Things Are Broken, Part 2

In Part 1 of this continuing post, I wrote about—in addition to the fact that book 5 of The Strongbow Saga is still a good ways from being finished—the problems that we are all now facing and will face in the future due to climate change. As I explained, some dangerous times are coming, and we truly need to pull together—in this country, and also across the world—and help each other in order to face them.

The fact that, in the United States at least, we are currently not doing a good job at all of pulling together and one reason why, plus a bit of history to put our current times within a larger context, is the subject of this installment.

I am 66 years old. There has only been one other period during my life when I have seen this country as divided as it is now. But here’s a little reassurance—as bad as things may seem today, they were far worse then. Here’s a quick overview of that period, the 1960s through the early 1970s, before I discuss our present situation:

The troubles of that period grew mostly out of two ongoing events: the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, which to some extent was an outgrowth of the Cold War.  Although the Civil Rights Movement, in which black Americans began protesting their unequal treatment under the law and in practice in the United States, began in the late 1950s, it gained momentum and public attention during the 1960s as protests grew more frequent and larger, and—particularly in the south—opposition to the movement by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists became violent, including by murders of civil rights protestors and bombings of black churches. The violence against blacks led to the creation of the Black Power Movement, which espoused a more aggressive approach than the peaceful Civil Rights Movement, and ultimately led to the rise of armed groups such as the Black Panther Party, who sought to prevent mistreatment of blacks, particularly by the police, through their own threats of armed retaliatory violence.

The most prominent leader of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1968. In reaction to the assassination, large scale violent race riots broke out in over 100 U.S. cities. Shocked by the extent of the violence, President Johnson and the U.S. Congress quickly passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968, which added to protections of the earlier Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This period of the country’s history was scarred by other assassinations, as well: President John Kennedy in 1963, and Senator Robert Kennedy, a presidential candidate, in 1968.

The Vietnam War also had its origins during the 1950s, but the major involvement of U.S. forces did not begin until the early 1960s, a period when the tensions between Cold War opponents the United States and the Soviet Union were at a high level, peaking with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 which brought the two countries perilously close to nuclear war. Initially “sold” to the U.S. public as a necessary fight to stop the global spread of communism, the war in Vietnam was in its early years not unpopular among the American public. However, as the level of U.S. troop involvement—and of casualties—grew, public support for the war began to wane. A turning point occurred in 1968, when the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched the bloody Tet Offensive, aimed at overthrowing the South Vietnamese government. Although the offensive ultimately was defeated, U.S. forces suffered heavy casualties, and for a time control of some urban areas was challenged.

Back in the United States, the Tet Offensive, which received heavy coverage by U.S. news outlets, was taken by many as proving that the government’s rosy forecasts about how America was winning the war were false. Widespread protests against the war became more and more common, and at times violent. A low point occurred at peaceful student protest in 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio, during which responding National Guard troops, frightened by the protestors, shot and killed four unarmed students.

Opposition to the war gave rise to a wave domestic terrorism in the U.S., through the formation in 1969 of the radical group known as the Weathermen or the Weather Underground, who conducted a series of bombings, including of the U.S. Capitol in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972, to protest the war. A similar, but much more violent, wave of domestic terrorism involving murders, bank robberies, kidnappings, and bombings also swept across Italy and Germany during the 1970s, after the formation in 1970 of the left-wing terrorist groups the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany.

A major turning of the tide of public opinion against the war occurred in 1971, when a secret Department of Defense history of the Vietnam War was leaked to the New York Times, which began publishing it. The history, which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, laid out in detail the extent to which the government had been lying to the American people, and even to Congress, about its conduct of the war. The Nixon administration quickly obtained a court order blocking the Times from releasing any more of the Pentagon Papers after their initial articles. In response, the Washington Post then began printing summaries of them. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the lower court’s order, stating in part that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

With the full release of the Pentagon Papers, what remained of the American public’s support for the Vietnam War collapsed. In 1973 the United States pulled the last of its troops out of South Vietnam, which fell very soon thereafter to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong’s advancing forces.

To culminate the tumultuous period, in 1974 the Watergate Scandal broke, exposing corruption and illegal acts by the Nixon administration, and President Nixon resigned as president to avoid being impeached. As a historical side note, prior to his resignation, Nixon became so enraged and unstable due to the pressures of the unfolding scandal and investigation that many of his top aides, including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, feared he lacked the sanity to be in charge of the country’s nuclear arsenal, and that he might recklessly start a nuclear war, and made contingency plans to try to block him if he did.

Why, I suspect some may by now be asking, am I telling you this? Why is any of this past history relevant to today? Two reasons. First, as I stated up front, although our country is presently very badly divided and many of our citizens are polarized against each other, things for the most part were much worse during the 60s and 70s than they are today, and we managed to come out of it okay—although we are currently, frighteningly, more in danger of a nuclear war than we have been at any other time in history since the early 1960s, thanks to the dangerously reckless approach our current president has taken to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. But second, there is a troubling difference between that period of our history and today, and it is one we all need to be very aware of and concerned about.

Back during the 1960s and 70s, everyone in the United States was, for the most part, operating off of the same set of facts. Many people were still polarized to a very strong degree back then because of differing beliefs, of course, including the white supremacists versus the blacks and their supporters who were fighting for civil rights, and supporters of the Vietnam War versus protestors against it.  Opinions differed, at times violently, but what constituted “facts” were generally agreed upon. Back then, we all got our knowledge of the facts from the same news sources: local and national newspapers and the news reports by the three television networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC. For many years, of course, the entire country was misled about the true facts of the war, and those falsities were dutifully repeated by the major news outlets because they believed and trusted the government’s reports. But once the government’s deception began to be revealed, the major news sources all worked to dig out the truth.

