Northman Books Update

Those readers who have followed the Strongbow Saga’s history will know that beginning in 2010, my wife and I began taking back, and republishing, the first three books of the series from the original publisher, HarperCollins. During 2012 we formed our own small publishing company, Northman Books Inc., and have been working to expand the availability of the existing books, as well as continuing the series (and I’ll post a brief update on the progress of book 4 soon).

Amazon continues to be the primary distributor of the series, in both e-book and print formats, in the United States and overseas. However, e-book editions are now also available through both Barnes & Noble and Kobo. For now, they are not available directly through Apple, because of Apple’s polices: currently the only way to upload e-book content to Apple for publication is by using an Apple Mac computer, and I refuse to let that policy coerce me into buying one. If you want to read the Strongbow Saga on your Apple IPad or IPhone, use the free Kindle app for those devices, and buy the books from Amazon.

Although its launch has been delayed and is behind schedule, soon a Northman Books website and store will be launched, from which autographed, personalized copies of the print editions–both current Northman Books paperbacks, and original HarperCollins first editions–will be available for purchase, as well as some merchandise related to the series. Watch this site for the opening announcement.

The Darkest Month, The Shortest Day

Friday, December 21st , was the winter solstice (and this post should have appeared then, but my website got a bit scrambled and had to be repaired). The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, the day on which there are the fewest hours of daylight, and the most of darkness.

In ancient times, the rhythms of nature and of the earth itself were often tied to religious feast days. In the Viking culture, the winter solstice—also called mid-winter’s day—was linked to the Jul feast. The solstice symbolized a turning of the tide of winter, and the coming rebirth of spring. It marked the end of the old year, and the beginning of a new one.

In those days, winter could be a far more fearsome thing than it is in our modern world. The only heat source in homes was the fire on the hearth, and that fire must constantly be fed. The outer reaches of the Vikings’ longhouses, away from the warmth of the central hearth, must have been cold places in the depth of winter. Food would have been a challenge, too. No crops could be grown in the coldest months, nor feed for the livestock. The households, whether small, individual ones, or the household of a chieftain, inhabited by numerous house-carls, thralls, and families who were the chieftain’s followers and lived in his longhouse, must subsist through the winter on whatever food had been preserved, and what little could be gathered during the winter months, to supplement the stores, by hunting and fishing. Cabbages, various root vegetables, and the like would no doubt have been stored after harvest, packed in straw in root cellars dug into the ground.  In the fall, there would be a slaughtering of some of the livestock, and the meat would be dried and preserved by smoking or by drying and salting. Fish—an important part of the diet in coastal areas—would also be preserved by smoking or drying and salting. And grains, such as barley, would provide a basic element of nutrition in many ways: boiled and eaten as porridge, added to stews, and brewed to make ale.

Many things—a poor harvest, the loss of livestock to predators, disease, or robbery—could put a local population at risk of great hardship, or even starvation, over the winter. The Jul feast celebrated not just the fact that the celebrants had survived the past year, but also the knowledge that although months of winter still lay ahead, the corner had been turned, and spring would be coming, as surely as the days would begin once more growing longer and longer.

In my new life up here in Oregon, the natural world and its cycles are much more evident and closely felt. In this month of December, the darkest month, the days have grown so short that sunset falls at 4:30 PM, and by 5:00 our farm is cloaked in darkness. Over the past two weeks, whenever we’ve had rain (a frequent occurrence in Oregon during the winter), the mountain tops around us have been dusted with snow. As the weather turned colder over the past week, we could see the snow line move lower down the mountains. We had flurries on Saturday, then beginning Sunday evening, a snowstorm of almost blizzard proportions blew for several days. It was exhilarating and beautiful.

DSCN0581

But in addition to the beauty of the snow, this past week has also been marked by sadness.  A mysterious ailment has struck our little herd of heritage sheep.  On Sunday morning, our young ram, who has grown from being the oldest of three lambs when we acquired him, into a striking young adult sheep who will one day lead the herd, became listless, would not eat, and spent much of the next two days lying down in the barn, instead of out grazing in the pastures with the others. We watched him closely and worried, but by Monday evening he seemed to be recovering, and on Tuesday he appeared to have fully recovered his health.

