The print edition of The Long Hunt is now available, and Amazon is even saying it can be received by Christmas if ordered today.
Before I get into the real news, a few quick housekeeping matters.
First, over the past few weeks I have been so immersed in pushing to get book 4 finalized and published that I have been unable to take the time to respond to posts from readers on this website. Sorry about that– I very much appreciate and enjoy hearing from readers, and like to respond promptly. But I’ve gone back now to catch up, and hopefully have answered everyone.
Second, the print edition of Dragons from the Sea has been lost, but now it’s found. A week or so ago I discovered, to my great dismay, that although the current Northman Books edition has been on sale since 2010, sometime earlier this year the book disappeared from Amazon’s search engines, so for all practical purposes it was invisible to prospective buyers, because searches for “strongbow saga” or even ones run using the book’s actual title would only show the old, out of print HarperCollins edition. The problem has now been corrected, but if anyone has been trying unsuccessfully to buy that book in a print copy, I apologize and hope you’ll try again.
And now…The Long Hunt, Book 4 of The Strongbow Saga, has finally been published. Here’s a link to its page in the Amazon-U.S. Kindle store:
The book actually went on sale there yesterday, but I discovered an error that had escaped repeated proofing readings—the final paragraph of the book in the Acknowledgements section, where I thank all of you for your support—had somehow gone missing. It has been corrected now, but if anyone discovered the book was on sale and bought a copy yesterday, be sure to update your book—Amazon will do it for free, and if you’ve allowed automatic updates on your Kindle account, they’ll hopefully do it automatically.
The e-book edition is also available as a Nook book from Barnes & Noble. This link leads to its page there.
An e-book edition will be available through Kobo, although for now we’re experiencing technical difficulties there. Kobo’s book uploading software will not accept the book’s file, and to date I’ve been unable to get their technical support to respond for my requests for assistance.
The e-book will not, in the foreseeable future, be available directly through Apple’s I-book store. I do not find Apple’s e-book division to be particularly author-friendly–among other things, they only allow e-books to be uploaded to their store from an Apple computer–so those who want to read the e-book edition of The Long Hunt on an Apple device will need to install the free Kindle app and get a Kindle edition of the book.
The print edition should be out sometime during the coming week. I had hoped to publish it simultaneously with the e-book editions, but upon reviewing an actual printed proof copy I discovered that when printed on paper, the maps in the book did not come out very clear, so they had to be reworked, delaying the final clearance for print publishing. Print is like that–it’s a little harder to work with, and changes take longer to correct.
A few words about the story: although The Strongbow Saga is called a series, technically that’s not really what it is. A true series is a group of books using the same characters, but each is a separate, stand-alone story, although they are related and each book usually carries the characters further along in time. The Strongbow Saga is actually just a single long story, which for practical purposes has had to be told over time in separately published installments. Book 4 is another installment; it is not a stand-alone story.
What that means is that you should not expect a tidy, satisfying wrap-up at the end of this book. The end of book four does set up the end of Halfdan’s quest—which will have become two quests by the end of this book—but everything will not be wrapped up and finished until book 5, which will end The Strongbow Saga’s story. I know this can be frustrating to readers—you do not want to have to wait to find out what happens next (I do promise you won’t have to wait five years this time). But that’s the way it is. My original editor at HarperCollins pointed out to me that in this aspect, The Strongbow Saga is not unlike The Lord of the Rings, which is a single story told across three books. Those three books were not all published at the same time, either–readers of LOTR who discovered it when it first came out also had to wait for the next installments. But you, as readers of the Saga while it is still in progress, actually have the opportunity to influence the story. I take to heart all of your comments I receive here on this website, and in emails from readers, and in reviews of the books (and my sincere thanks to all who have reviewed them—reader reviews are, more than anything else, what sell books in the world of publishing today).There are many elements in The Long Hunt that would not have been there but for suggestions, comments, and even criticisms by readers. I appreciate and value your input.
