A Scenic Viking Voyage

For those who have been following my travels to Viking lands, I promised that I would upload photos to go along with my blog posts once I returned and had better Internet. You can see the main photos on my descriptions of our visits to Newfoundland and Labrador, Qaqortoq, Greenland and Iceland.

However, we visited a great many scenic places and took a lot of photos, so I’m posting a few more below of the highlights of our trip.

 

 

 

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The next stop on the voyage of the Vikings

Write what you know.

It’s good advice for aspiring writers. Nevertheless, I don’t exactly have daily encounters with Vikings, and until recently, I had never been to the parts of the world in which my novel is set.

However, the wonders of modern transportation have enabled me to see Greenland and Newfoundland – Leif Eirickson’s “Vinland” – up close. The ship that delivered me to the remote site of the Hvalsey Church ruins in Qaqortoq to see things I’ve only read about in research papers, has been far different than the ships the Norse probably used to get there. That’s a good thing, considering my fondness for heat, air conditioning, good food and penicillin.

I’m sitting in a chair overlooking the town of Bergen, Norway, as I write this. The red roofs and multi-colored buildings of the modern Norse make Qaqortoq seem a world away. It’s hard to imagine the oppression that the Icelandic settlers must have felt that caused them to escape the rule of the first Norwegian kings.

Iceland was nothing short of spectacular. The best place we visited was the Snorri Sturluson Museum on the site of the author’s home in Western Iceland. He was the author of many of the Icelandic sagas – a sort of national hero. The bookstore inside the museum alone was worth the trip. It was the largest collection of books related to the Viking era I’ve seen, exceeding even Amazon’s offerings.

Grounds of Snorristofa, the Snorri Stuluson Museum in Reykholt, Iceland

Grounds of Snorristofa, the Snorri Sturluson Museum in Reykholt, Iceland

After the visit to Snorri’s museum, we visited Thingvellir, the site of Iceland’s (and Europe’s) first legislative assembly, called the Althing. It’s now a national park covering a huge territory near Reykjavik. Because I’ve read a great deal about it, I had anticipated that Thingvellir would have an awe-inspiring energy to it, making visitors feel as if they were living in one of the sagas themselves. That didn’t quite happen.

Thingvellir,Iceland, the site of the first democratic assembly. It's now a national park.

Thingvellir, Iceland, the site of the first democratic assembly. It’s now a national park.

What Thingvellir inspires is a different kind of awe. It’s a valley ringed by volcanoes, and running through the middle, a fault line big enough to drive a truck through slashes the landscape like a giant axe! Here, the two tectonic plates of North America and Europe spread apart from each other, fed by the magma far beneath the crust. It’s tempting to say that east meets west here, but it’s probably more accurate to say that west meets… farther west.

The fault at Thingvellir. It was large enough to drive a car through -- until the fault swallowed the road that had been here.

The fault at Thingvellir. It was large enough to drive a car through — until the fault swallowed the road that had been here.

On the way to Thingvellir, our driver took a route that could be described as circuitous, at best. We ended up going over some of those volcanoes via a gravel road bumpy enough to make teeth fall out of our heads. It was a bit grueling on my leg, which is in an air cast because I broke my ankle in Greenland. But it did allow us to see parts of Iceland we would otherwise not have seen. The area around the volcanoes looks like what I imagine the surface of the moon would look like – vast fields of hard pillow lava with no signs of civilization. Miles and miles of uninhabitable land spread out in front of the bus, with the occasional glacier atop the mountains surrounding it.

The barren landscape atop the mountains in Iceland, on the way to Thingvellir.

The barren volcanic landscape atop the mountains in Iceland, on the way to Thingvellir.

We are on the last leg of our trip. We’ll say goodbye to Norway tomorrow as we head for Amsterdam. I have to say, I’m ready to see home again. This has been an incredible trip – one I never thought I would make – and it has enhanced my writing a great deal. To top it off, I’m within a few scenes of finishing the current draft of my novel. However, I’ll write more on that in the days ahead.

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Hvalsey Church Ruins, Qaqortoq, Greenland

We arrived in Qaqortoq, Greenland, shortly after I last posted. It’s the most exciting town you’ve never heard of, especially if you are into Viking era history. And I shall tell you why.

Our cruise ship had to anchor offshore, but once in town we found a boat captain who would take us further inland to visit the Hvalsey Church ruins.

