Friday, 13 July 2018

#Aye. Ken it wis like this...with Eric Schumacher

Dunkeld Cathedral
My Friday blog series continues where guest authors are invited to share a post with us about the historical background to their writing. 

Today, I'm delighted to welcome Eric Schumacher who takes us back towards the end of the first millennia A.D. Eric shares some very difficult aspects of writing historical fiction, set in an era that's so distant it's not only the fine details that are virtually unknown, it's more that even the whole picture and tapestry of life is often shrouded in interpretive conjecture. 

Author's writing in what's essentially prehistoric times (me), and in the so-named 'Dark Ages' (Eric), have a sense of what might have been to work with, but it's what we do with the scant knowledge to-hand that makes or breaks the novel for the reader. But it's over to Eric to explain more of that! 

Hello Eric, please give us the background to your novels.

Eric Schumacher
First of all, thank you Nancy for having me on your blog. I very much appreciate the opportunity.

Nancy: You're very welcome, Eric. I love having new guests to the blog who share their writing focus and their own writing journeys. 

The subject of my novels is Hakon Haraldsson, also known in history as Hakon the Good. He lived in the first half of the 10th century A.D. A portion of his life was spent in the Christian courts of England, but the majority of it was spent in Viking Age Norway. 

There are many fun challenges I find in writing about him and these ancient people, but on the top of the difficulty scale is trying to put myself into their ancient mindset. I am not talking about a character being angry because his stew was cold. I am talking about the larger themes of the day and how characters might have thought about them or allowed those themes to influence their thoughts and actions.

In the case of the Viking Age, there are three themes I find particularly challenging. I call them a sense of place, a sense of honor, and a sense of something greater.

A sense of place refers to that place where he/she may have been born and to which he/she identifies. For much of the Viking Age, what is now England or Norway or Sweden were not kingdoms with inhabitants who viewed themselves as one people, e.g. English or Norwegians. In the era in which my books take place (circa 900 A.D.), the notion of a “nation” under one king is just beginning to take hold. Scandinavia, in particular, was a mix of petty kingdoms which evolved out of tribes of people, such as the Geats, the Svear, etc. The idea of thinking of themselves as one people who hailed from one country would have been a foreign concept. Rather, it is far more likely that people viewed themselves as hailing from regions (e.g. Trondelag), and subregions (e.g. Fosen, Orkdalen, etc). They may also have viewed themselves as part of ancient tribes (e.g. Geat), and they most certainly identified with their bloodlines.

Nancy: Having just been on a cruise in the Baltic Sea and having visited parts of Denmark, Sweden and Norway I think you're entirely right about that! I learned a lot about the Scandinavian countries during the 'talks' on board, in addition to what I experienced during our shore trips. This was added to knowledge gained on previous trips to Norway and Iceland.

What’s more, it is unclear how much people knew of the greater world. The traders, adventurers and nobles were, at least partially it seems, aware of a world beyond their shores. They knew of the various trading towns, and had at least heard of cities and regions and kings in far flung places. But there may also have been a fair number of folks who knew little or nothing of the greater world. Their world was their steading, the area around it, and perhaps the closest town. Maybe they knew more of the world, but we don’t know exactly what was known by whom, so it’s left up to the writer’s imagination to create something that seems plausible.

The second theme is a sense of honor. We know something of ancient Scandinavian laws and the consequences of breaking them, but not everything. And we know, too, that in the case of the Scandinavians, honor and reputation were everything, and often contradicted law. Men knew killing another innocent man was wrong; but often, a slight to a man’s honor, or his lord’s honor, or his wife’s honor, could lead him to kill, the legal consequences be damned. This is a foreign idea for most modern writers, but an important distinction that is critical to understand.

Connected to that honor is that idea of vows, oaths and promises. During the Viking Age,  society relied on the spoken word rather than written contracts, so a person’s words meant everything and were not spoken lightly. Oaths were the binds that tied men together -- a bind that was intricately linked with honor. Wrapping my modern head around this notion took me some time; and when I write scenes, I often ask myself whether the motivations of my characters hold up to the litmus test of their brand of honor.