Although the over-arcing story of The Strongbow Saga carries across all five books, and only concludes in the last one, there are sub-arcs which involve aspects of Halfdan’s growth that do conclude in individual books. In Viking Warrior, he makes the difficult transition from being a slave to becoming a warrior, and his quest for vengeance is set in motion by Toke’s treacherous attack. The second plot arc, during which Halfdan progresses from being a neophyte warrior into an experienced, battle-tested, and even acclaimed one, takes place over the course of books two and three, Dragons from the Sea and The Road to Vengeance (which I originally wrote as a single book, but which HarperCollins, the series’ first publisher, split into two against my wishes). Also during this section of the story, Halfdan gains allies he needs to help him pursue Toke, and he finds his first experience with love. In book 4, The Long Hunt, Halfdan will progress from being an experienced, respected warrior into a leader, capable of commanding other warriors. In book 5, he will need to be able to do so.
Last, I would like to comment on the book’s pricing. The price for the print editions of my books is largely determined by the costs of production and distribution. The Long Hunt is a considerably longer book than any of the first three, and as such, it costs more to print. I have had to price it at $17.00 retail, because at that price, when the book is sold through expanded distribution channels (i.e., anywhere except by Amazon, which owns the printing company), by the time all of the costs kick in, I’ll make only about 50 cents per book sold. I cannot price the print version any lower.
The e-book editions, including the Kindle version, are priced at $7.99. That’s higher than the first three, but those were already old books when I republished them, so I felt a low price for them was appropriate. I do believe e-books should cost considerably less than their print versions–though some authors and most of the big publishers disagree–and I have discounted the e-book editions of The Long Hunt accordingly. But I did have to price this book, which required an enormous amount of work and some considerable costs to create, higher than the first three. I have to set the price high enough to make a living, or I can’t keep doing this. I hope readers will find the pleasure it brings them is well worth the cost.
And now, I am looking forward to a rest. For many months I have put too many aspects of my life, and too much work that needs to be done around my home and farm, on the back burner while I pushed to research, write, and publish this book by the end of this year, because too many have been waiting too long to read it. I felt I owed all of you that. But it’s time to catch up on the rest of my life, to enjoy the waning days of this year and look forward to the solstice, when the days will begin to grow longer and lighter again. Tonight, Jeanette and I are cooking ourselves a celebratory feast in honor of publication, and we’ll wash it down with…what else but:
May you all have a wonderful holiday season, and may the new year bring more joy than sorrow.
Update on book 4’s progress: I’ve received the feedback from my four content readers/editors, and have made changes to the draft to address their suggestions. This afternoon I sent the draft on to the copy editor, which is an entirely different type of editing: rather than addressing the contents of the story, copy editing deals with the writing, cleaning up any errors in punctuation, finding missing words, suggesting possible changes in phrasing of passages, and the like. While I’m waiting to receive the copy edit back, I’ll be working on the rough drafts of some diagrams and maps that will be included in the book, and on the cover…which brings me to the main point of this post.
When I regained the rights to books one through three of the Strongbow Saga from its original publisher, I needed to make new covers, because HarperCollins owned the original ones. I would have made new ones anyway—Harper was targeting a specific readership, teenage girls, with their covers. While many readers do like those covers, I have always felt they had a strong potential for making many potential readers pass the books by, because the HarperCollins covers look a lot like covers for romance novels. So my new covers were designed for the specific purpose of saying “these books are historical fiction about the Vikings.” I think, based on the greatly increased readership since the books were republished, they did achieve that goal.
But—the new covers don’t get a lot of love. I certainly concede they are far from perfect, and perhaps a bit crudely rendered in their execution. I’m open to changing them, and one reader, Kate, recently suggested on the Discussions thread that I should offer a contest to readers to create new covers for the series. It’s a great idea—I like the thought of having covers designed by readers and fans of the series. So I’m opening up a cover contest, plus a second contest that’s just for fun.
The Strongbow Saga will be, when it is completed, five volumes long, so ideally I’m looking for five covers with similar looks and/or themes, although entries for individual covers are fine. I’m open to any concept. Each cover should be in jpg format and contain the following information:
The series number, such as “Book 4 of The Strongbow Saga”
the title, such as “The Long Hunt”
and my name: “Judson Roberts”
I cannot use artwork or images that I don’t have the right to use, so any artwork or images that are a part of a cover submission must either be free use/open source, or else original work by the submitter. I will need verification of that, if I select your cover design.
If I decide to use a cover, I’ll pay the designer $300.00 US dollars for the right to use it, and will credit the creator in the book as “Cover design by _________.” If I adopt a cover, there will be some specifications for the size and image quality of the final image, but those are details we can deal with later.