The Hvalsey Church is an active archaeological site at the remains of a Viking-era structure built in the 1300s on the remains of a pre-existing church. There also are Viking-era farm buildings on the site. The church building may have belonged to the cousin of Eirik the Red, one Thorkell Farserk – at that time, it was common for wealthy landowners to own their own churches. The last official record we have of the Norse settlement in Greenland is of a wedding that took place at the Hvalsey Church in September of 1408. Sometime after that, the settlement disappeared. The reasons for this are a lively topic of debate among academics.

Hvalsey Church, Qaqortoq, Greenland

The Hvalsey church ruins near Qaqortoq, Greenland, looking out over the fjord. The church is an active archaeological site.

I knew I would want to visit the church from the time we began to plan our trip, since these are the best-preserved Norse ruins in Greenland. Getting there is not easy: there are no roads connecting towns in Greenland (much less roads to remote sites like Hvalsey), and the Greenlandic Inuit mostly use small boats to get around, just as the Norse probably did a thousand years ago. Qaqortoq is the largest town in southern Greenland with 3,000 residents, but it did not look even that big to us. Nevertheless, they entertain the passengers of three small cruise ships annually, so we were able to find a captain to take us where we wanted to go.

On the trip out to the church, we saw many icebergs in the water, some quite large, and I was glad we had chosen to come in mid-summer. No doubt those waters freeze over completely in winter. Our captain tried first to get us to a nearby archaeological site called the Hvalsey Fjord Farm, but a large industrial ship was monopolizing the dock there, so we couldn’t go ashore. With our hopes up, we proceeded to the church, which we were glad to see was mostly deserted save for a few archaeologists camping and working there.

The church itself is a stunningly well-preserved structure. It is roughly 50 by 25 feet, with several windows and doors, as well as a west-facing window with an arch. Researchers believe it had a sod roof, as did most other buildings in Norse Greenland, but of course it is now long gone.

The writer at the Hvalsey Church ruins near Qaqortoq, Greenland.

The writer at the Hvalsey Church ruins near Qaqortoq, Greenland.

We trudged up the hill from the dock to the ruins, fighting the black flies that were interested in our presence. It was a glorious day with a bright blue sky and I was aware that this adventure might be the highlight not only of our trip, but of the last five years of research I’ve done for my novel.

The small structure seemed surprisingly large inside. We took a few pictures and walked through and around the building. I knew from my research that the ground we walked on also included a small cemetery. I felt as if I were finally meeting some of the people I am writing about, or people who knew them, or perhaps their descendants. For someone who is writing about such a distant and remote place, that was quite something. Exhilarating, even.

After a short while, we made our way back to the boat, where our captain, Karl, awaited. Out of the boat’s cabin, he brought a special bag, offering us a glass of the local Greenlandic wine, and a single Tuborg beer. He did not speak much English, but everyone’s good mood was evident. As we drove away, I took one last look back, feeling as if I were looking back in time to a very, very different age, but one that was no longer as distant.

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Newfoundland and Labrador

We are in the middle of the Labrador Sea, on the way from Red Bay, Labrador to Qaqortoq, Greenland. We have spent the last few days seeing whales, seals and birds, as well as Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, and Red Bay, a former Basque Whaling Village. The temperature outside right now is a chilly 45 degrees Fahrenheit, a welcome change from Florida’s heat index of 106 degrees the day before we left.

We had a great time in Gros Morne Park yesterday, seeing the gorgeous mountains of Newfoundland. They call it the beginning of the “Viking Trail” but, despite the lovely mountains and beautiful lakes, we saw little evidence of anything Viking-related. To the north lays L’Ans Aux Meadows, the spot where Leif Erikson and his crew probably landed after their journey from Greenland a thousand years ago. It is about a six-hour drive, and quite remote.

However, I did have the chance to observe the natural landscape in Newfoundland, which was one of my purposes in coming on this trip. It is an area rich in trees. If it looked the same in the eleventh century, I can see why Leif chose it as a spot to establish a settlement, however temporary it was. (The Norse of Greenland returned to the area around L’Ans aux Meadows for several decades before abandoning the area.)

Nwfoundland

Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, Canada.

Across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the town of Red Bay, Labrador offered a stark contrast. When we dropped anchor just offshore this morning, the ship lay deep in a fog bank. We took one of the ship’s lifeboats to a rocky coast on the outside of town. On the way, we spied our first iceberg of the trip – a large flat hunk a bit larger than our craft. Of course, it was probably much larger under the water. It was streaked with blue, a sign that it had come from farther north. Glacial silt is what causes it to have an electric, otherworldly color.