This is no longer true today. There are at least two major and widely divergent versions of the facts, of what constitutes reality itself in this country, at play. One version is that presented by all of the major traditional news outlets—those same news sources that existed during the 1960s and 70s, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the three television networks’ news services, plus CNN, a cable news station founded in 1980—who for the most part agree on what constitutes reality and truth. The other version, the other “reality,” is put forward by various pseudo news outlets, including (and I have no doubt that this will anger, perhaps even enrage, some who read it) the Fox News network, owned by conservative Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch, plus many conservative commentators on radio, television, and the internet.

I am trying to write this post in as nonpolitical tone as possible, although it is to some extent a politically charged topic. My hope is not to provoke anger or hostility, it is to hopefully stimulate thought and concern. The people of this country cannot learn to pull together again as a nation if the different factions that currently exist cannot even agree on what reality is. Facts are facts. The truth is the truth. There is a reason that long-established newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times have repeatedly won journalism awards such as the Pulitzer Prize. They are devoted to uncovering and disseminating the truth, as they did in 1971 when they exposed the government’s lies about the Vietnam War. And there is a reason the Fox News network does not win major journalism awards: it is devoted to pushing a conservative agenda, including by often slanting the news or, in the case of many of its “editorial commentators” such as Fox and Friends or Sean Hannity, flat-out making things up.

The major news outlets are often accused by conservatives of having a liberal slant to their news presentations. Is it true? I read a very interesting article about a recent study conducted of several major news sources to test that accusation. It found that actually most of the news stories reported by the major outlets, including CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, have a very high level of factual accuracy—and moreover, when these news sources do make mistakes, they are scrupulous at issuing corrections. What this study found is that it is often the facts—i.e., the truth–that have what conservatives would claim is a liberal bias. In other words, when, for example, the major news sources report about global warming, and the overwhelming consensus of scientists around the world that global warming is real, worsening, and is caused by human activity, that is not liberally biased reporting—it’s just the truth. When they report that Republican sponsored legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act would cause tens of millions of our citizens to lose health care coverage, that’s not liberal bias, it’s the truth. And when they report that the recent Republican tax bill, touted as a big gift to the middle class, actually gives huge financial benefits to wealthy, again, that’s the truth.

Believing in separate realities often seems to give rise to tremendous anger. As an example, after my first post in this series, I received an email from a clearly furious individual who identified herself as a long-time, but now former, fan of my novels. The email, which was written with lots of CAPITAL LETTERS for emphasis, railed against me for spreading the “False Narrative” of global warming, and its writer went on to say that she was one of the only 25% of people in this country who actually hold down a job (a very questionable statistic), that she was “Sick and tired of working and supporting the people that don’t work, will never work and expect me…to support them,” and that as to the person I referred to in my post as “ONE IGNORANT MAN…That Man Has and IS SUPPORTED by thousands of hard working  people like me AND NOTHING you or the FAKE NEWS say about him will EVER change that fact.” That’s a pretty strong, angry, and far-ranging reaction to a post about the dangers of global warming and our need to pull together to deal with its threats. But her anger stems from this existence of belief in two separate realities. From her perspective, I was not just expressing views contrary to her own, I was questioning the very reality which she chooses to believe in.

How can we ever reach common ground with others who live, or at least believe they live, in a world that is totally different from the world we live in? How can we reach common ground, and pull together, with others who wholeheartedly believe in a reality that actually does not exist, and who believe that the world we live in is a lie, is “fake news”? This is a major challenge we are facing today, one that did not exist during the 1960s and 70s.

To borrow a line from the television show the X Files, the truth is out there. And to again quote the U.S. Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case, “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government,” a problem we are once again facing in the United States. It is important that we all know what the truth is. If you do not already regularly follow the news, please start to do so—and from reliable sources. It is dangerous to make important decisions, such as choosing whom to elect to public office to run our country, based on a reality that actually does not exist. If you are a fan of the Fox News network, please at least also regularly get news from some other sources, such as any of the network news shows, CNN, or the major newspapers. Question why the stories presented are so different. And if you get the majority of your news from Facebook, please just don’t! Facebook itself manipulates the stories you see—you are not in charge. But even more importantly, all of the intelligence services in the United States government agree that Russia has made, and continues to make, widespread use of Facebook and Twitter to circulate false news stories as a means of attacking the U.S., purposely trying to create factions and stir up anger among the American people. The Russians understand that a divided populace makes a country much weaker than a united one, so that is their goal—to weaken the U.S. We need to find common ground and work together, because we are all Americans, and we are all in this together.

To be continued.

Things Are Broken, Part 1

Let’s make the obvious official, and get the bad news out of the way right up front: Book 5 of the Strongbow Saga will not be released in 2017. As I’ll explain in greater detail below, I have lost too much time in recent months to have been able to even complete writing the book, much less complete the steps necessary to publish it, including editing, formatting for print and e-book editions, and getting a cover designed. I am very, very sorry, but it just did not work out to be possible this year. My new goal is to complete and publish it sometime in the first half of 2018.

So what happened?  In a nutshell, this summer was a tough one for us.  About five and a half years ago my wife, Jeanette, and I moved from Houston, Texas to a small farm in the McKenzie River Valley in western Oregon to change from city life to a homesteading lifestyle.  As part of our new life, we strive to produce a majority of the food we consume. We grow a large variety of fruits and vegetables, raise chickens for eggs and occasionally meat, and have a herd of sheep, which also provides meat. It’s a lifestyle that puts us closely in touch with nature and with the natural cycles and rhythms of life. It’s also a lot of work and sometimes quite exhausting, but we enjoy it.  To the extent it’s a burden, it’s one we choose.

This year, Mother Nature made the burden much harder. Spring was unusually cold, wet, and late.  Whereas we normally begin planting our extensive garden as early as April, and typically have it fully in by early June, this year, due to the weather, we were forced to delay most of the planting until June, which meant that every day during the early summer was consumed with frantic work in the garden trying to get things planted in time for them to reach maturity and harvest. Then, by July when the garden finally began producing steadily, once again our time frame was compressed, and our days were spent harvesting and processing crops for storage, either by freezing, canning, or (on a small scale) fermentation. The winter’s supply of hay also had to be cut—something we normally do in June and July, but this year couldn’t get too until late August and early September.