Submissions should be emailed to me at: email@example.com. As entries come in I will post them on this site, and I’ll welcome readers’ feedback and reactions to each submitted design. For now, there’s no closing date to this contest—I’ll run it as long as there is interest and submissions keep coming in, or until I choose new covers for the series.
This one is just for fun. If anyone would like to post a Strongbow Saga themed video on YouTube, I have some promotional materials, left over from when I used to travel around doing book signings, which I’ll give as prizes in exchange for entries. Here’s a link to a video I created for the release of book 3 back in 2008, just as an example of one possibility: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iafmWCveCwY
The contest applies to new video postings only. To qualify, entries should include some kind of mention of the Strongbow Saga, and that book 4, The Long Hunt, is coming in December 2013, but otherwise exercise your imaginations. Humor is always fun, but not necessary. To enter the contest, upload your video onto YouTube then send me a link to it at firstname.lastname@example.org, plus your mailing address. I’ll post links to the videos as they come in.
On December 9th, I’ll make a new post containing links to all of the entries that were received, and will ask readers to vote for their three favorites. The ten entrants whose videos receive the most votes will receive a Strongbow Saga t-shirt and Viking dragon key ring.
The entrant whose video is my favorite will also receive a pewter Thor’s Hammer necklace similar to the one pictured.
Good luck, and may your video go viral!
I finished the first draft of The Long Hunt, book 4 of the Strongbow Saga, on Tuesday evening. The final chapter–which ended up becoming two chapters–took longer to write than I’d anticipated, partly because I just got stuck a few times, and partly because, as I was researching various sources about the town of Birka, trying to determine what it would have looked like, I discovered some actual historical events that were happening there about the time the story is taking place, and they suggested a new, dangerous situation that Halfdan and his companions might find themselves in.
That’s often the way this story unfolds for me: I’m writing it with a very broad outline in mind, but my research often suggests details, scenes, incidents, and the like that I had not anticipated. A completed book is never exactly like what I thought it would be when I began it, although this one held more surprises for me than the first three.
Yesterday I took a break from my computer–I’ve been practically chained to it the last few weeks– and enjoyed a hike and working in my garden. Today I’ve begun the next step: a reading through of the entire draft, from start to finish, making minor tweaks and changes as I go along. During this stage, I read it aloud, because that helps me hear how the writing and dialogue flow and what kind of rhythm they have. At the conclusion of this read-through, which should take less than a week, I’ll have my second draft. Then I’ll send that out to my three volunteer content editors–my wife Jeanette, an author friend, Luc Reid, who has been a first reader for each book since I first began the series, plus a new editor, a very dedicated fan who has, in email correspondence over the years, shown a remarkable degree of insight into the story and characters. When I receive their suggestions and comments back–and while I’m waiting for them, I’ll be writing the Historical Notes, glossary, list of characters, and working on the the maps, some diagrams, and the cover–I’ll complete the third and final draft. Then there will be a final copy edit, to check for any missed typos, etc. After that we’ll go into the pre-production phase, formatting the book for various types of editions, getting it copyrighted, and the like.
In other words, there’s still quite a lot of work to be done, but I’m still aiming to release it by the end of the year. The long wait for The Long Hunt is finally nearing its end.
I am very excited to be able to announce that German language editions of the Strongbow Saga will be coming, beginning–in the spring or early summer of 2014–with Viking Warrior. I have long wanted to make the story available in other countries, but after having struggled so long and hard to regain control of the series from its original publisher, HarperCollins, I preferred to find a way to accomplish this without just selling the rights to foreign publishers.
A first necessary step occurred over the course of last year, when Amazon began opening divisions in various European countries, including the UK, France, Spain, and Germany. The Kindle e-book and print editions, in English, are already available overseas in those markets as a result. But the series will have a much greater chance to be discovered by many more readers worldwide if available in their native languages.
A second necessary step was to find someone to convert the English language stories into new language versions. I chose Germany as a first market to reach this way. But I wanted more than a rote, word for word literal translation into German—something that can make for an awkward read. Instead, I wanted the story to be retold, in its new German version, by a skilled, experienced storyteller in that language. I wanted a resident author in Germany, to not just translate the stories, but to retell them in German, and also to be the German face of the Strongbow Saga, to promote the books as their works—because a truly good translation is a new literary work. What I wanted was not a translator, but an author partner.