Then, on Wednesday morning when we opened up the barn, we found our youngest lamb, whom we called Baby, down and unconscious. We scooped her up and headed to the vet, whose office is only a mile away, but she died before we arrived. Given that she’d seemed in perfect health the night before, the vet was quite concerned, and at his urging, that day we drove to Corvallis and delivered Baby’s body to the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at Oregon State University, for a necropsy to hopefully determine what had killed her.

Baby, our little orphan

Baby, our little orphan

Thursday morning when we opened the barn, the next youngest lamb, MB (which imaginatively stands for Middle Baby), was down and barely conscious.  She at least survived the short dash to the veterinarian’s office, and once there, after being treated with antibiotic and steroid injections, seemed like she might recover. By early afternoon, she’d even regained enough strength to briefly stand, but she began fading again in the evening, despite another dose of antibiotics, and in the early morning hours she, too, died.

Whatever was attacking our sheep was taking the smallest and weakest first. The OSU lab still has no answers. They could tell that Baby died of very sudden onset sepsis—in effect, massive toxic shock that rapidly shut down her body’s systems. But as yet, the cause is still unknown. Our vet says he has never seen anything kill sheep that quickly.  Our remaining three sheep—Ramses, the young ram, Pretty Girl, the leader of the herd and Ramses’ mother, and the other adult ewe, Sweetie—MB’s mother—are for now confined to the barn, subsisting on a limited diet of dry hay, and we’re giving them daily injections of antibiotics (and are holding our breath when we open the barn each morning, wondering if anyone else will be down), while we wait for the lab to try and identify the mysterious killer, and hope that none of the rest of our greatly diminished herd will succumb to it.

For us, this is merely an occasion for sorrow, at the loss of animals we’ve cared for and grown fond of. Baby, an orphan, was especially a favorite, full of spunk and seemingly determined to make her own way despite her diminutive size, ever since her mother died of an intestinal blockage during the summer.  Even if all of our sheep were to die, though, we would not be at risk of starvation or ruin. But this has been a stark reminder that the cycles of nature include the cycle of life and death. As every death should, these losses bring home how fleeting and fragile all life is. The gift of life is a great treasure. Live it as fully, and with as much appreciation and joy, as you can. And may the passing of the solstice, and the rebirth of the world into a new year, bring good fortune and happiness to you all.

A Coffin Tree

I heard a wonderful toast recently–supposedly an old Scottish one–that I found so striking, I want to pass it along. My wife and I were at the home of some of our new Oregon friends for dinner, on the occasion of my birthday, and our host made the following toast to me:

“May you be buried in a coffin made from the wood of a 100 year old tree, which we’ll plant tomorrow.”

And he gave us this native cedar seedling which he’d found on his land:

The Coffin Tree

If his toast comes true, I think I’m safe for a while.

Kindle Fire and E-book Contest

I’m a member of an online community of writers called Codex. In an effort to help new readers find our work, several of the authors in the community, including me, have put together a contest offering, as a grand prize, a new Kindle Fire tablet loaded with thirteen free e-books, and ten second prizes of three free e-books. It’s simple to enter: you just go to the contest website, look over the descriptions of the various authors’ books that are part of the contest (which include the three Strongbow Saga books), and enter three titles from the selections as your entry. Extra entries are available if you also enter the titles via Facebook and/or Twitter. It’s a way to possibly find some new authors whose work you hadn’t previously encountered. Here’s the official contest announcement:

Books on Fire Contest To Give Away Kindle Fire HD Loaded with Books

The Books on Fire contest, which runs through the end of December, is giving away a new Kindle Fire HD loaded with 13 books of science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. Sponsored by authors Judson Roberts, Ruth Nestvold, Luc Reid, William Hertling, Annie Bellet, and Del Law, Books on Fire can be found on the Web at www.kindlebooksonfire.com . In addition to the first prize winner of the Kindle Fire, ten second prize winners will win three eBooks of their choice from the list on the contest Web page. To enter, participants simply announce their three top book choices from the book list through any of these methods:

eBooks included in the prize pool include:

  • William Hertling’s artificial intelligence thrillers Avogadro Corp. and AI Apocalypse
  • Del Law’s merged worlds fantasy novel Beasts of the Walking City
  • Annie Bellet’s crime novel set in the fantasy city of Pyrrh, Avarice, and her story collection Till Human Voices Wake Us
  • Luc Reid’s novel of Vermont backwoods magic Family Skulls and his collection of flash fiction Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories
  • Ruth Nestvold’s romantic Authurian novels Yseult and Shadow of Stone, as well as her collection The Future Imperfect: Six Dystopian Short Stories
  • Judson Robert’s deeply-researched, adventurous Viking novels Viking Warrior, Dragons from the Sea, and The Road to Vengeance

See the contest Web site at www.kindlebooksonfire.com for full details.

Blame the Farm

Okay, that’s passing the buck–blame me. Let’s get the bad news out of the way up front: book four of the Strongbow Saga will not be released this year.

Those who have been following my posts since the beginning of this year have some idea of the many changes my life has seen this year. My wife, Jeanette, and I have literally remade ourselves and our lives. For some years we’ve been planning to eventually move from Texas to the Pacific Northwest, once a number of family obligations were settled and we could relocate on our own. Partly our desire was because we found the area–and in particular, the Willamette Valley in Oregon–so beautiful, and partly I needed to move for health reasons. Some years ago I developed Multiple Sclerosis. Fortunately, it is currently fairly mild and under control, but high heat and humidity–the weather eighty percent of the year in Houston–make the disease worse, whereas a colder climate can help alleviate its symptoms. Texas was literally making me ill. Early this year, all of the necessary pieces finally fell into place, and we made the move.

We really had not intended to buy a farm. We were envisioning a little land, maybe an acre or so, on the outskirts of Eugene. The Norns had a different plan for us. Three days after arriving in Eugene, we saw a small farm on the McKenzie River, in the foothills of the the Cascade Mountains. It was a bank-owned property, the result of a foreclosure,  that had only days before come on the market,  and which had been vacant for five years, so the land, and to a lesser degree, the house itself, were in neglected condition. We did not care–it was love at first sight.

The farm in autumn, when the leaves paint the forest in brilliant hues and low-hanging clouds often wreath the mountains across the river.

Neither Jeanette nor I have ever lived on a farm. We’ve both been city folk all our lives: she was a nurse, I worked in law enforcement and as a lawyer. This has been an amazing year of transition and transformation for us. We have learned countless new skills, and have discovered talents we did not know we possessed. We’ve transformed part of a former horse barn into a large poultry coop, which now houses a rooster, five hens, and three ducks, all of which we raised from chicks (or I guess ducklings, in the case of the ducks). Although we are far from being totally self-sufficient, we have learned the pleasure of living off of the fruits of our own labors, and the rhythms of a lifestyle that more closely revolves around the seasons.  Now we go into the long winter ahead with two freezers (a wonderful convenience the Vikings did not have) and storage racks well stocked with all kinds of harvest from the summer and fall: a bounty of vegetables from our garden; wild berries gathered from our land; apples from an ancient tree which will be the anchor, in future years, of a small orchard of fruit and nut trees we’ve planted around it; fish caught from the river that runs behind our home; chickens–a gift from neighbors who were reducing their flock–we somewhat hesitantly killed and processed ourselves; and even an abundance of venison from a huge, beautiful buck we harvested. Every morning we collect the eggs our chickens give us. This has all been an amazing experience for two people who, before this year, hunted and gathered only in the supermarket.

Because this was formerly a horse property, its five acres of land are all pasture–which becomes hay, if not grazed. Oh, the hay! Call us crazy, but we chose to approach the issue with ancient methods the Vikings themselves might have used: we’ve learned to scythe, and by hand have cut, dried, and hauled to the barn  significant amounts of the land’s hay, which will provide bedding and feed for our animals over the winter. But because there was more hay than we could possibly deal with on our own, we also enlisted the aid of some prolific grazers. In early summer, we learned that the Oregon owner of a herd of Soay sheep, relatively few of which are found in this country, was selling off some of his herd–surely part of the Norns’ plan for our new lives. Soay sheep are, based on DNA testing, the oldest existing breed of domesticated sheep. They originated on the island of Soay off the coast of Scotland. The name Soay comes from the Vikings themselves–it’s derived from Old Norse words meaning “Island of Sheep.”  So we now have a small herd of five heritage sheep such as the Vikings themselves might have seen. They are fascinating, beautiful creatures, whom we greatly enjoy–they look more like small antelope than modern sheep–but they have added much work to our lives this year.

