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Epic Fails - Practical Research for A Mighty Dawn

It goes without saying that an epic novel like A Mighty Dawn demands a lot of research in order to create a world that feels authentic. Long hours and days have been spent in various libraries, sifting through texts about Scandinavian archaeology or Norse mythology, or traipsing through museums to peer into glass cabinets at artefacts from the period, wondering how they might fit into my story. And then there’s Wikipedia, of course.

But there’s nothing like getting your hands dirty with some practical research. So I thought I would describe one of two instances when this didn’t quite work out as planned.

One New Year’s Eve, depressed at the prospect of another uninspiring party at the house of a friend of a friend’s – even worse, I was a sympathy invite – I decided to call off sick and see in the New Year on my own. I drove off to Holkham beach on the north Norfolk coast, not entirely sure what I would do when I got there.

As midnight approached, I wandered in the darkness through the pine woods that bordered the beach, listening to the winds in the treetops, gazing up through the branches at the clouds chasing overhead, trying to imagine what characters like Hakan or Lilla would have felt in the same situation. I then walked out to the sea and watched the waves for a while, overshadowed by a vast canopy of stars, breathing in the “Northernness” of a chilly winter’s night. It could have been the 21st century; it could have been the 8th. Nothing would have been different. And to feel the way the mind and senses wove together was useful, even illuminating. However, on my walk back to the car, it seemed my night-dreaming had gone on a bit long and the tide had come in behind me, leaving me on the wrong side of a tidal creek. After plunging knee-deep into glutinous Norfolk mud at the cost of one trainer, as I trudged back to the car, mud-caked and a bit fed up, I reflected that there were probably wiser ways of generating the same experience. Still, better than seeing in the New Year exchanging insipid platitudes over warm champagne.

Swordplay, of course, plays a big role in A Mighty Dawn. Because I find choreographing fight scenes probably the hardest thing about writing this kind of book, I thought what better way to sharpen my descriptive skills than to experience some medieval combat myself. One Google search later I found myself armed, shoeless, and slightly afraid, in what I thought was a very confined space to be facing a master in the arts of medieval sword-fighting. I was wearing a fencing mask. Which was just as well, since my instructor was repeatedly jabbing me in the face with the point of his fake sword, shouting, “Go on, hit me! Hit me!” Of course, I couldn’t. In fact, I couldn’t do much that seemed very deadly at all, even after eight hours of tuition. It’s a sad moment in a man’s life when he has to admit to himself that he’s just not that dangerous with a sword.

But I did learn one important thing. Anyone who didn’t know what they were doing with their weapon of choice in that early Viking world would be dead within five seconds. Training, training, and more training seemed to be the key.

However, as far as commitment to the cause went, nothing quite matches my decision to bicycle across Sweden in the footsteps of Hakan’s lonely journey. Launching from Gothenburg in the southwest, my route cut straight across the country, northeast to Gamla Uppsala, the ancient royal seat of the Swedes. The idea was to get a sense of the topography, the lie of the land, the smell of the place and an appreciation of the physical challenges Hakan might have faced.

And that’s what I got, up to a point. It was a journey of roughly 600 miles, which might sound a lot, but it didn’t feel particularly epic. The topography was generally quite flat, no mountains or even many hills. Just forests and lakes, forests and lakes, with a bit of rolling farmland thrown in. Although the experience of passing through some thick Swedish spruce forests, and seeing the blisters of rock bubbling out of the ground now and then was helpful, the impression I had when I reached Uppsala was that it was all a bit… well, easy. And to be honest, that came across in my first draft. When my editor said it was all good, we just needed to make Halan’s journey more arduous, more epic - you know, mountains and ravines and glaciers and snowdrifts and stuff, my bleating response was, “But it’s not like that!”

Not acceptable. Which is where the idea for Hakan falling sick came to mind. If you’re feverish, hallucinating, weak with hunger and delusional then even the simplest walk through the woods can become an unending bone-chilling, muscle-wasting nightmare.

All of which goes to show that you shouldn’t be too dismayed by epic failures in your research. Usually something useful can be gleaned, even from the worst of them.

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