Ruth Nestvold, an American author living in Germany, will be the German face of the Strongbow Saga. Ruth is a wonderful storyteller who has published many science fiction stories in various markets, and whose historical fantasy novel Yseult was published by Random House Germany in 2009 under the title Flamme und Harfe. Her experience writing about a similar time period to that in which the Strongbow Saga is set makes her a particularly good fit for the series.
And as to my progress on book 4 of the Strongbow Saga, I’m currently writing the last scene of the second to last chapter of the book. We’re getting there!
As a reader kindly reminded me this week, it has been too long since I’ve posted an update on the status of book 4. I’ve been trying to put as much as possible on the back burner, including posting here, while I push to finish the book. So here’s where I am on it.
Short version: I’m in good position to finish writing The Long Hunt by the end of September. Then the draft will go to my group of volunteer editors, who will read it and give me their feedback and suggestions on the story itself, plus corrections of typographical errors, missed words, etc. that I did not catch first time around.
The next step will be my review of the manuscript, in light of the comments I receive, and I’ll make any revisions I think necessary. I have not, on the first three books, needed to do extensive revisions, so I anticipate this stage of the process shouldn’t take too long. Also during this stage will be the another proof reading by me for typographical errors
Once the manuscript is in its final form, then the process of turning it into a book begins. I’ll need to come up with a cover design, working with my friend, computer wizard, and fellow author Luc Reid, who has helped me create the new covers for the first three books. I’ll need to format the book in Amazon’s Kindle format, and Luc will format first the print and then the EPub e-book versions—Epub is the format used by all e-book distributors except Amazon. Each version must be carefully proof read, to ensure that during formatting typographical errors did not get created.
My goal is to release the print and Kindle versions simultaneously, and follow with e-book versions for Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other distribution networks as quickly thereafter as the EPub version can be finalized.
These steps all take time—lots of time—but barring some unforeseen disaster, we’re in very good position to get book 4 of the Strongbow Saga out to readers in 2013.
Once the actual writing is finished—hopefully in just a few weeks—I’ll post again, and talk a little about the story, and where the series is going.
One of my goals in writing the Strongbow Saga, besides trying to tell an engaging and moving story, is to try to present a picture of the Vikings’ culture and society that is as historically accurate as possible. The Vikings have, for the most part, been badly misrepresented in fiction, both written and especially in film. The Vikings are too often portrayed as having a crude, barbaric culture, as being violent killers and rapists, and going about dressed in animal skins and wearing helmets with horns on them. None of these things are true.
Take clothing: the typical garb for a male would have been wool or linen trousers, leather shoes or boots, and a wool or linen tunic. Silk was known to the Vikings, and fragments of that cloth have been found in the graves of wealthy Vikings—a fact which reflects not only on the types of clothing wealthy Vikings wore, but also on how extensive their trading networks were, for silk was produced only in China, many thousands of miles away from the Viking homelands in Scandinavia. A female would typically wear a long underdress or shift, usually of linen, and over it a colored sleeveless dress, often secured by large decorative brooches. A long cloak, typically of heavy wool due to its warmth and water-shedding qualities, would be the most common outer garment worn in winter or inclement weather, when outdoors.
I have a companion website to this one, at www.strongbowsaga.com, which contains an article about Viking clothing with some photos of examples. The site was down for a long time due to being hacked, its original homepage has still not been restored, and it has been far too long since I’ve added new content—I have good intentions but poor follow-through on that. But the articles that are there now do provide some background into several areas of the Vikings’ culture, and offer bibliographies of sources where those subjects can be studied in greater depth.
The Vikings’ culture and society, rather than being crude and barbaric, was actually highly refined and developed—I find it quite similar, in many ways, to that of the ancient Mycenaean Greeks back around the time of the conquest of Troy, who were so vividly described in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. For instance, they had a highly developed system of laws, and a legal system which is the ancestor of the British and American justice systems. Disputes could be settled by bringing lawsuits at the Things, or regional assemblies, and even kings were subject to the law—a contrast to most medieval societies, in which the king was the source of the law. Of course, it was violent time, and both kings and commoners not infrequently settled matters with blood and steel, outside of legal channels. But in Viking society at least the theory and ideal of law and justice existed, and have carried forward to modern times.
In historical fiction, it is often the little details that affect how accurately a time and people are being portrayed. I thought I’d share just a few of the kinds of details I’ve been wrestling with as I’ve been writing book 4.