Pretty Girl, our largest (and presumably oldest) ewe, and the leader of our herd.

Our five acres of pasture were already divided into many smaller sections, suitable for rotational grazing. But the existing fencing was for horses, not sheep, and no gates remained anywhere–apparently they were sold off by the former owners (as were all appliances in the house) when they realized they were facing foreclosure. Being city folk, we had no idea how fast five sheep could eat down a small pasture. For some of the smaller sections, the answer proved to be less than a week. So this summer and fall have been a constant scramble to stay ahead of them, putting up fence and hanging gates. A few weeks ago, we moved the sheep across the property to a large pasture away from the barn, where they should have enough to graze on for several months, but where they’ll have no access to the barn, no shelter from the rain and snow. So I have had to build them a shelter (and there is still some work to be done on it). Most of these tasks–the fencing, the gates, the shed–are one-time efforts, as was the work building a poultry coop in the barn. But I naively did not anticipate how much writing time would be lost reclaiming this farm from its neglected state. And I was so naive to continue to think, as the months wore on, that, with all that Jeanette and I were undertaking, I could also finish writing book four, plus edit it–with the help of a volunteer editorial board of writers and readers–and finally format it for publication in e-book and print editions, all by the end of this year.

I know many of you have been waiting a long, long time for the next book in the series, and I apologize from the depths of my heart for failing to deliver it this year as promised. But for Jeanette and me, this has been, without question, the most amazing, wonderful year of our lives, an experience I could not have anticipated, and would not trade for anything. And living this close to nature, and–to the extent that we have–off of the land and our own labors, has helped bring me a closer understanding of how life was lived in an earlier, simpler time. It will enrich the details of Halfdan’s life and story, and has already changed and added to aspects of book four.

Western Oregon’s long winter of almost constant rains, punctuated by occasional snowfalls, has begun. I understand now that in my new life, the winters will be the season of writing, and in the spring, when the land awakens anew, my books will come forth. Look for book four of the Strongbow Saga in the spring of 2013.

Free Kindle Viking Warrior, new paperback edition of book 3, and more

The Strongbow Saga was once described by a reader-reviewer as (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here) “the greatest series you’ve never heard of.”  The original publisher, HarperCollins, did essentially nothing to promote the series and make it known. Readers have found it mostly via word-of-mouth recommendations from another,  by just happening upon it by chance, or–more recently–as a recommendation made by Amazon’s search engines.

To try to broaden the base of readers who have discovered the Saga, I once before, at the first of this year, offered the Kindle e-book version of book 1, Viking Warrior, free for a limited time. I will be running another free offering of the Kindle version of Viking Warrior beginning tomorrow, Thursday, August 16th, through Sunday, August 19th.

Those who have not yet ventured into the world of e-books may be unaware that it is not necessary to have an actual Kindle e-reader device to acquire and read a Kindle e-book. Amazon offers free downloadable Kindle e-reader apps for numerous devices, including computers, smartphones, and tablets. Once the free Kindle app is downloaded onto your device, the world of e-books–including the free copy of Viking Warrior, and numerous other free or very inexpensive books available through Amazon–can be acquired and read.

 

In other Strongbow Saga news, the new Northman Books paperback edition of book 3, The Road to Vengeance, is finally available. Its release was delayed long after the release of the new Kindle edition of book 3 due largely to some stubborn formatting issues. Its Amazon-U.S. store page is here.

Finally, I’d like to comment on a very thoughtful and interesting post made on July 27 by Claire, concerning the preview chapter of book 4, The Long Hunt. Specifically, Claire said: “I’m a bit saddened by the time skip [between the end of book 3 and the beginning of book 4]. In the previous books there is no real time lapse between them….”

