Back With A Vengeance

So I’ve jumped back aboard my longship. After a two-book sojourn in the 17th century, amongst Roundheads and Cavaliers, flashing blades, flaring muskets, horseflesh and the carnage of set-piece battles, I’ve packed my sea chest and turned my bristles into the salt spray once more – God Of Vengeance is now available in Hardback via Transworld/Bantam.

Here’s where I tell you the whale’s road was whispering to me like water across the bows. That the wonder-lust (plunder-lust?) was just too bright to ignore. And that’s all true. They do say a criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. But there was also some good old-fashioned Viking opportunism behind my decision to go dark (Ages) again. You see, the Vikings are coming.

Michael Hirst’s critically acclaimed television series Vikings is a global success, viewed in almost every market in the world. The second season will premiere on LoveFilm on February 28th, just 24 hours after its Stateside broadcast on History. Following exhibitions at the National Museum of Scotland and the Smithsonian, The British Museum has launched The BP Exhibition Vikings: Life And Legend. Former Lord of the Ringsproducer Barrie Osborne has revealed plans for an epic series of Viking movies; a proposed $100 million Viking trilogy, with Leonardo DiCaprio tipped to star. Storm Rosenberg, the Norwegian film company that bought the movie option for my own Raven trilogy, is in talks with a major Hollywood studio to develop two films from my three books.

From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord, to quote a phrase as genuine as Hollywood.

Last April I was 40,000 words deep in book three of my Bleeding Land (Civil War) trilogy when I started to see this Viking wave on the horizon. I put it to my agent that, well, if anyone was going to ride said wave it was going to be me. And perhaps Robert Low too, if we were lucky. It was a bold move, leaping from saddle to ship and taking the ‘P’ out of WIP (work in progress), but my publisher Transworld backed me to the hilt. I started writing. I didn’t have long if I was to have a book out the following spring, so I did what comes naturally: I didn’t plan a thing.

I didn’t have so much as a single page of plot worked out or written down. I just wrote. Gods, it was fun! And I wrote standing up, too. For man-points, obviously. Hemmingway, Churchill and Dickens all wrote standing (they probably didn’t even know about the several hundred extra calories one burns doing it. At least I hope that wasn’t their motivation). I also had this idea that scribing on my feet would imbue the writing with a vibrancy, with the energy of a berserker before the steel-storm. I was fluid and free and coffee-fuelled. And I wasn’t falling asleep at my desk, which is what 5 hours of broken sleep per night and two difficult but brilliant kids will do to you unless you take evasive action.

Furthermore, I was writing about a hero of mine, Sigurd the jarl from my Raven books. I’ve always had a thing for Sigurd, and now I was telling his story, which was made all the easier because I hadn’t really given him a back-story in the saga. I guess I didn’t plan those books, either.

So Sigurd’s story was weaving; and in June I headed out to Norway to drink up inspiration like Thor quaffing mead after a heavy sesh slaying giants. I was there to fish and eat cinnamon buns and mess about in motorboats. Oh, and to row the largest replica Viking ship ever built. Named after Harald Fairhair, the king who unified Norway into one kingdom, Draken Harald Hårfagre is a beauty – 114 feet of crafted oak and 27 feet on the beam, the ship displaces 70 tons. The sail alone, made of 3200 square feet of pure silk, is breathtaking to behold. Our job as crew was to put our muscle into the oars so that the Norwegian team could test-drive the beast and get a feel for its ways. And there were a lot of us too. The Harald Fairhair has 25 pairs of oars and so with two on each oar the dragon requires a crew of at least 100… yet it can be sailed by just 12.

We tried rowing one to an oar and then we tried two to an oar, the result being that we got a little bit more out of the ship, but nothing like twice the speed. The conclusion was that you’d be better off working in shifts, one crew rowing while the other rested. We tried rowing standing up, pushing the staves down to our shins to bring the oar blades high out of the water, a useful technique in a swell or rough seas, but back-breaking business. We tried orientating our sea chests (which we sat on) abeam and then lengthways fore-and-aft, as these small details were so mundane in the Viking Age as not to have been recorded. Both ways worked fine as I recall. And we found the most efficient rowing technique was one in which each stroke was so long that we ended up with our heads in the lap of the man (or woman) behind and we had to get the timing just right to avoid pain, or having to back it up with a proposition.

I came back to my standing desk with a nose still full of the sweet, tarry scent of the pine resin that coated every inch of wood and rope aboard (and which would have told any landlubbers within a sniff that a seafaring man was amongst them). My eyes were still crammed with the beautiful, intricate knot-work carved on the sheer strake and prow. My mind’s horizon was all pine-bristled islands and sea, and so I poured it all into the book. God of Vengeance is set on the island of Karmøy, where we rowers stayed in a basic, but clean, boarding house (with a Liverpudlian named Roy who growled ‘drink up!’ in his sleep – but that’s a tale for another time), and the story is imbued with the whiff of the hearth smoke from the longhouse a friend and I lingered in.

Don’t get me wrong: I thoroughly enjoy writing the Civil War stuff and will wade through the musket smoke again soon enough. But, and without wishing to sound too sentimental, ‘getting my Viking on’ felt like coming home. Perhaps not surprisingly given my Norwegian heritage and natural affinity with brutes in boats. In a way I suppose I’ve appealed to both sides of myself as a half-blood (the Battle of Stamford Bridge would have been awkward for me), as you don’t get more Scandinavian than Vikings (nobody mention Ikea), and no more British than the English Civil War.

So do look out for God of Vengeance when it is unleashed on April 24. They say it is my best yet. I don’t know about that – other than it might not be the compliment it at first appears to be – but I can tell you that writing probably shouldn’t be as much fun as it was for me, weaving this tale on the hoof.

Pack your sea chest and climb aboard. The sea road beckons and you can’t afjord (sorry, couldn’t resist) to hang around expecting the good plunder to still be there by the time you’ve combed your beard and done your plaits. The Vikings are coming. Again.

Giles Kristian for the Historical Writers Association

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