Susan Price on her contribution to a new historical fiction series
I lie awake at night, worrying about my ancestors. How did they cope before aspirin was invented? How did they endure miserable British winters without central heating or draught-proofing? Did they get enough to eat? Were they spending all day with wet feet?
Despite the wide-spread belief that ‘children don’t like history’, I was hooked from the first lesson. I was about seven, when the headmaster himself walked into our classroom and began talking about people who’d lived in caves, making tools out of stones. My father assured me this was true and, after that, the headmaster’s lesson became my favourite. Spartan boys with foxes under their cloaks. Rome being guarded by geese, English girls with knives on their chariot’s wheels – the Past was another country and I couldn’t hear enough about the different ways they did things there.
Later I learned to see History as an explanation of the present and a Dreadful Warning. Now I see it as a foretelling of all the stupid mistakes we’re repeating, tragically and comically. But my main interest remains, as ever, How They Did Things Then. A recent example of the sort of thing that keeps me awake: in the Roman Empire four vastly rich corporations ran the chariot-racing, each with thousands of share-holders. Without computers, how exactly did they keep track of who the share-holders were, and how much was owed them? Without cheques and postal services, how did they deliver the money due to each individual?
Early in 1994 I was delighted to receive a letter from Pat Thomson asking if I would like to write a book for a new series planned by A & C Black. She had, she explained, persuaded Black to ‘try again’ with historical novels. The books were to be lavishly illustrated, and set in periods taught as part of the National Curriculum. Naturally, the backgrounds had to be historically accurate, but the emphasis was to be on an exciting, entertaining story.
Three other writers had signed up: Pat Thomson herself, Adèle Geras and Robert Leeson. I was impressed, but not so overawed that I didn’t bag the Viking Age before anyone else could think of it. I’ve been deeply interested in the Vikings since I was 11 and first collided with the Norse Myths. I had immediately wanted to know a lot more about a people who could come up with stories like those. So I already had a great deal of knowledge about the Viking Age stored in my head. Always keen to do as little work as possible, I thought this would save on research. Wrong again.
I hadn’t much idea of what would happen in the story, except that I wanted to avoid the stereotype of the bloodthirsty Viking pillager, and also to say something about the lives of women at the time.
Like most stories, it began with endless questions: Who are the characters? What are their names? Where do they live? In what kind of house? How do they make their living? And on and on and on: how did they fasten their shoes? How do they travel? What do they take with them to eat on the journey? How do they buy things? I soon found out that I didn’t know as much about the Viking Age as I’d thought.
So I took books down from my shelves, walked to the library, and returning with a rucksack full of other big, heavy books, started some intensive research. I made notes onto my word-processor, which I printed off and stuck to the side of my filing cabinets with magnets. There were lists of Viking names kept in place by a tobogganing bear, a description of the great trading town of Hedeby held up by a sou-westered dog, and notes on Viking kitchens, slavery and the social status of women magneted by the three monkeys. I only had to swing my chair round and they were to hand.
The research jolted my imagination, and I was soon able to piece together the synopsis which Black wanted. I told them I wanted to write the story in a very simple, straightforward ‘Saga-style’, not only because the story was supposed to be a saga, but because it would save on words. Months of time can be covered by the Saga formula, ‘Nothing worth mentioning happened until – ’.
While I waited for Black to accept or reject the synopsis, I worked on other projects. I was writing a fantasy for Scholastic’s ‘Point’ series, choosing stories for a Kingfisher Horror collection and completing a collection of ghost stories for Hodder. I usually work on several things at once, and as I get stuck on one, move to another. By the time Black got back to me saying ‘Go ahead’, I was glad to be able to turn to their saga.
There are always unexpected difficulties when you try to turn a synopsis into a full-length story. Sequences which worked in summary reveal themselves to be slow and dull in full. Characters who, in synopsis, were easy to push around develop muscle as you work on them, and suddenly refuse to co-operate in a key scene. There are often long, frustrated pauses of days, while you wonder whether you’re ever going to be able to finish the book.
There were a few problems with The Saga of Aslak, but far fewer than I feared. It turned out to be one of those happy books which almost writes itself. I was rather pleased with the way Aslak himself came to life, and even more so when Louisa Sladen, my editor at Black, said he was ‘hot-headed and impulsive, a real Viking’. Then my sister read the manuscript and observed that, in fact, Aslak took his impatience and crashing lack of tact directly from his author. So much for character creation.