That’s a very interesting observation, which I appreciate Claire making and would like to address. The lack of any “time skip” between books 1, 2, and 3 is due in large part to the history of how those books were written. In my very first draft, the Strongbow Saga was a single book. It ended in Paris, although somewhat differently than how book 3 now ends: the duel Halfdan fought was with Toke, who joined the Viking army near the end of the campaign, hunting for Halfdan, and Halfdan and Genevieve sailed off into the sunset–or at least back to Denmark–together.

That book did not sell, at least in part because I was an unknown, unpublished writer, and the manuscript was very long, which would have resulted in an expensive book to print–a big risk for a publisher. So I decided to carve out the first part of the story into a shorter book. That book sold to HarperCollins and became Viking Warrior (my original title for it was actually The Dane, but I did not get a vote in what to call it). My contract with HarperCollins was for a series (they did at least keep my series title, The Strongbow Saga): three books were purchased, with an option for more.

By that time, I had already decided that the existing ending in Paris was implausible, and too pat. It seemed gimmicky that Toke would conveniently show up in time to be killed, and I did not feel it would be “true” for Genevieve’s character, who had pledged her life to serve God as a nun, to just abandon that pledge and run off with Halfdan. So I rewrote the Paris ending to what it is now.

Originally, though, book 2, Dragons from the Sea (my title, which HarperCollins did keep) covered the entire Frankia campaign, and ended with the duel in Paris. I thought that just made sense, and would give a more satisfying experience to readers.  HarperCollins overruled me, though, and required me to split that part of the story into two books. Thus The Road to Vengeance, as a separate novel, was born. But because it actually was the second half of Dragons from the Sea, there is no break in continuity between the end of book 2 and the beginning of book 3.

My decision to begin book 4 back in Denmark, and skip–or more accurately, briefly summarize, in Halfdan’s thoughts–the sea voyage back to Denmark from Frankia, is a pacing decision. While I very much appreciate the fact that Claire and other readers love the details of day to day life in the story, in my opinion including a detailed description of the return sea voyage itself would not advance the story line at all, and would make the new book’s beginning too slow. But please, Claire and other readers, keep sharing your thoughts and ideas–I value them very much, and learn a lot from them.

First look: The Long Hunt, book 4 of The Strongbow Saga

I hear frequently from readers of the Strongbow Saga series wanting to know when the next installment of Halfdan’s story will come out. Those who discovered the story back when it was originally published by HarperCollins have been waiting especially long.

The continuation of the series was delayed for a number of years due to problems with the original publisher. I’ve discussed them in earlier posts on this site, so will not rehash them again.

And readers who have followed my posts here will be aware that this year has brought big changes in my personal life: I moved from Houston, Texas to Oregon, where my wife Jeanette and I have settled on a small farm, and are beginning a new life. The move and change have been very time consuming, and have temporarily further delayed my progress on book 4.

But I am back at work now, and Halfdan is back. The first chapter of book 4 is now posted on the “Free Previews” section of this website. It gives a first look at the new book, and will perhaps answer some questions–and no doubt raise others–about what will happen next.

Enjoy!

The Vikings’ Culture, a duck migration, and more

The first part of this post was inspired by a posting on the Discussions page by Eric Duncan of Scotland, who wrote in part: “Norse raiders are viewed [in Scotland] as barbaric & uncultured.” Thanks, Eric, for writing, and for the idea for this post.

Eric’s comment is quite accurate–it is a widely held perception of the Vikings that they were a rather barbaric and uncultured people. Their place in history is generally perceived as being a destructive blight on more advanced peoples and cultures during the early Middle Ages. I think these perceptions are very inaccurate, and give the Vikings an undeserved bad reputation. Among my goals in writing the Strongbow Saga–besides trying to tell a story that will entertain and move readers–is to try and present the Vikings and their culture in a way that is more accurate and fair, and that will hopefully help lead to a new perception of them.

From my years of research, I’ve come to realize that the Vikings had a very complex and highly developed culture. In fact, what their culture reminds me most of is the culture of the ancient, Bronze Age Mycenaean Greeks, who were written about by Homer in the great epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. There are many similarities: both were quasi-tribal warrior cultures, within which seafaring piracy against other peoples was considered an honorable profession. Both cultures highly valued personal courage and honor, and both had highly developed forms of oral, rather than written, literature–hardly a typical hallmark of uncultured peoples.

