So I asked Tessa to stop by and talk a little bit about how she researches the books she writes.
In order to write about my research for the United States of Asgard series, I got up from my desk and made a quick survey of all the books I’ve acquired since 2005 when I first began thinking about the potential in Norse mythology and Anglo-Saxon poetry for writing about modern American religion and politics.
In 5 minutes, I counted 42 separate books. Those are only the ones I could find easily. Not to mention the nearly 300 pages of internet print-outs I have of maps and lineages and charts of how early machines worked (like 2,000 year old standing looms and iron bloomeries).
The topics range from Viking history and the psychology of killing, to biographies of Snorri Sturluson who wrote many of the myths down, posttraumatic stress disorder, life in ancient Scandinavia, prophets, death cults, iron smelting, and the Catholic church’s rational for not allowing female priests.
It was a tremendous undertaking, and I’d been reading and learning about A-S culture and Vikings for nearly four years before I even put a single word to paper. Taking so long has allowed me to dig as deep as I wanted to, to explore seeming random corners if the fancy took me, but it’s also made it so sometimes I remember reading a fact, but can’t remember where. For example: one of my favorite analyses of the character of Loki from mythology suggested that the reason Loki was never mentioned in the earliest sources except as a giant was perhaps because when men were writing the stories down they wanted to distance Odin from his very dark deeds in order to make him more palatable to the Christian-influenced, and created Loki the trickster as we now know him as a sort of Devil-figure and antagonist for the gods. I can’t remember what book it was in, what article, or who suggested it other than that it was at least a fifty year old theory. Aggravating!
On the other hand, I also spent four months tracking down one of the only nice copies of a thirty year old book about the queen from Beowulf and the Valkyrie tradition, which goes for an easy $100 everywhere.
Here are some of my favorite things:
- Most Vikings were farmers!
- Viking women could often own property and divorce their husbands for any reason.
- Odin was a god of the elite: kings and warriors. Thor was the god regular people worshipped most often, or Freyr the god of fertility.
- There’s a debate about whether or not the “blood eagle” Vikings are famous for, where they crack open the ribs of a sacrifice and pull out the lungs like wings, was ever really performed. It was only recounted in poetry though they weren’t shy about killing or ritual sacrifice. Usually they hung people or set them on fire.
- Ragnar Lodbrok, legendary Norse warrior the TV show “Vikings” is based on, was supposedly killed by his enemy the king of Northumbria by being thrown into a pit of snakes and bitten to death! His death is immortalized in the poem “The Krakumal” where he says “I die with a laugh.” I based the Berserker’s Prayer that Soren recited in THE LOST SUN on Ragnar’s poem.
I highly recommend starting with the internet to find out what you’re interested in, and taking those interests to a library or book store for more in-depth reading. Or just dive right in with any of the following:
History and analysis:
A Beowulf Handbook ed by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles
Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H R Ellis Davidson
Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myth by Nancy Marie Brown
The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown
Woman as Hero in Old English Literature by Jane Chance
Beowulf’s Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition by Helen Damico
The Vikings: A History by Robert Ferguson
Poetry and mythology:
Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology by Kevin Crossley-Holland
The Saga of the Volsungs by Jesse L. Byock
The Sagas of the Icelanders (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J.R.R. Tolkien
I just finished writing the last book of the series, and am working on some fun extras, but as for my research, I’ve moved on to my next big project which I hope to start writing in 18 months or 2 years. Until then I’ll be writing stand-alone projects and stories that require less of a research investment – I need a BREAK from beloved research!
My current research pile:
And because she's too polite to add it to her lists, an obvious must-buy are both of Tessa's books in this series, The Lost Sun, and next weeks release, The Strange Maid. For more about Tessa herself, as well as her other books, check out her website TessaGratton.com , her always fun tumblr Odin's B*tch, and of course her twitter handle @tessagratton.