Simply put, June through October were exhausting. And adding to the feeling of relentless grind was the often brutally hot and very dry weather of July and August, forcing us often to do our outside work late into the evening after temperatures began to fall. Also, during much of August and part of September, thick smoke (as the photo above illustrates) often blanketed our farm from the numerous wildfires burning across Oregon, some only ten to fifteen miles away. Most days we only ended up grabbing an hour or so of respite, usually after 11:00 PM, by collapsing on the sofa with our dinner and our good friends a bottle of wine and Netflix.

By mid-fall, when the garden chores finally began to slow—and thankfully, the rains began and extinguished the wildfires—we had to catch upon everything other than the garden that we had been neglecting on the farm. Needless to say, no work of any kind occurred on the book during that stretch of months from June through early November. Only recently have we begun to feel “caught up,” and only recently could I even contemplate getting back to work on Halfdan’s story—although encouragingly, I have made some good progress in the past month.

But though this summer was a struggle for us, we cannot help but feel, in light of what has been happening around the world this year, to feel fortunate. Our freezers are full with the bounty from our farm, and we have our health—although Jeanette was injured earlier this month, painfully but fortunately not permanently, when a young ram butted her in the leg.  2017 was so much worse for so many others. It has been a year of terrible natural disasters: hurricanes hitting Texas and Florida, devastating Puerto Rico—where over half of the population are still, months later, without electrical power—and other islands in the Caribbean, and even striking, of all places, Ireland; huge, deadly wildfires raging around the globe, including in Portugal and California (where some fires are still burning even still), several horrific mass shootings in this country, and brutal acts of terrorism in others. We dealt with exhaustion and lost time, but compared to so many who have experienced devastating loss, we are among the lucky ones.

It feels like the earth spoke this year. Although there are still those, including the current president of the United States and many cabinet leaders in his administration, who try to deny it, we are all facing a very dangerous global threat. The earth’s climate is broken, and we—human beings— broke it.

The deniers argue that there have always been climate shifts, with prolonged cold periods, like the ice ages, and prolonged hot ones. That is a simplistic argument that ignores what is different about what is happening now. Past major climate shifts occurred gradually over extended periods of time, hundreds or sometimes even thousands of years. This one is happening at a speed that has never been seen before. Every year the average temperature of the planet is rising. Almost every year new records are set for high temperatures, droughts, and other measures of climate.  And the rapidly rising temperatures are setting in motion more and more extreme weather patterns and catastrophic weather-caused events.

This is not theory or conjecture. It is accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientists around the world. It is accepted by the government of every single country in the world—except the United States, thanks to our science-denier president. Think about that. Every other country in the world has now joined the Paris Climate Accord, an international agreement that human-caused climate change is happening, that it is terribly dangerous, and that every nation must do what it can to curb the emission of greenhouse gases in order to try to slow the warming of the planet. The only country in the world now not a part of the Paris Climate Accord is the United States, because an ignorant man thinks that the world coming together to fight a great danger was a “bad deal” for the United States.

We are all citizens of the earth. We are all in this together. Things are going to get worse. I would like to be able to add “before they get better,” but there is really no assurance that they are going to get better, at least not in our lifetimes, if at all. The planet, and the human species, are in uncharted territory.

Let me give one small example. My son is a scientist in training. He is a PhD candidate in an area of very advanced applied mathematics: creating mathematical models to predict real-world biological trends and events. He visited for the Christmas holidays, and spoke about one such predictive problem he’d been studying: the bleaching and dying of coral reefs around the world, due to rising ocean temperatures. He explained that the difficulty creating a predictive model about the reefs illustrates how what is happening with the climate is a new phenomenon. Normally historical data on things such as prior occasions of coral reef bleaching, changing ocean temperatures, etc., over time would be used to create a mathematical model. But there is no prior data. There is no evidence that a mass die-off of coral reefs has ever occurred before. But it is happening now, and the rate at which it is occurring is accelerating. There is a genuine possibility that the tiny sea creatures that create coral reefs may be facing extinction.

That might not sound very serious to you. But life on this earth is intricately interconnected. Coral reefs create rich, healthy habitat for a large variety of fish and other sea creatures. If the reefs all die, it will have a negative impact on every creature that depends upon them to live. Numerous major close-to-shore fisheries around the world will collapse. When that happens, millions of people will lose not only their means of supporting themselves and their families, but also their primary source of food.

That is the elephant in the room that so far has not been widely addressed in discussions of climate change. As species extinctions occur, as areas that now are capable of producing food no longer will be able to due to drought, as heavily populated coastal areas become uninhabitable due to rising sea levels caused by melting arctic ice, there is going to be a humanitarian crisis on a scale the world has never seen.

Think about it. Try to get your head around it. Over the past few years, the European Union has been strained at times almost to the breaking point by an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the wars in the Middle East and Africa. That is just a fraction of what is likely to occur as the climate changes brought on by increasing global temperatures progresses. What is going to happen when there are millions upon millions facing and trying to flee starvation and uninhabitable homes?

We are all in this thing together. We had better start acting like it.

To be continued.

Why Is He So Slow!? (A Book Five Update)

A fan of the Strongbow Saga series, Jaeden Byerly, recently asked on the Discussions page of this website when, or even if, book 5 might be coming out. I am painfully aware that I am running far behind on finishing and publishing it. But I really appreciate the very understanding tone of Jaeden’s inquiry, and on reading it felt it is long past time to give readers an update on where I am on the book.

I know that there are authors who regularly manage to publish at least one book per year, and I have one author acquaintance who often publishes more than one per year. Why, I’m sure all fans of the series must wonder, am I so slow? Let me try to explain.

First of all, writing is not a full time job for me. For some authors—like the one I know who sometimes writes more than one book a year—it is. That’s their only job, that’s all they work at. For me, writing is one of four part-time jobs that I have to try to divide my time among.