I most often look for small details about the Vikings’ culture and society in the old Viking sagas. Many modern historians discount the sagas as historical sources, arguing that because they were not written until the 1200s or later, after the end of the Viking era, they could not accurately reflect the Viking times. However, I think those skeptics missing a major point. The Vikings had a very strong oral literature traditions—one of their primary forms of entertainment was storytelling and poetry reciting. The popular stories and poems, most of which recounted actual events, were memorized and told again and again, through the years and centuries, until eventually they were written down, after the use of written languages became more prevalent (the runes, the simple written alphabet used by the Vikings during the Viking era, did not lend itself to lengthy documents). The Viking sagas are, in fact, much like Homer’s Iliad: for centuries they existed only in oral form, until finally they were written down, but they are filled with accurate data about the period when they were originally created as works of oral literature.
A large section of book 4 involves a journey by sea through the Danish islands and across the Baltic Sea. One of the first questions I found myself wondering was what did the Vikings call the Baltic Sea? That little fact actually took a lot of research to root out, but eventually I found some references to passages in various sagas, including the Ynglinga Saga by Snorre Sturlason, a prolific 13th century Icelandic writer who put many of the old sagas into written form. The Vikings apparently called the Baltic the Eastway, the Eastern Lake, or—the one I’ve chosen to use in the Strongbow Saga—the Austmarr, or Eastern Sea.
A quirky fact about the Baltic that I discovered in my recent research, which forced me to rewrite some descriptions in one scene in book 4, is that it has no tides.
I’ve wrestled with numerous issues about the Viking ships in this section of book 4. How fast could they travel, by sail or by oars? How long would it take to sail from one location to another? How large were their crews? How did they carry provisions and other supplies aboard ship?
There were various types and sizes of ships used by the Vikings (and someday I do hope to add a detailed article, with lots of illustrations, about their ships on the strongbow saga website), but for the purposes of book 4, I am concerned primarily with the “typical” longship as was used during the 9th century. Based on two very well preserved examples, the Oseberg and Gokstad ships, found during the late 1800s in excavated Viking-era graves in Scandinavia, the typical general purpose longship would have had fifteen or sixteen pairs of oars (some much larger longships were built latter in the Viking era, as very specialized warships). They did not have any kind of a hold, like later-era ships did, but merely a large flat main deck, and often very small raised decks in the bow and stern. There were no seats or built-in benches for rowers, but archeological evidence suggests that crew members would store their personal possessions in large wooden chests or trunks, the height and length of which allowed them to also be used as seats for rowing, when needed. All cargo would therefore have had to have been carried in the open, on the main deck, which means it would have had to have been stored in something that would protect it from exposure to water and the elements—most likely wooden barrels.
A longship with fifteen pairs of oars, like Hastein’s ship, the Gull, would obviously require at least thirty men to man its oars. But how many crew members above that number would such a ship typically carry? In part, I think that would depend on the length of a voyage. On longer voyages, when the limited deck space would be significantly filled with barrels of provisions and cargo, there would be much less room for a large crew. But on shorter trips, when large amounts of stores did not have to be carried, a larger crew could be fit aboard. Some historians have suggested that a ship the size of the Gull might typically carry a crew of fifty, but I believe such estimates totally fail to take into account how limited a longship’s deck space would be, if the ship was carrying any amount of cargo at all.
The website for the Danish Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde on the island of Sjaelland (http://www.vikingeskibsmuseet.dk/en/) provides a wonderful amount of information about Viking ships, and has been very helpful as I’ve been writing the sea voyage section of book 4. The museum has built full-size reproductions of a number of different sizes and types of ships, and based on sailing them on journeys of various distances and under various conditions, has developed data about sailing and rowing speeds, as well as probable crew sizes. The website has many photos of their ships, which I highly recommend if any readers of the Strongbow Saga are not already familiar with their appearance.
In this post, I’m barely touching the surface of the kinds of details that I research while trying to bring the world of the Strongbow Saga accurately into being for its readers. But if this post makes any readers think of questions they’ve wondered about—little details of the culture, etc.—I’d love to answer them. I suggest that any such posts be made on the Discussions page of this website, so we can hopefully start there an ongoing, shared discussion about the historical facts behind the story.