I had not had high hopes for the town of Red Bay, even though it is a World Unesco Heritage site. In fact, yesterday I had considered not even going ashore, since the cruise line had failed to convey much enthusiasm for the place. I was pleasantly surprised, however. The town is home to about 300 people, but in the sixteenth century, thousands of Basque whalers lived and worked there. The whaling industry had just been born, and they had cornered the market for supplying whale oil for the lamps of Europe.

The town of Red Bay, Labrador, a former Basque whaling village.

The town of Red Bay, Labrador, a former Basque whaling village.

The town has a museum, a restaurant, a church and a dock. There are no trees, and the landscape is covered in grasses and moss that make it look somewhat barren. I was able to talk to several rangers from Parks Canada, who answered my odd questions. What sorts of small trappable mammals lived here? How far west do you have to go to find trees? The sorts of questions writers ask are not like the questions tourists ask. I got a few strange looks.

I did find out that Red Bay is full of one particular animal: black flies. They buzzed about us whenever the wind died down. I was glad I had worn a coat, which made me mostly inaccessible. We saw several of my shipmates wearing mosquito netting over their faces. The black flies may have to make an appearance in my novel. Even without them, it’s clear why Leif Erikson did not choose to make camp there. He probably sailed right past it on the way to L’Ans Aux Meadows, since it did not have the lumber he was looking for.

Linda and I were struck by the clarity of the water. In fact, the water was clearer than the air, which remained thick with fog for much of the day. We saw starfish on our way to the dock, and a bed of mussels behind the museum. And we learned that the cod fishing is excellent in those parts.

We’ll spend tomorrow in the Labrador Sea, before we reach Greenland on Friday.

 

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Viking Ships and Hardships

As I write this, we are currently aboard ship, sitting at lifeboat station one, admiring Boston from afar. We haven’t yet set sail. When this posts to Subsequent Chapters, we hope to be off the coast of Nova Scotia.

I have been thinking about what Leif Eirikson didn’t have as he set out from Greenland more than a thousand years ago to head south to Vinland. He certainly did not have the MS Veendam, with its six restaurants, fine art shop, casino and two auditoriums for shows.

We don’t know the name of Leif’s ship, but it almost certainly was a Viking knarr – a Norse trading ship. When most people think of Vikings, they think of the marauders who pillaged the coasts of England in the ninth and tenth century. However, they were also known for their skills at trading across Europe, from the Mediterranean to the Faeroe Islands and beyond, to Iceland and Greenland.

The Viking longboat – a craft built for raiding and war – is far more well-known than the humble knarr. The knarr was among the largest craft built by the Norse, and traders went far and wide carrying goods throughout Europe. The Norse families who settled in Greenland came from Iceland with their knarrs, which were more suitable for voyages on the open ocean. They were wider in the beam, which made them more stable. While longships couldn’t hold much beyond the men who used them, the knarr could hold cattle, sheep, timber or other cargo.

Leif Eirikson’s ship likely held at least 30 men. They slept on the deck under furs or homespun blankets, perhaps under a tent formed by a spare sail thrown over the ship’s rigging. Vikings didn’t sail at night, because their principal tool for navigation was the coast. No sextants or navigating by the stars for our Leif! Some people have speculated that they navigated using something called a sunstone, but archaeologists have yet to find one or figure out how, exactly, to use it.

Anything Leif’s men took was stored in barrels – if it was meant for the entire crew – or in each man’s personal bench, which served as a kind of trunk. I can imagine that those trunks were quite a bit smaller than my big hard-sided suitcase that was taken from me when entered the cruise port, to be delivered to my room later without my having even to wheel it up the gangplank.

The food Leif and his men ate would have been dried meat (possibly seal), fish (possibly cod), or game that they caught or killed on land. Although their ships were made of wood, they may have built cooking fires on board. Can you imagine cooking a stew of rabbit or cod on a swaying open boat in the North Atlantic? Thanks, but I’ll take the chicken that’s on the menu for dinner tonight on the Veendam.

Perhaps the thing I’m most grateful for (besides the luck of being born in the twentieth century rather than the tenth) is heat. Tonight, before we even reach the latitude of Vinland, we will see temperatures in the fifties (Fahrenheit). By the time we reach Greenland, I’ll be wearing a coat to go out on deck. Leif’s crew surely endured temperatures just above freezing on their journey, in addition to rain and perhaps high winds. It’s no wonder that his ship held only about 30 men, while the Veendam holds more than a thousand pampered tourists.

In closing, I’ll warn those of you who are reading that I heard today that we probably will lose our Internet for a few days around Iceland (which will be about a week from now – August 1) and then again as we are sailing amongst the fjords of Norway. I probably won’t be able to post then, but will do my best to post up until then, and then again after.