The most time consuming of my jobs is the farm that my wife, Jeanette, and I moved to five years ago. Although it’s just a homestead farm, not a commercial one—by that I mean that we only grow crops and raise animals to provide for our own food needs, not to sell—it still requires some amount of work (often quite a lot) every day. There are chickens and sheep to tend to every day, and our large garden requires a lot of work to plant, care for, harvest, preserve the food, etc. But after decades of working at often emotionally grueling jobs in law and law enforcement for me, and nursing for Jeanette, it is a life that we find brings us much peace, satisfaction, and pleasure, and to be able to experience that we gladly accept the amount of constant physical labor the life requires.

We have also chosen to embrace this farm life for health reasons. Many people, as they grow older, become less and less active, which tends to have deleterious effects on both the mind and body. We have chosen to fight aging as much as possible by becoming more active, not less.  Additionally, I have for some years now had a chronic health problem: Multiple Sclerosis. Years ago, when I first became ill with it, I was often quite sick, to the point where I could not realistically hold down a full time job any more. But I have in recent years found that I can keep the effects of my MS at a very manageable level through eating a very healthy diet: large amounts of organically raised fruits and vegetables, which are free of any chemical contaminants, and for proteins we eat wild-caught seafood and only pasture-fed meats (to a large extent from our own chickens and sheep). By producing a large percentage of what we eat, we can ensure that our food does not contain chemicals, hormones, drugs, or any of the other contaminants that are frequently found in commercially produced food products. Adopting this diet has wonders on my MS.

Admittedly, when we took on this new life five years ago, Jeanette and I had no idea what we were getting into, nor any concept of how constantly demanding the life would be. Without question, it takes a lot of time away from writing (or anything else, for that matter). But for health and happiness, that is a trade-off I’ve chosen to make.

Another of the part time jobs that consume my time is running our publishing business. The first three books of the Strongbow Saga were originally published by HarperCollins, one of the big publishers. With them in charge, I made almost nothing from the books. So about seven years ago, I regained the rights to the series, and Jeanette and I set up our own company through which we republished books one through three, and eventually published book four in late 2013. Through our company we also arranged for the creation of the audio book editions, and have been gradually getting the series translated into German and on sale in Germany. But running a business takes time. Even when we’re not engaged in a special project, such as audio book production, I spend several days every month bogged down doing business paperwork: logging in monthly royalty payments, paying royalties to our German translator, paying monthly payroll taxes and keeping up with the extensive documentation any business must maintain. Again, it takes away from potential writing time, but if we weren’t publishing the books ourselves, I would not be able to afford to keep writing, nor could we afford to live on our farm.

But the books currently do not bring in enough monthly income to fully cover all of our expenses—do not assume that most writers, including this one, make a lot of money. I have to supplement my writing income so we can make ends meet, which I do by investing, which requires a number of hours of my time every week to manage.

Finally, we come to the writing. From the above, it must be obvious that I do not have time every day to write. That alone is a big part of why book five has been taking so long to see the light, and why book four did, too. But it is more than just a question of time—it also has to do with how I write.

When I begin work on a new installment of the Strongbow Saga story, I initially have only a very broad, general idea of where the story is going to go next. With book four, for example (I don’t want to give out any major spoilers on book 5), my starting outline was basically that:

  • The Danish army returns to Denmark after its victory in Frankia;
  • Halfdan returns to his family’s estate, seeking revenge against Toke;
  • Toke has been forewarned warned by the crew of Snorre’s ship, who left Paris on the night of the duel, before the rest of the Viking fleet departed;
  • Toke kidnaps Sigrid and flees, intending to sell her into slavery in Birka, a major trading center in the kingdom of the Sveas (Sweden);
  • Halfdan and Hastein pursue Toke across the Baltic;
  • A major sea battle occurs.

As an aside here, part of what I have been doing in the Strongbow Saga, besides just telling Halfdan’s tale, is over the course of all of the books presenting the reader with a thorough, historically accurate cross section of what the Viking world was really like in the ninth century. For instance, something that occurs often in the old Viking sagas are violent feuds and nighttime attacks on homesteads, as part of those feuds. Those elements of Viking life appeared in book one, Viking Warrior. Viking raids against other lands were obviously also a large element of the Viking era. Those are reflected to some extent in book one, in the tales of Hrorik’s ill-fated raid on England which brings about his death, plus the earlier raid into Ireland when Derdriu is captured. And the very large scale attack on Frankia—a raid on an entirely different scale, more warfare than raid, and an actual event of the ninth century—provides the the primary setting and historical backdrop for books two and three, Dragons from the Sea and The Road to Vengeance.  Another very iconic aspect of the Viking period was the occasional battles at sea which are related in a number of the old sagas, so I have almost from the beginning intended to at some point work such a battle into the story, and decided to in book four. Similarly, there are specific aspects of Viking life and the Viking period that I have long intended to be a backdrop for that part of the story contained in book five.

Because my goal is to present a very historically accurate picture of the Vikings’ culture and society and of the time period, my writing is very much research driven. What that means is that as I do research for a particular book, invariably the more I learn about an area, a historical event, or the like, the more my bare bones starting outline becomes fleshed out with additional details, or sometimes even new subplots and story lines. In book four, for example, as I researched the route across the Baltic Sea that Toke and his pursuers would have followed, I discovered the island of Oland, with its mysterious series of ancient, abandoned fortresses, and chose to weave it into the story. My research also uncovered that pirates were a serious problem in the Baltic, and that, around the time the story was set, Frankish Christian missionaries were violently expelled from Birka, and a Danish attack on that town was threatened. All of these became elements of Halfdan’s tale in book four as the story developed.

The story also always evolves as I become more deeply engaged with the characters, and try to think about what they would have been thinking and feeling in any given situation or scene. That led me to realize in book four, for example, that it would be unlikely that all of the warriors at Hrorik’s estate would readily accept Halfdan, a former slave, as their leader, and so led to the creation of a whole new aspect of the story I previously had not anticipated.

