Author Eric Schumacher offers advice on building a chronology of world events when writing historical fiction. Eric writes Viking historical fiction and is the author of six novels. The first three were part of a series called Hakon’s Saga, which tells the story of the Norwegian king Hakon “the Good.”
The next three are part of a series about the Viking king, Olaf Tryggvason, and his rise to the throne of Viking Age Norway. The last of these, Wolves of Wagria, released on November 15 on Amazon.
First of all, thank you for having me on your wonderful blog to talk about a topic that is near and dear to my heart: the importance of creating a chronology of world events. It sounds dry, and to some, it might be, but to my writing, it is critically important.
Characters Don’t Exist in a Vaccum
The more I study my main subject – the Vikings – the more I believe that they knew a lot about the world in which they operated. Their seafaring ways and trading practices gave them deep knowledge about politics and warfare all across Europe and down to Byzantium. Besides, they were, for the most part, opportunists who tried to avoid pitched battles, unless they had a large army with which to fight. Their decisions to attack certain areas at certain times, and their decisions to ally themselves with certain leaders, were not all random choices.
It stands to reason, then, that the decisions of my main characters (who are mostly kings or kings-in-the-making) as well as the people they encounter are based, to a certain extent, on world events. For that reason, I do my best to understand what is happening in the various kingdoms at the times in which my main characters lived.
Not all of the information is 100% accurate, of course, because much of the historical information we have of those times was written decades or centuries after the events occurred. Still, if you can piece together a chronology from a number of sources, and be consistent with it across your series, it will help you tremendously as you shape your characters’ worlds and stories.
What’s more, in piecing together your chronology, you may discover details about your own character’s life. I’ll give you an example. My new book, Wolves of Wagria, takes place in a small realm named Wagria, which is present-day Holstein. Had I not done my research and created a chronology, it very well could have taken place in Poland. Why?
The sagas tell us that Olaf is blown off course while sailing, and lands in a vast area called Vendland. Vendland is a general term used to describe the southern shoreline of the Baltic Sea – an area that stretched from the current Baltic states to Germany’s eastern border. At that time, the population of that shoreline was Western Slavic. Olaf is brought to the court of a king named “Boreslaw” (Burislaf), who had three daughters. Some have thought this Burislaf to be the son of the Polish king, Meiszko I, who existed at that time. But there were problems with that.
First, the timing was off. Meiszko I’s Burislaf wasn’t born until roughly AD 967, which would make him only five years old when this story unfolds. There was no way he could have had a daughter (let alone three) at the time that Olaf was in Vendland.
Then, there was an issue of alliances. The sagas tell us that Olaf goes to fight with Burislaf when Otto II calls upon him. Not only did Otto II not become sole king until AD 973, but even if Burislaf, son of Meiszko I, were of fighting age, his father owed no allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire. Not to mention, at the time of this particular fight, Meiszko I was actually fighting against the Germans, not allied with them.
By piecing together the time of other events and other people, I knew it had to be another Burislaf.
It was then that I ran across Omeljan Pritsak’s study on Olaf called “On the Chronology of Olaf Tryggvason and Volodimer the Great: The Saga’s Relative Chronology as a Historical Source.” In it, Pritsak suggests that the Burislaf in question may have been a Slavic king ruling the realm of Wagria.
At that time in history, Wagria was a West Slavic kingdom located to the southeast of Danish Hedeby in what is today Holstein. Then, the Wagrians were a constituent tribe of the Obodrite confederacy that bordered northern Germany, though they owed allegiance to the Christian kings of Germany, namely Otto I and later, Otto II. Therefore, any prince of the Wagrian people would have come had Otto II called upon him. While not much is written about Wagria or its leaders, the case Pritsak makes in his study is compelling and plausible, both from the standpoint of timing and alliances.
Historical fiction writers attempt to stick closely to known history. The problem with writing about the Viking Age is that many of the sagas were written decades and even centuries after the historical figures lived. There are very few contemporary resources and many of those mention historical figures by names that could apply to many different people. Still, I do my best to match historical references to saga tales, while still telling a good story. My research and chronology were telling me something didn’t add up. Pritsak’s study had similar questions and offered a plausible suggestion. And so I chose Wagria as the center of the story’s action.
Much happens in Wagria during Olaf’s time in the kingdom, but I will not divulge any secrets here. You will have to read the book to learn all about his time and his adventures in that ancient place.
Thanks for the insight, Eric. I can’t imagine writing a novel set in such a long-ago time. Dipping my toe in the 1870s was difficult enough! Best wishes for Wolves of Wagria.
It is AD 972. Olaf Tryggvason and his oath-sworn protector, Torgil, are once again on the move. They have left the Rus kingdom and now travel the Baltic Sea in search of plunder and fame. But a fateful storm lands them on the Vendish coastline in a kingdom called Wagria (present-day Holstein).
There, they find themselves caught between the aggression of the Danes, the political aspirations of the Wagrian lords, and the shifting politics in Saxland. Can they survive or will they become just one more casualty of kingly ambitions? Find out in this harrowing sequel to the best-selling Forged by Iron and Sigurd’s Swords.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.