by Toni L.P. Kelner / Leigh Perry
I'm happy to welcome my husband Steve as today's guest. He recently published a Viking mystery story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and we Kelners are very proud of him.
Researching "Death at the Althing"
by Stephen P. Kelner, Jr.
There's a sad-but-true joke about an author being asked "how long did it take you to write your book?" The answer: "All my life." When doing historical mysteries, this is way too close to accurate. Especially this particular story, "Death at the Althing," which I have tinkered with off and on for about 16 years.
As I noted in my book on motivating writers, it isn't a race. Good thing!
It's risky to write a historical mystery as an amateur historian, of course, since someone can catch you out. I understand that Regency romance writers have a really hard time, since fans of the genre and period know what people wear right down to the buttons. One thing about 10th-century Iceland that is a huge advantage and disadvantage: there's a lot we don't know.
We have learned a lot about the culture from the legendary sagas, many of which are set in Iceland or written by Icelanders like the great Snorri Sturluson. But how accurate would your view of the modern US be from watching The Avengers? Even discounting the obvious components like the big green guy, does it depict New York City citizens the right way? Do we have schwarma on every block? Would Thor really talk like that?
Such stories can give you a flavor, and a sense of the major cultural assumptions, but not much about daily life. One of my characters is the son of a poet -- not a poet himself, because I'm not going to risk trying to write good alliterative poetry -- but that means he is strongly influenced by the sagas and legends, so he and his fellow detective both quote from classic poems like the Hávamal ("The Song of the High One"), attributed to Odin, and it informs their assumptions about their world. That allows me to use the sagas to define this character, whether it is typical or not.
How I do research is pretty simple: I read a lot of books about the Viking era generally, and Iceland in particular, but I also look for good illustrated kids' books. Why? Because they often show the person, in context. That helps me describe a person or setting - at the worst, I can describe the picture in question. Thanks to the Internet and cosplayers, I can also find people who spent a lot more time studying old Scandinavian garb than I every want to, and look at pictures of them and how their clothes hang, and what colors they are, and even how comfortable they may be to wear.
Going to museums helps, too. The wonderful Jorvik museum in York, UK, not only shows you artifacts dug up on the site, they have a model Viking-era village you ride through, and they have pictures and books you can take with you to remember them.
But in some ways it's a good thing it took me this long. We've learned a lot in the 35 years since I read my first Icelandic saga for a college class ("The Heroic Epic in Northern Europe," still taught by professor Stephen Mitchell at Harvard). The earliest draft I have extant, circa 1999, is the same year that Google came out in beta and AOL was state-of-the-art. Now I can virtually explore Thingvellir, the original site of the Icelandic parliament the Althing and the setting for my story. I have found sites of academics discussing the sagas and recent archeological digs (e.g., the second Viking site in Newfoundland), and amateurs who have put up websites with clothing patterns and lists of commonly-used poetic metaphors ("kennings"), and even common Viking nicknames. I can tap the dedication and expertise of people all over the world, and achieve some level of verisimilitude.
Contrary to what a lot of people think, you don't have to know everything about an era or place. You just need enough to be credible. That is, you need enough concrete description to fool the average modern reader, and to avoid obvious mistakes. For example, an early draft referred to the trees at Thingvellir and specifically over the Law Rock, where the laws were announced and discussed. Go to the link here for a picture. See anything missing? Like trees?
But avoiding mistakes isn't enough. You also need a few positive descriptions. What did people wear on their heads? It's cold in Iceland! What did they eat and drink? How late was the sun out in summer? And if you can combine all that with an interesting fact that can contribute to your story and your character and surprise the reader, you've got the key components for a historical mystery.