I’ve explained all of this because it has been a major factor in why book five has been slow to develop. Without getting into too much detail, the first part of the story in book five deals with the efforts by Halfdan, Hastein, and their men to find and rescue Sigrid, who was sold in Birka to an Arab slave trader. The Vikings’ eastern trade routes, and their presence in what now is eastern Russia and the Ukraine, were an important part of the Viking world, and I have always intended to take Halfdan’s story there so the reader can see that side of the ninth century Viking world. But the research has proved to be far more difficult and time consuming than I anticipated. For the ninth century time period when the story is set, there are far fewer sources, and far less concrete historical knowledge, of what was happening in Russia compared to what was happening in the west, in locations like England, Frankia, and Ireland. By the mid-tenth century, a powerful kingdom, known as the Rus, had emerged in Russia and the Ukraine, and it was clearly Scandinavian in origin. But how that kingdom came to be created from what was, in the early and mid-ninth century, apparently just random trading expeditions, is very murky, and even historians who have specialized in the study of the Rus are not in complete agreement.

If I could not understand and see the historical background and locations which formed the setting for the first part of book five’s story, it was proving impossible for me to visualize the story, to put my characters into it and see how they would act and react. That’s how I write—I see the story play out visually in my mind, then put it into words on the page.

The good news is that although researching and understanding ninth century Russia proved to be a major unanticipated obstacle, it is now behind me. The Russia research is essentially compete—I have pulled together the numerous and sometimes disparate facts to reach an understanding of, as much as is known, what was happening around the year 845, and for what is not completely known, I’ve been able to come up with logical, plausible theories to bridge the gaps. In fact, in the very near future I plan to add a detailed article about the Vikings in Russia, based on my research, to the Viking History section of this website. I am finally in the story creation/writing phase of book 5, rather than bogged down in the preliminary research phase which dragged on far longer than I expected (and incidentally, research for the second part of book 5, which is set primarily in Ireland, is thankfully already largely complete).

I am at this point still far from being able to predict a date when the book will come out, but it will. I still have not given up my hope and goal of getting it out this year, though I cannot guarantee than will happen. There is still a long way to go and much to do to make that come to pass. But as soon as I’m able to give a realistic estimate, I promise to do so.

It is coming. I promise.

Viking Recipe: Mussels with Leeks and Fennel in Ale

Here’s another authentic Viking recipe from the previously-reviewed book An Early Meal a Viking Age Cookbook and Culinary Odyssey. My review of the book is here.

This recipe is for mussels, a bivalve shellfish, and is based on archeological finds from Viking-era Dublin and Jorvik (York). The proportions described will provide two persons with a hearty bowl of the stew. It’s a simple but delicious dish: the ingredients are two pounds of mussels, one leek, one fennel bulb, a bunch of cilantro (also known as green coriander), and a 750 ml bottle of ale.

Mussels are a fairly delicate shellfish, and should be handled with some degree of care. They’re a farmed and sustainable seafood, and usually can be purchased at a very reasonable price. They should be alive when you purchase them—ask your fish monger or seller to discard any that will not close tightly when handled. Keep them on ice until ready to use, even after you get them home and place them in the refrigerator.

When ready to cook, start by scrubbing the mussels. I like to use a bowl full of cold water and a dish brush—the shock of the cold water should cause any open mussels to close. Scrub the shells lightly with the brush to remove any sand or loose debris, and pull off any “beards”—scraps of fiber, seaweed, or frayed rope that the mussels would have been clinging to in the water—extending from the closed shell.

Slice the white portion of the leek stalk into thin rounds, and finely chop the tender inner green tops. Discard the tough outer top leaves. You may need to rinse the green top portions of the leek after separating them from the solid white bottom, to remove traces of soil which often can be found in between the leaves. Also chop the fennel bulb, and a small amount of the stems, as well.

Melt two to three tablespoons of butter in a pot large enough to hold all of the mussels, and sauté the chopped leek and fennel until tender.

 

 

Add the mussels and ale, and stir to mix with the leeks and fennel. The cookbook’s authors suggest, for authenticity, using a Geuze, a Belgian ale fermented in open vats with naturally occurring airborne yeasts, which would be similar to Viking-era ale. The photograph is of the label of one such I was able to find, but if you can’t find a Geuze, you can substitute a medium-bodied modern ale. Just try to avoid one that is heavily hopped, as hops were not known to be used in Viking brewing, and will impart a more bitter taste than an unhopped ale would have.

Simmer the mussels for eight to ten minutes, stirring once or twice until they open. Putting a lid on the pot may help distribute the heat through the pot more evenly. Be careful not to overcook the mussels—they’re best when just done, but still plump and tender. While the mussels are simmering, coarsely chop the cilantro, and add it to the pot when the mussels are almost done. Taste the liquid and add salt to taste. Serve in bowls with the broth, discarding any mussels that did not open.

Viking Recipe: Savory Oatmeal with Leeks, Kale, and Herring

Here’s an authentic Viking recipe from the previously-discussed book An Early Meal a Viking Age Cookbook and Culinary Odyssey. It uses simple ingredients that would have been common in Viking age Scandinavia: coarsely ground oats, leeks and kale–two easy-to-grow vegetables that are cold-hearty–and herring, a commonly caught fish during the Viking period, which was often preserved by smoking. We grow both kale and leeks in our own garden on our farm, and they tend to survive through the winter most years, providing a fresh winter vegetable when such tend to be scarce. Jeanette and I have prepared this dish a number of times and find it makes a delicious and hearty meal. The proportions given are for a batch to feed two.

Leek: slice two to three inches of the white portion of a leek stalk into thin rounds, and finely chop a similar amount of some of the tender inner green tops. Sauté the leeks in butter in a saucepan until they become translucent and tender.

Oats: the closest readily available modern equivalent to oats that were coarsely ground are steel-cut oats. Do not use rolled oats—the cooking time, taste, and texture are totally different. I use Bob’s Red Mill Golden Spurtle Steel-cut Oats (a good Oregon company!), but McCann’s Irish Steel Cut Oats are also a good choice. For the Bob’s brand, use a one-to-three ratio of oats to water, adding 2 ¼ cups of water and ¾ cups of oats to the saucepan, and bringing it to a boil. Add a pinch of salt, turn the heat down to a low simmer and stir periodically. The total cooking time on the oats will be between fifteen and twenty minutes.