The final theme relates to religion and spirituality. In ancient Scandinavia, gods and spirits were part of everyday life. Omens were everywhere. God’s controlled the weather, the crops, the tide, the rotation of the sun and moon, and everything in between. A person’s fate was controlled by the Norns, who were the weavers of a person’s life thread and who had the power to cut that thread at any time. Add to that that different people worshipped different gods, and that a person’s choice in a god could shift over time, and it becomes a tricky task for the writer to navigate the waters.

During the period in which my books take place, Christianity is just beginning to work its way up into the areas that are now Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The Christian god was gaining more and more ground. Tensions between those who worshipped the old gods and new Christ were high. Some regions fought the new religion bitterly. Others seemed to accept this new god as yet another god in their pantheon. Still others abandoned the old gods. Because religion controlled so much of what men did and believed, the spiritual struggle must have been ever-present and woven into many aspects of thought and action. Understanding this swirling storm of beliefs is hard enough, but I also found I had my own preconceived notions of Christianity and Norse mythology, which were quite modern. As with the other ideas above, I found myself having to hold my characters’ thoughts and actions up to a constant litmus test to ensure I was at least trying to create something believable and plausible for the time, given the information I had.

This task, of course, is not unique to ancient Scandinavia. Every era has its own mindsets for writers to capture. Since we don’t live in those time, it is hard for us to be exact when weaving those thoughts and motivations into the mind’s of own characters; but we must try, for capturing those mindsets well helps readers lose themselves in the illusion of your historical story.

Nancy: I totally agree that we must strive to create believable scenes even when they may seem against our natural 21st century inclinations. 

About Eric Schumacher
Eric Schumacher is an American historical novelist who currently resides in Santa Barbara, California, with his wife and two children. He was born and raised in Los Angeles and attended college at the University of San Diego.

At a very early age, Schumacher discovered his love for writing and medieval European history, as well as authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Those discoveries continue to fuel his imagination and influence the stories he tells. His first novel, God’s Hammer, was published in 2005. Its sequel, Raven’s Feast, was published in 2017. A third, yet-to-be titled book, is currently in the works and due out later this year.

For more information, connect with him at one of these sites:
Twitter: @DarkAgeScribe

About God’s Hammer
History and legend combine in the gripping tale of Hakon Haraldsson, a Christian boy who once fought for the High Seat of a Viking realm.

It is 935 A.D. and the North is in turmoil. King Harald Fairhair has died, leaving the High Seat of the realm to his murderous son, Erik Bloodaxe. To solidify his claim, Erik ruthlessly disposes of all claimants to his throne, save one: his youngest brother Hakon.
Erik’s surviving enemies send a ship to Wessex, where the Christian King Athelstan is raising Hakon. Unable to avoid his fate, he returns to the Viking North to face his brother and claim his birthright, only to discover that victory will demand sacrifices beyond his wildest nightmares.

About Raven’s Feast
It is 935 A.D. and Hakon Haraldsson has just wrested the High Seat of the North from his ruthless brother, Erik Bloodaxe. Now, he must fight to keep it.

The land-hungry Danes are pressing from the south to test Hakon before he can solidify his rule. In the east, the Uplanders are making their own plans to seize the throne. It does not help that Hakon is committed to his dream of Christianizing his people – a dream his countrymen do not share and will fight to resist.

As his enemies move in and his realm begins to crumble, Hakon and his band of oath-sworn warriors must make a stand in Raven’s Feast, the riveting sequel to God’s Hammer.

Thank you for sharing your work with us today, Eric. It's a fascinating time period that I love reading about in both fiction and non-fiction, and learning about during holiday visits. Scotland, of course, also has a Viking past that's equally absorbing!  

My very best wishes for your current and future writing. 


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