I strive to make the details about the Vikings’ culture and life as historically authentic as possible, while telling Halfdan’s story in the Strongbow Saga. Reports, summaries, and analyses of archeological finds are one source for factual details. Another, which I rely on heavily, are the old Viking sagas.
But some everyday aspects of life, when they occurred over 1,000 years ago, can be very difficult to pin down. At best, we can make educated guesses based on the limited facts available.
An example of this is what types of food did the Vikings eat? From archeological examination of Viking-era sites, including their middens, or trash dumps, some clues can be gleaned. Animal bones, for example, provide evidence of domestic animals found on Viking homesteads, as well as types of game that were hunted and consumed. Microscopic examinations of pollen residues and other residual evidence can suggest at least some of the types of crops grown in Viking-era Scandinavia. But how did they cook those foods? Unfortunately I have not found any recipes, or even detailed descriptions of meals, in any of the old sagas I’ve read.
Common sense and logical deduction suggest that stews were probably a common meal, given that cooking was done over an open fire, and meals often had to serve large numbers of people, particularly in the longhouses of chieftains. Stews have the virtues of being relatively easy to prepare in large volumes, and of making large amounts of hearty fare out of limited ingredients. Common sense also suggests that meat would often have been scarce enough that it would be used more as a flavoring, than as a main course.
I was recently asked by a friend what types of foods the Vikings might have eaten. Inspired by the question–and by some root vegetables this same friend gave us from her garden–my wife and I cooked a stew such as the Vikings might well have made, using ingredients they would have had available. We did not, however, cook it over an open fire ;-). The recipe is offered here–if you try it, do not skip the bone broth step. It’s key to the dish’s rich flavor.
Bone Broth (make ahead)
Cut a rear thigh bone of a deer into three to four inch sections with a hatchet or saw. Place in a crockpot, cover with 4 to 5 inches of water, and simmer for roughly 48 hours. Discard bones. The broth should be thick, dark brown, and aromatic. (Substitutions: use beef or sheep marrow or soup bones purchased from a butcher or grocery store, if venison leg bones are unavailable. Try to use bones with visible marrow, to melt into the broth). Excess broth can be frozen for future use.
About one pound of venison, cut into roughly 1 inch cubes (use lamb or beef, if venison is unavailable)
4 to 5 cloves of garlic
Two small or one large onions, coarsely chopped
3 to 5 large carrots, cut into sections 1 inch or less long
3 to five large parsnips, cut into sections 1 inch or less long
One large rutabaga, peeled and cut into roughly ½ inch cubes
One teaspoon peppercorns
1 ½ teaspoons Juniper berries
Two to three small or medium leeks, cleaned and chopped
¾ to 1 cup of barley (purple hull-less or a similar heritage variety, if available)
About a half bottle of Burgundy or similar hearty red wine
Salt to taste (coarse sea salt if available)
About a pint of Chanterelle, Winter Chanterelle, or other wild mushrooms
In a large soup pot, sauté the venison and garlic in the oil until the meat is just browned. Add the onions, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, peppercorns, Juniper berries, roughly one quart of the broth, plus a teaspoon of salt, and simmer for about three hours. Taste liquid, and add more salt if needed. Add leeks, barley, and wine, and simmer for another 1 to 1 ½ hours. Briefly sauté the mushrooms in a small amount of butter and a little broth from the stew, and stir them into the stew just before serving. Taste again and stir in more salt, or sprinkle on top of individual servings, as needed.
1) The meat and vegetables used in this recipe were all common in the Viking countries.
2) Olive oil would not be authentic; the Vikings would likely have cooked with butter or rendered animal fat.
3) Peppercorns would have been rare and expensive, but because the Vikings did have well established trade routes connecting with the Middle East, and pepper was a common, if expensive, trade good in the Middle East since ancient times, wealthier Viking households might well have at least on occasion had peppercorns on hand. Pepper was certainly known as a spice in England as early as the 7th century.
4) Barley was a grain grown for use both as a food and for brewing ale. Heritage barley, such as purple hull-less, which has a much chewier texture than most modern commercially-grown barley sold in grocery stores, would bear a greater resemblance to the type of barley grown and consumed during the Viking era.
5) Although wine was not produced in Viking Scandinavia, it was a widely traded commodity. Like the peppercorns, it would probably only be found in wealthier Viking households. A more “common man” version of this recipe would omit the peppercorns and wine.
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.
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.
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.
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.