Expanding research horizons: Hunting Vikings!

Story finding-time … off to new (nothern) shores!

It’s a given that historical fiction writers have to do their research. The writer has to be so much “into” her era that all the details of the time come to her writing naturally. So expanding research horizons is part of the job, to dive deeper into a time period until one is able to write “what it was like then” without hesitation. You have to have your research in place before starting a story. But of course, there are always smaller things that need to be verified as I write – or afterwards, when my Viking experts read the draft and point something out (like the rope my “Monk” had around his neck … I opted to stick with it because I needed the knife-cut for my story, not the endless fiddling with a rusty iron collar ;-))

Going beyond the mainly male past

I’m so passionate about the Vikings and being AUTHENTIC (not using them as mere stage props!) that of course I read non-fiction all the time to become even more fluent in their history. My Bibles are “Vikings at War” by Hjardar/Vike, and “The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings“.  But even though these are the books that give me most information of them all, you can see from their titles that they talk about male domains: War and Voyage. Similar to most medieval eras, we have many sources for warfare and political tactics, but very few for the daily life. It just wasn’t recorded much. We have to piece together what the other half of the society was doing on a daily basis (let alone how children grew up). Is that because women’s lives weren’t important and worth recording in the chess of mostly male politics? That’d be a different blog post …

My stomping ground: Haithabu/Hedeby

Sarah Dahl Hedeby

For me, the German (and in Viking times mostly Danish) Haithabu/Hedeby Viking town and museum is my favourite place to go and immerse myself into a Viking spirit. Some of the Viking townhouses have been restored and make up a tiny settlement now, where once over 1,000 people from all over the world squeezed together. Its past is colourful and vibrant, and it stands out as one of the biggest towns of the time (9th-11th cent.). Situated on the estuary of the Slien, the ages-old site is still in its original place, one of very few, and still embraced by the protective earthen mound’s half-circle, as it was then. To be standing high on the mound with my face in the harsh winds, I can imagine what it must have been like to live and work here, every day. Looking at the vast flatness below and all around, across the re-erected pier and the grey, windswept water, I imagine the bustle of all the people, craftsmen and their families, traders from all over the world, the rich and the not-so-rich. To see the revived houses in a landscape and sea-level fairly similar to ancient times is just magical.

Sarah Dahl Hedeby

Just soaking up atmosphere, I walk out onto the rough pier and imagine a long row of ships of all sizes. The long gone stalls and shouting people. The noise and stink. With a 180-degree turn, I take in the entire landscape that must have looked similar then, and how lucky I am that today I can be standing exactly where they walked and worked, loved and suffered. The museum is very well done and interactvie and adds to the experience, but nothing can top the reality of the houses down by the pier, of the wobbly plank-streets and feel of the weather on your skin. Hedeby is the setting for many of my stories, and if you’ve ever been there, it’s easy to imagine why.

Experiencing the history is just the first step

Sarah Dahl Hedeby

writing prompt: the hanging basket

Sarah Dahl Hedeby

Gruelling things happened here … in my novel 😉

Research is the historical truth mingling with my imagination. A hanging shelf, a smoke-blackened roof, sheepskins, or the bobbing of an empty rowing boat … they all tell stories. Hedeby is my place of inspiration and not just mere research. I go there at least once a year, and make it my writing/research haven. I drive up alone (I might make exceptions of other historical fiction writers ;-)) and during that five-hour journey slowly let go of the daily grind of family life. I detach and become the artist and curious researcher. Upon arriving I take it slow, walk around, soak atmosphere and details up, and let the creative mind take over. It conjures up new story ideas, and deepens/solves older ones, without effort. I often sit and jot down notes, then walk on. Sometimes I need to experience something specific. The Viking novel I’m writing atm (I call it “the shield maiden novel”) is in big parts set in Hedeby – or Heithabyr as they called it. There are endless details to check and see or imagine further.

Artefact + scenery + imagination = story piece

Sarah Dahl Hedeby

He’s a character!

In this novel, one important character is a simple fisherman, Birger, who lives close to the harbour. Luckily, there is a small fisherman’s hut and his equipment (which might have sparked the character as such ;-)) and I just stand there and let him come to life. I imagine his daily walks, the rowing out in every weather, the time he had to spend to tend to nets and equipment and get his catch sold. What would he have done after all the tasks were finished? How would he have talked and whose company would he have sought? In my mind, I made him a skilled wood-carver, because he is a quiet character, and he can sit by the fire and just listen to the people around him, quietly smiling or nodding his head while his hands work the wood and create little gems.

Going north: expanding the research horizon

Just like Hedeby will always be my go-to setting to find my creative mojo, it is equally necessary and exciting to expand the research areas. I need other experiences, different settings and context. A Viking town is rare and nice, but most of my protagonists weren’t townspeople. Plus, I’m an adventurer and just love the North. So as we’re talking, I’m packing my bags to use the time my family is visiting family next week to head north. Detaching myself is absolutely vital to set creativity free.

I’ve never before gone that far up all alone, but I’m literally squirming in my seat with excitement that I’ll now do it: fly to Oslo, drive to Borre, and stand on the very burial mounds my favourite historical characters are responsible for. The museum has to be amazing, and the whole site just oozing atmosphere. After at least a day there, I’ll go to Kaupang. The ancient piers are now gone, but the setting of the harbour and trading town should be inspiring still. I want to stand where my female protagonist in the “shield maiden” novel stands in my story, when she is on her very own journey. I need the surroundings to become her eyes and ears and fall into the scenery and imagine what it must have been like. Here, no museum or reconstructions help me do that. I have to use all my imagination to bring the times of the bustling settlement alive – just by standing on the very soil my heroes walked on.

Wish me luck! 🙂

What are your inspiring places, as a writer and also person? What are your favourite spots to sit and dream or become creative – or to just refresh and recover? Let us know in the comments, I’m curious to see where you need to go from time to time! 🙂


Sarah Dahl

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