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Diagnosis: Gadgetitis

So many of us are chained to our electronic connectivity. I am no exception. I keep fussing over my gadgets to make sure they will work when we get to where we’re going without bankrupting me. And I keep reminding myself that yes, even Greenland has Internet these days.

And yet, it’s the remoteness of Greenland that so attracts me. That, and of course, the tenth century presence of the Vikings. I read somewhere that when Americans travel, they think they have to be prepared for any eventuality. I think that’s true in some part of me. But my the cast of first-world problems in my imagination seem to consist mostly of running out of books on my kindle.

Perhaps once we are en route I’ll be able to step away from my gadgets and truly experience the wonder of that remote area of the world.

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll even see a polar bear.

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Leif Eirikson’s Journey

Leif Eirikson’s journey to the New World was not an easy one. When he set out to sail from Greenland to present-day Newfoundland, he did it knowing that his voyage would be difficult and that he and his men might die or never be heard from again.

A little more than a millennium later, I am about to make the same journey — this time, in reverse.

Of course, my voyage, which will take me from Boston to Newfoundland, Greenland,Iceland and beyond, is apt to be just a shade less treacherous, because I am going by cruise ship.

I have been trying to get to Greenland for five years. It is not an easy land to visit. When I have investigated trips to its southern trip in the past, I’ve learned that in order to fly to Greenland, one has to first fly to Reykjavik. The cost is astronomical.

So when my partner, Linda (a former travel agent), found a cruise a few months ago that goes just where I want to go, we signed right up. We will see the highlights of Erickson’s voyage to Vinland, as well as the major Viking homelands of Iceland and Norway. I have very specific research for At World’s Edge to conduct as we travel. I worry that my computer’s hard drive will be overflowing by the time we get back. I also hope to have a completed manuscript when I return!

The map below (source: Smithsonian Institution) depicts the earliest Viking voyages through the North Atlantic to the site today known as L’Anse Aux Meadows, at the northern tip of Newfoundland. My trip will roughly follow the green line depicting the route Leif Eirikson took, with the exception of the portion in the Davis Strait, between Greenland and Baffin Island. (The ice and lack of good ports in that area makes it undesirable to cruise ship passengers whose names are not Robin Ingle.)

map viking voyages sized

In addition to looking forward to the trip, the thought that I will be in a confined space with hundreds of other people who are just ape about Vikings pleases me. I anticipate lots of good discussions. I suspect my voyage-in-reverse will be markedly better than Leif’s journey in an open boat with thirty men who haven’t showered in a long time. At least I hope it will.

I am beside myself with excitement. I’ll be posting a travelogue of sorts on this blog whenever I can get an Internet connection. I hope you’ll join me for updates every few days.

As the Vikings might have said in their own language, Far vel!

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Finishing the Never-ending Story

If you’ve been following this blog, do you ever wonder when the heck I’m going to finish my novel?

Most people are too polite to ask me. But I nevertheless have the same question every day, with every chapter and scene I write. When? WHEN? I hear about other writers having book launch parties (or other marketing occasions disguised as celebrations), and I wonder if I’ll ever get there. And that kind of questioning can be paralyzing enough to give up on this thing I’ve been working on so very hard. I’m grateful that I have not given in to that kind of discouragement.

The truth is this: I have no idea. I spend a great deal of time working on At World’s Edge. Although I usually work on several projects concurrently, I spend the bulk of my writing time on the novel. I work on it every day. I think about it constantly. The time I’ve taken to finish certainly isn’t due to a lack of inspiration.

Many people who don’t write think that when you sit down to write a novel, it flows out of you and onto the page in a fairly linear manner, and once you reach the end, you’re done! But in reality, there is much more to it than that: there’s the necessity of plotting, of creating a viable premise, of revision, of editing, and of persuading several people to be beta readers — and then revising based on that beta reading — and so on. I’m lucky that I have a lot of time to devote to these endeavors.

I have a significant portion of the novel written in first draft form for the second time. I nearly completed a prior first draft before realizing the story belonged to a different character (other than my original main character), and so I’ve essentially almost written this book twice from scratch. I’m lucky to have a great group of fellow writers who critique each chapter. If not for them, the process would be much more difficult.

No writer likes to be pinned down to a launch date, because so many things can derail the process. But I hope to finish the bulk of the writing and be through the editing stage (if not the revision stage) by the end of 2015. I hope you’ll stick with me by then so that you can read what all this hype is about!