 

Kale: While the oats are simmering, take two or three leaves of kale, cut or tear out the larger stalks and discard (we feed them to our sheep), and tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces. On this occasion, we used a mix of curly green and purple kales. It will help to tenderize the kale leaves if you roll them back and forth vigorously

between your hands until the leafy part feels somewhat soft and limp. After the oats have cooked for about ten minutes and are beginning to thicken, stir the kale pieces in and continue to simmer until the oatmeal mix is creamy in texture. Turn off the heat, cover, and let sit for about five minutes.

After the oat mix has rested, stir in about 1 ½ teaspoons of butter and serve. Although the oatmeal is good on its own, it really adds to the savory flavor to do as the original recipe in the cookbook calls for and take a large chunk of smoked herring, break it up in the bowl with the oat mixture, and stir it in to meld the flavors. There are numerous brands of smoked herring (also called kippered herring) readily available. We like the Bar Harbor brand because of its smoky taste, and find one can holds enough to use for two batches of this recipe.

Viking Cookbook Review: “An Early Meal”

An Early Meal a Viking Age Cookbook and Culinary Odyssey

As the author of The Strongbow Saga, a historical fiction series set in the 9th century world of the Vikings, I work hard to present the culture and period as historically accurately as possible, so I’m always on the lookout for sources about the little details of everyday life. This book is an excellent source of information about the types of foods Vikings ate, and how they were prepared.

The book is divided into three main sections. The first provides a general discussion of the types of foods the Viking peoples ate, what cooking methods were used, and specialized details such as seasonings used, methods of preservation, utensils used for cooking and eating, etc. The second section is subdivided into seven sites from across the Viking world which have been the subject of extensive archeological study, and provides general information about the location and recipes for dishes specific to that area during the period, based on foods that would have been available as gleaned from archeological evidence. Each recipe contains instructions on how to cook the dish in a manner authentic to the period, as well as alternative modern cooking directions. The third section of the book contains a detailed appendix with information about plant remains found at the various sites, birds, fish and plants mentioned in the book, cooking techniques and implements, and additional reference sources.

One thing I really value about the book is that the authors, Daniel Serra and Hanna Tunberg, make a point of explaining the combination of sources—typically a blend of archeological finds and saga descriptions—for their conclusions and recipes, so the reader will know what sort of evidence they’ve relied on. As a historical researcher, I was quite impressed with their thoroughness and documentation.

A few of the details I learned include that a common vegetable was kale—something that makes a lot of sense, given that it is a fairly cold-hardy and easy to grow green—and that the cooking fat used was typically butter. What particularly surprised me was how delicious many of the dishes were. This is not primitive, bland fare—although often made with simple ingredients, the results are very enjoyable. Among the dishes I’ve tried so far are a savory oatmeal cooked with leeks and kale and served with smoked herring, mussels cooked in ale, and stuffed roasted lamb heart. As time permits I’ll post on this site some of the recipes I’ve tried with details and photos on how Jeanette and I prepared them.

Despise Nithings

Over and over during this election campaign the same theme keeps coming up in news stories and in conversations: many, many people don’t like either of the two main candidates. While each candidate certainly has ardent supporters, many voters say they find both candidates so distasteful and dishonest that they don’t want to vote for anyone.

The problem is actually bigger than just these two candidates. As a society, honor and integrity are no longer values that we hold paramount. The evidence is everywhere, not just in the political arena. On college campuses, there is an epidemic of rape and sexual assault. Every year, too many criminal convictions are overturned because the police or prosecutors are revealed to have concealed or falsified evidence. The news recently has been full of stories about unscrupulous drug companies raising the prices of essential drugs far above the price necessary to recoup expenses and make a reasonable profit, just because they know they can—people will die if they don’t get the drugs. In the financial arena, Wells Fargo was recently caught opening bogus accounts in customers’ names to generate extra charges and profits. In our government, members of Congress swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution and to “well and fully discharge the duties” of their office. Not so many years ago, that meant that once an election was over and a majority of the citizens of our country elected a president, the members of Congress in both parties would strive to work together with each other and the president to govern our country. No longer. All that matters to our “leaders” in Congress now is winning, and for the past eight years Congressional members of the party that lost the presidency have repeatedly broken their oaths, have refused to work together with members of the other side or the president, and have expended all of their efforts not to govern, but rather to prevent the duly elected president from effectively governing. And then there’s that special variety of honorless cowards the internet has given rise to: those who hide behind the internet’s cloak of anonymity to launch vile verbal attacks and threats against others—internet trolls.

Actually, there’s another name that perfectly fits the trolls, and all of the others whose behavior is beyond excuse: Nithings.

Over a thousand years ago in Scandinavia, the Viking peoples had a culture and society with values that frankly were in many ways better than ours are today. The real Vikings were not just savage, bloodthirsty barbarians and pirates, although that is how they are often portrayed today in many works of fiction, including the History Channel’s Vikings television series. Part of my mission in writing The Strongbow Saga, has been—in addition to spinning an exciting and moving tale—to provide an accurate portrayal of the Viking peoples and their society and culture. In reality, only a small percentage of the population of Viking-age Scandinavia ever went i-viking, or raiding. Most were farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, and merchants. But whereas in our modern society, and particularly here in the United States, people are held up for high regard based on things such as how much wealth and possessions they’ve acquired, how much power they possess, and whether for some reason they are considered a “celebrity,”  in the Vikings’ culture the most important qualities esteemed in a person were whether they conducted themselves with honor, integrity, and courage. Whereas in our society a person’s actual behavior often seems to be only a minor criteria by which many, especially which the rich and famous, are judged, in Viking society a person’s behavior and character were the measure of the man (or woman).

