-bottomed, rowed boat) to transport goods along the coastlines and into river systems.

Viking keeled boats, however, allowed for open ocean travel, and while initially the Vikings came to raid, increasingly, they stayed to trade. The trading city of Dublin arose in this manner, and all around Northern Europe, Scandinavians took over or replaced existing trading sites such as Hedeby in Jutland and Eoforwic (York) in England.

 Further east in Europe, commercial trade along water-based routes created new economic centres in Eastern Europe, which trace their beginnings to the appearance of the people we call Vikings (or Varangians). Sorley’s half-brother and the ship he’s on are playing an important role  in the creation of the early framework of my pseudo-Europe’s economy.

Scandinavian traders travelled the river systems as far as Byzantium and even into the Arab world to obtain goods. They brought those goods back, both to emporia along the route, and directly to Scandinavia. Viking-era trade created a network across and beyond Europe, bringing items as rare as an Indian Buddha figurine, a north African bronze ladle, and Arabic coins back to their homelands.

Can you blame Sorley’s half-brother for wanting to be part of this?

The circa 6th C bronze Helgo Buddha, found on the Swedish island of Helgo, an important trading centre from the 6th – 11th C. The Buddha probably arrived in Helgo via Swedish merchants who traded east, along Russian rivers such as the Volga. © Swedish History Museum

For more information on the Helgo treasure:

http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/12/the-helgo-treasure-a-viking-age-buddha/

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Featured image: https://about-history.com/knarr-the-oldest-norse-merchant-ship/