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.