In fact, the Viking peoples so valued honor that they had a special word for those had none, those who acted dishonorably and without integrity. Such were clearly not beasts, yet because they lacked the finer qualities that human beings are capable of possessing, they were considered less than human, as well. Those without honor were considered to be unique and despised creatures, neither human nor beast, called Nithings. The word is, very appropriately, the root of our modern English language word “nothing.”

Nithing is a term that should be returned to active use. Consider this a call to action. If you would like our country, our society to be one in which we not only highly value, but expect and demand that people conduct themselves with honor and integrity, then I suggest that changing our societies standards must begin with each of us as individuals. Do not accept dishonorable behavior. Let’s all take a stand by calling out those who engage in reprehensible conduct. But let’s do so with a touch of fun. Let’s start a grass roots “Despise Nithings” campaign, and use a little humor and creativity to call out the scoundrels.

I have purchased, and will be giving away free, “Despise Nithings” bumper stickers. They don’t have to be put on bumpers, though. Be imaginative. Maybe place one across a campaign sign or photograph of a politician, celebrity, talk radio host, or other person worthy of the “Nithing” name. Maybe stick one on a crooked corporation’s name or logo. Maybe even stick one on the doors of Congress itself. Take a photo of your call-out, and post it on social media—on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc., with the tag #DespiseNithings. The more we do this, the more widely the call-outs will be seen, and the more the idea will spread. Shameful behavior should be shamed, not accepted.

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For a free “Despise Nithings” sticker, send a business-sized (4 x 9 inch), self-addressed, stamped envelope to:

Despise Nithings

c/o Northman Books

P.O. Box 336

Walterville, OR 97489

It’s time for a change. It’s up to all of us to make it happen.

Summer Calamari Pasta

At summer’s end, the last of the heirloom tomatoes that come from our garden are usually in less than pristine condition—the cooler nighttime temperatures, plus the shock of excess water intake from an occasional early autumn rain after months of hot, dry conditions tend to make most of our late tomatoes, but especially the thinner-skinned heirloom varieties, split. Although they look ugly, with a little judicious surgery they can still be used, and that special, rich flavor of heirlooms enjoyed.

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Earlier this week, using the last of our heirlooms, we created a “goodbye to summer” dish that really showcases the bright flavors of summer tomatoes and fresh herbs, and is fairly quick and easy to prepare. Here are the ingredients you’ll need, for an amount to serve two:

  • One large fresh tomato, heirloom if available, or two medium ones
  • Cilantro
  • Green onions
  • 4 to 5 cloves of garlic
  • One jalapeno pepper
  • One to two limes
  • Mushrooms
  • Butter and olive oil
  • 1 pint of calamari
  • Pasta (we used bucatini)
  • Parmesan cheese

First, make the tomato sauce so its flavors can be melding. Over a bowl so that you catch all of the juice, cut out any splits or other bad parts of the tomato and discard them (we feed them to our chickens), then, while holding it by the stem, with a sharp knife slice a cross-hatch pattern into its surface, then slice under the cuts about a half inch down to separate the pieces, and repeat until the entire tomato has been diced. Be careful not to cut yourself!

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Finely mince enough cilantro to make two to three tablespoons, and chop a similar amount of green onion tops. Coarsely chop the garlic and jalapeno (we ended up using two instead of one, because the red one had no heat). Add all to the diced tomato. Juice the lime, add the juice (if the lime is juicy, one will be enough, but use two if it’s dry), and stir to mix the ingredients. Add salt to taste, and set the tomato mixture aside.

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Begin heating the water for the pasta, then prepare the mushroom topping.  Using whatever mushrooms you have available or prefer—we happened to have some chanterelles, maitakes, and shitakes on hand, so used a mix of all three—chop the mushrooms, then sauté them in butter until they are just beginning to get crispy. Remove from heat and set aside.

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Cook the pasta according to directions. We used bucatini, which looks like thick spaghetti but the noodles are hollow inside, because its chewy texture made a nice contrast to the delicacy of the topping. While the pasta is cooking, cook the calamari by adding a small amount of olive oil to a saucepan, adding the calamari, and simmering on low while stirring. The calamari will give off liquid as it cooks. Be careful not to cook it too long, or it will get tough. Once the edges of the rings begin to curl, it’s tender and done.

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Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Pour some of the liquid from the calamari over it and toss to coat. Serve in bowls as follows: add desired amount of pasta, top with calamari (use a slotted spoon to serve it, to avoid adding too much liquid), top with the tomato sauce, then sprinkle crispy mushrooms and a little grated Parmesan cheese on top to finish.

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Book 5 Status

I regularly receive inquiries asking when the next–and final–installment of The Strongbow Saga will be coming out. It has been a while since I’ve given a detailed status update, so here it is.

My goal and plan has been to complete and publish the fifth and final book during 2016. That is still my hope and goal, but my progress is admittedly far behind where I’d thought to be at this point in time.

I suspect many readers wonder, “How can he take so damn long to write a book?” It’s a fair question, and one that deserves an answer. After all, many authors turn out, on average, a book per year, and some more than that. I have one author acquaintance who cranks out two or three books every year. They’re considerably shorter than my books, and they’re urban fantasy, written straight from her imagination, but she’s a talented author and they’re good books. Why can’t I do that? There are several reasons.

First of all, I live on a small farm. My wife, Jeanette, and I produce a large percentage of the food we consume each year. We have animals: a flock of chickens and a herd of sheep. All of that takes time–a lot of time–to tend to. Many times it’s not just time; we do quite hard physical labor. I’m not complaining–I love this life–but I’ll be 65 this year, plus I have Multiple Sclerosis, so often I simply don’t have the energy, after a long day’s labor, to write. The author I mentioned above just walks to her in-home office, sits down, and writes every day. She doesn’t have a farm to run.

Second, in addition to our farm, my wife and I run a small business–our publishing company that publishes my books–on the side. Every month I have to process our company’s royalty earnings, pay the company payroll, pay the state and federal taxes and prepare and submit the various reports required of a small business by the state and federal governments. All of that requires a considerable amount of time each and every month. And periodically there are other time consuming aspects of the business. In recent weeks, for example, a lot of my “writing” time has been taken up with preparing the German language edition of Dragons from the Sea for publication, in the various e-book and print formats it will be released in.