There are, of course, many differences between the two cultures. The ones I find most significant concern the concepts of individual rights, and the law. Whereas in the Mycenaean Greek culture, the king of a sub-group–generally a city-state–was pretty much a law unto himself, holding absolute authority over his people, the Scandinavian peoples during the Viking era held a strong belief in the existence of a code of law, which existed independently of any kings or other rulers, and which they believed even kings were required to follow and obey. The Viking peoples believed that individuals had rights under the law, which even kings were bound to respect and honor. Viking kings, of course, did not always agree. But the concept–a very important concept, which even today is the foundation of our belief in most western countries about individual rights and freedoms under the law–was there, in the Viking times and culture, and it was the Vikings who spread that concept across much of Europe.

In England, in the year 1215, King John was forced, after a successful revolt by the English nobility, to sign the Magna Carta, a charter acknowledging that all free men had certain rights and liberties under the law which even the king was bound to honor and obey. The Magna Carta is widely considered to be a seminal ancestor of modern constitutional law, and a major inspiration for the United States Constitution, as well as those of many other western countries. Who forced King John to sign it? Norman lords, the descendants of Vikings who had settled around the mouth of the Seine River in France, from whom their concepts of law and rights had been passed down. Hardly a contribution of a barbaric and uncultured people, who were merely a destructive blight upon more advanced cultures and peoples.

Watch for my next post, which I hope will appear next week or the week after–it will contain some glimpses into book four of the Strongbow Saga

And now for a little news of a more personal sort. My son, Nicholas, visited me about a week ago. It was wonderful seeing him, and while here he made a tremendous contribution to Jeanette’s and my new home and life, by helping us construct, in our barn, a pen for our three ducks and a coop for our chickens. The birds now live in the barn, and our garage is ours again! The ducks in particular were challenging house guests–although they grew rapidly in size, food consumption, and production of poop, they sadly have not grown in wisdom or personality, unlike the chickens, who are personable and entertaining enough to be considered pets. The poor ducks are such dullards, in fact, that it has been hard to even come up with fitting nicknames for them. Here are a few photos of the ducks’ migration to their new home:

Ducks two and three have left the building.

Baby Huey nears the barn, and his new home.

It wasn’t all work and no play for Nick’s visit. One day we drove up into the Cascade Mountains, for a hike along the upper McKenzie River, which contains some of the most beautiful wilderness countryside I’ve ever seen.

A waterfall on the upper McKenzie River in Oregon.

Oregon is much more mountainous than Denmark, which is mostly flat, but nevertheless I’d love to see Halfdan’s run, from book one of the series, filmed here. In my mind, the wildness and beauty of the forest is a vitally important aspect of that part of the story, for it is in the wild forest where Halfdan, who feels at home there, is able to turn the tables on, and overcome, his pursuers. The Oregon wilderness captures and projects that feeling, of a raw, wild, and beautiful forest, perfectly for me.

Happy Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere.

Celebrating the occasion required a bit of creativity this year. My own mother died some years ago, my wife, Jeanette’s mother died last year, and Jeanette’s daughter now lives about 2,500 miles away, back in Houston. But Jeanette came up with a clever way to overcome that distance, and share a Mother’s Day brunch together with her daughter.

They both got dressed up. Jeanette decorated the table (or in this case, actually her desk) with a vase of various flowers cut on our property, including a flowering branch from an apple tree. Then they each had a special Sunday morning breakfast, which they ate while leisurely visiting together by video-call via Skype.

Here’s what Jeanette had for breakfast:

Coffee, a Mimosa made with orange juice and champagne, and I cooked her buckwheat pancakes, made from locally grown and ground buckwheat, topped with butter from a local creamery, sorghum syrup and local blackberry flower honey, an egg laid by our next-door neighbors’ chickens, and a piece of English-style uncured back bacon. It was delicious (I had the same).

Jeanette's Mother's Day breakfast

May you all have a wonderful day.