The toughest job was getting the word-number down to Black’s 12,000 limit. I never worry much about word-length when writing a first draft: I’ve learned that any story can be cut and it’s best, at first, to concentrate on telling your story. Once finished, there are usually whole incidents which can be cut without harming the story, saving thousands of words. But this wasn’t so with Aslak, which had been written from the outset in terse saga style. I rediscovered that dialogue is almost always a shorter way of conveying information than narrative, and so recast many scenes into dialogue. Then it was a matter of going through, sentence by sentence, cutting every word that could be cut. Thank god for the word-counters on word-processors. And for calculators.
I submitted the book to Black, and it was accepted, but that’s far from meaning that my work on it was finished. Instead the usual alarums and skirmishes began, sometimes by letter, often by telephone. Could I expand this point to make it clearer? Why does so-and-so do this, say this? Is ‘bashed’ quite the word we want here? (Yes.) Would it be better if Aslak ‘shouted furiously’? (No.) At one point I included the semi-legendary story of how and why the Great Danish Army came to England. Louisa thought it distracting and wanted it cut. I’d suspected that she might, and had been preparing to be difficult about it – but on re-reading the manuscript, when it came back to me after months away, I had to admit Louisa was right. The arguments with Louisa, though, were amicable (which isn’t always the case), and several of the best touches in the story are her ideas rather than mine (Aslak’s nickname of ‘Twice-Freed’, for instance).
I was sent roughs of the cover, and was able to say which I thought the most striking. Luckily, my choice coincided with Black’s (I’ve found that the publisher’s choice always prevails). Soon after I was sent a copy of the completed cover, illustrated very pleasingly by Barry Wilkinson. It had been produced early, Louisa explained, to provide pre-production publicity. The actual illustrations for the book wouldn’t be done until all the revisions had been made to the text, and the artist could be sure of what he had to work from. I promised to help by sending postcards I’d bought in Norway which showed household equipment from the Oseberg ship burial.
It’s mid-July ’95 as I write, and work on the book still goes on. It’s been sent to an expert reader, whose opinion on the whole is favourable, but comes back with pages of small points to be considered. I accept most of them – the house of the Viking Jarl, as I’ve described it, is too large and sophisticated for the date; and the farmhouse I describe would be thatched rather than shingled. Other points – that sausages were unknown to Vikings, that the name of my hero was Anglo-Saxon, not Viking, and that his sister’s name, Astrid, is modern – I reject, and have to go back to my notes to quote my sources. In London, meanwhile, Louisa is busy finding references for Barry Wilkinson to work from. I can assure everyone that, if the background to these books isn’t historically accurate, it won’t be for want of effort on the part of authors, illustrators and the editorial team at Black’s.
I’m also sent roughs of the illustrations, which I like very much (this isn’t always the case, either). I think Barry Wilkinson has done a wonderful job in the short time he was given. More questions come with the pictures. On the map of England, can I really have meant it to be York, 40 miles inland, where the ship carrying Aslak puts in? What did a Viking bier look like? (Search me.) And more alterations have to be made – the expert reader said the slaves would be tied with rope, not chained, so the artist has to alter the drawing and I have to alter the text. This is quickly done over the ’phone, with Louisa altering the proofs in London, and me altering the text on my computer. ‘How about “roped the slaves together”?’ – ‘That’ll shorten the page by a line.’ – ‘Will that matter?’ – ‘No, an extra line above the picture won’t matter.’ – ‘Okay.’
And then I’m asked to write this article, which means I get to read the other ‘Flashbacks’ in proof. Pat Thomson, who started it all, has written A Ghost-Light in the Attic, in which two modern children are themselves flashbacked into the Civil War. Robert Leeson’s All the Gold in the World, is a haunting story of the Elizabethan slave-trade and the Cimaroons, the free slaves. A Candle in the Dark is by Adèle Geras, and tells of two Jewish children, refugees from the Nazis. You are thankful for the happy ending. I hope they’re all as successful as they deserve to be, and go some way to dispelling the myth that ‘children don’t like history’.
My hope for mine is that some child somewhere enjoys Aslak only one-sixth as much as I enjoyed Henry Treece’s Viking Saga.
‘Flashbacks’ are published by A & C Black at £6.99 each
The Saga of Aslak, Susan Price, ill. Barry Wilkinson, 0 7136 4076 6
A Ghost-Light in the Attic, Pat Thomson, ill Annabel Large, 0 7136 4057 X
All the Gold in the World, Robert Leeson, ill. Anna Leplar, 0 7136 4059 6
A Candle in the Dark, Adèle Geras, ill. Elsie Lennox, 0 7136 4058 8
Henry Treece’s Viking Saga, is published by Puffin (0 14 031791 0) at £6.99. It brings together as a single volume Viking’s Dawn, The Road to Miklagard and Viking’s Sunset.