Last, book 5 is proving to be a hard one for me to write.There is a lot of research to do. Book 5 has two main locations: Russia and Ireland, and digging into what was happening in both of those, during the mid 9th century, takes a lot of work and time. Also, this book is the culmination of a long, continuing story that I have been working on for at least fifteen years. I want to get it right. I want the conclusion of Halfdan’s story to be a satisfying, moving finale to what has come before. I cannot rush it just to get something out there. To do so would dishonor myself, not respect Halfdan and his story, and be unfair to all who have been loyal fans of the Saga.

I am truly sorry for the delay. But the book will come when it comes. Until then, to steal a line from the Broadway musical Hamilton, I am afraid readers will just have to “Wait For It.”

Classic Irish Corned Beef With Vegetables

Here’s a recipe for a classic Irish dish, Corned Beef with Vegetables, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. And this is a dish you should make a large quantity of, because there are three bonus meals you can make from the leftovers.

Beef is corned by soaking it for days in a spiced brine mixture. While it’s certainly possible to do yourself, it takes time—most recipes recommend brining the meat for at least eight days. If your grocer can get good quality uncooked corned beef, or better yet, if there’s a local butcher shop that makes its own in-house corned beef, that’s a much easier route. As I mentioned, you should buy extra—as an example, just for the two of us, each year Jeanette and I buy a three pound corned beef roast from Long’s Meat Market in Eugene, Oregon.

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You’ll want to start this dish fairly early in the day. Coarsely chop one thick slice of onion and one carrot, and arrange them in the bottom of a slow cooker, aka crock pot. Place the corned beef on top. Add about four bay leaves, plus the following spices: 1 tablespoon of coriander seeds, 1 dried chili de arbol pepper, and 2 whole allspice cloves. To keep them together, tie the spices up in a piece of cheesecloth, or—as I do—put them in a large stainless steel mesh tea ball. Add one to two bottles of Guinness Stout to the pot, until the meat is at least half submerged, and cook. How long and what setting you’ll use depends on your crock pot—we use the high setting on ours, and it still takes close to five hours. Periodically turn the beef so all sides cook submerged for some time.

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During the time while you’re waiting for the meat to cook, you’ll need to make two sauces and prepare the vegetables. For the Horseradish Cream Sauce, mix together 1 cup of thick plain Greek yogurt, horseradish to taste (we use about a half of a cup), one-fourth cup chopped green onion, 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley, 1 teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice, and sea salt to taste. A word about the horseradish: try to get pure grated radish. Most of what’s sold is actually a horseradish cream sauce, with much less flavor (we use Tulelake brand Old Fashioned Horseradish, made in Hillsboro, Oregon). After mixing all ingredients together, chill for at least one to two hours before serving. The sauce will keep for several days in the refrigerator.

The second sauce is a Guinness Mustard Sauce, for which you’ll need one-half cup of a good, tangy Dijon Mustard (we use Old World Gourmet brand), 2 tablespoons of a coarse-grained mustard, 2 tablespoons of Guinness, 1 tablespoon of finely minced shallot, and 1 teaspoon of golden brown sugar. After mixing all ingredients together, chill for at least one to two hours before serving.

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The basic vegetables for this dish are potatoes, onions, carrots, and cabbage, but we like to also add parsnips, turnips, and rutabaga. You’ll need a large onion, 4 to 5 carrots, one head of savoy cabbage, and if you add them, about 2 parsnips and one each medium turnip and rutabaga. You’ll also need enough potatoes to make about three cups coarsely diced. When we cooked this dish a few days ago, we were able to harvest the parsnips from our garden, and pulled the turnips and rutabaga, which we’d harvested from our 2015 garden and frozen, from the freezer.

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Cut all vegetables except the cabbage into roughly three-quarter to one inch pieces and place into a Dutch oven or similar large pot. Cut the cabbage into wedges and arrange on top. By now, hopefully the corned beef is beginning to show signs of getting tender, but is still a ways from being fork tender. Ladle most of the Guinness broth from the crock pot into the Dutch oven, until the vegetables are almost covered, and add more Guinness to the crock pot to replace the removed liquid. Bring the liquid in the Dutch oven to a simmer and cook until all vegetables are tender, which will probably take 45 minutes to an hour.

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If Irish eyes are smiling on you, by the time the vegetables are done, the corned beef will be, also–it should so tender you can shred it with a fork. Remove the beef from the crock pot and cut one to two slices per serving. Add vegetables, and serve with the two sauces.

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The leftovers are a wonderful part of this dish, And be sure to save all of the Guinness broth from both pots–you’ll need it for bonus meal number three.

Bonus Meal #1: Corned Beef Hash

This can be eaten either as a breakfast or dinner. Cut several slices of the leftover corned beef, shred, and put them in a large mixing bowl. Dice or coarsely chop some of each of the leftover vegetables, add to the mixing bowl, and stir together with the meat. Beat one egg and stir thoroughly into the hash mixture.

In a large nonstick skillet, add some good quality, flavorful olive oil to cover the bottom plus about a tablespoon of butter. Add the hash mixture, flatten it to a uniform thickness with a spatula, and cook over medium heat, adding oil if necessary, until the bottom browns. Using a large spatula, turn the hash in sections and brown the other side. Serve topped with a fried or poached egg, with the two sauces.

Bonus Meal #2: Corned Beef Sandwiches

Spread slices of a good quality, firm rye bread with your preference of either Guinness Mustard or a Thousand Island Dressing (or both). Top one-half of the slices with sliced corned beef, some good quality sauerkraut (this year, for the first time, we made our own), and sliced Swiss cheese, preferably Jarlsberg. Warm in a 300 degree oven until cheese begins to melt, top with remaining slices of rye bread, and serve.

Bonus Meal #3: Corned Beef-Vegetable Soup

Coarsely chop any remaining corned beef, combine with remaining vegetables and the Guinness broth, and freeze for a future meal.