 

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How to Help Your Writer Friends

People sometimes ask me what actions they can take to support my writing. I think many writers probably face this discussion now and then.

I know this partly because in this blog’s previous incarnation, I wrote about this in a post that became the most popular post I’d ever written (sadly, that incarnation went down a black hole). So now, I give you the updated version of how to help your writer friends. This list is in no particular order.

These suggestions apply whether or not your friend’s book is traditionally or independently published.

1. Read your friend’s book. Obviously, you’ll want to either buy or borrow the book in order to do this.

2. Write a review on a popular book site like Amazon, Goodreads, or Barnes and Noble. Reviews are incredibly important in the marketing of a book. In this day and age, much of the automated marketing that the big sellers like Amazon do is triggered by a book garnering five-star reviews. They do not have to be lengthy — in fact, just one sentence or phrase can be completely adequate. And you don’t have to buy the book through the website where you leave your review.

3. Recommend the book to other readers.

4. Ask your librarian to get the book if your library does not have a copy.

5. Give your copy to a friend and ask him/her to write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, etc.

6. “Like” the book’s page on Amazon. To do this, look for a “like” button near the title and click it.

7. Have your book club (if you have one) read and discuss the book. Invite the author to participate.

8. Leave a comment on your friend’s blog (like this one!).

9. Post a link to the book on whatever social media sites you use — Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, whatever. Tell people there what you thought of the book.

10. Ask your local independent book store if they carry the book, and if they don’t, ask them to.

Most writers would be very happy if you did any one of these things. Even just telling the writer that you read their work can have an amazingly positive effect.

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Five Things That Can Boost Your Creativity

It’s never any fun to sit in front of a blank computer screen, knowing that you’ll never reach your word count goal for the day. But unless you’re a citizen of Ladonia, you probably suffer from uncreative bouts, like me. I have discovered – by necessity, and through years of writing – several ways to kick my creativity into gear, even when the creative gods seem to be sleeping. Here are my top five methods for flipping that switch to boost your creativity when inspiration seems elusive:

  1. Brainstorm: It doesn’t matter what you brainstorm about. For me, it’s actually better if I brainstorm about something that doesn’t have to do with my story’s plot. Write down ten ideas for a new book, and then put those away while you start writing on your current project. Or brainstorm about the future of water. The topic is irrelevant. When I do this, the energy used while brainstorm spills over into my writing.
  2. Keep good company: Creativity breeds creativity. I’ve made a conscious effort to surround myself with people who are creative on a regular basis. It really does rub off, I think. While other writers (like Hugh Howey) do inspire me to buckle down and get to work, I find that more creativity rubs off on me from visual artists (potters, filmmakers, painters, etc.) and musicians, especially classical musicians. People like Ann Lindell, Jay Wiese, Ellen Knudson, Joshua Ingle and Kate Hanson.
  3. Play music: Listening to good, non-verbal music can be especially effective at boosting my creativity when I have a specific kind of scene to write. I listen for a few minutes before I start to write the scene, and sometimes turn the music off when I’m actually writing. For example, when I’m writing a battle scene in a story about Vikings, there is nothing like listening to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries to get me going, or even Greig’s In the Hall of the Mountain King.
  4. Write regularly: The more I write on a schedule, the more control I develop over my ability to bring out my creativity. Like most writers, I struggle with my writing schedule. This is known as  “butt-in-chair syndrome,” and is beautifully described and illustrated by Claire Legrand here. If I can consistently write at the same time of day for several weeks in a row, my creative muscles and my ability to turn off my internal editor get stronger.
  5. Seek out a very dull environment: I discovered this one in college. I lived in a dorm, and did my laundry in a laundromat in the basement of the building, frequently at midnight, when no one else was there. I would take a writing pad (this was before the days of laptops!), and as the white noise of the running machines lulled me nearly to unconsciousness, I found that the only way to entertain myself was to write. Given the lack of stimulation, my brain took itself on flights that it otherwise wouldn’t have.

These methods work for me. I’ve also heard from other writers that hunger also works – or the stark realization that you just have to do something to bring a little money in. That kind of pressure seems to have the opposite effect on me, though I do tend to respond to deadlines well if presented in the right ways. Another popular method I’ve heard about is taking a hot shower, since many people do some of their best thinking there. I’ve used this to get myself started as well. However, the methods in my top five tend to be more reliable for me.

It all boils down to knowing yourself and what makes you tick. I hope my little list is useful to you. Keep a look out for a future post on Five Things That Can Kill A Writer’s Creativity.

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