The Viking world. No supermarkets, paved roads, or telephones. No cozy couch or soft bed. Food, clothing, and shelter exist only when someone hunts, farms, spins-weaves-sews, and hacks down enough trees to build it. The reality of living in those conditions may be too much for us to really grasp.
Stories depend on a believable setting. But for readers, do details of vanished worlds sometimes get in the way of the story? How much description of the fire pit, the pot of stew simmering on a bed of coals, do you need in order to mentally transport to that place and time, to appreciate the character’s reality?
Is it enough to know the wounded warrior lies on a pallet, or do you want to know that the bed is a layer of straw under a worn elk hide?
These are the questions that plague authors of historical fiction. We can’t simply write a story set in the year 800. We have to dig into history, archaeology, and—yes—other historical fiction in order to learn about those times. Once we’ve invested all that time and energy into learning how the flax was dyed and spun into thread, it’s really painful not to share those details with our readers.
[Fun Fact — more here.]
In truth, most readers probably don’t care about the flax plant used to produce a square of linen cloth. The burning question, what readers want to know is what did the warrior do when the maid sponged his bloody wound with that cloth?
For authors, it’s a delicate dance deciding how much description, how much ‘world-building’ we should offer the readers of historical romance. In the case of Conquests, each of thirteen authors had to make these choices in order to prepare her story for this anthology. Each of us have decided not to talk about the dyeing or spinning of thread, but rather to hint at as many details as possible as quickly as possible so that most of our words move the action forward.
Yes, he reacts when she gently wipes blood from his swollen leg. He grabs her wrist. His piercing blue eyes betray his need to trust her, to relax and receive life-giving care. But his experience has taught him hard life lessons. No one can be trusted.
“Leave me,” he growls.
Luckily for authors and readers, present-day Viking stories join an increasingly rich knowledge base. Before the Vikings television series, the Scandinavian people who went a-viking existed in most of our minds as a vague bit of history. Swedes, Norse, and Danes could have lived on another planet for all we knew. But now, at least for fans of the TV series, the Viking world with its warships, armor, weapons, intrigues, and cultural nuances has become a living reality.
For writers who want to tell Viking stories, visual images in movies and television programs do a lot of work for us. But we have to be careful about what we assume. There are many readers present and future who have not seen these programs. An author’s work becomes even more difficult as we seek that thin line between boring readers with too many details and leaving readers confused or uninvolved by not telling enough.
To assist readers of our new anthology Conquests, we’ve set up a Pinterest page with lots of photos and neat bits of Viking lore. Check it out here.
P.S. She stares him down, pulls her wrist free of his grip, and continues tending his wound.