COM­MENT “It was a joy to imag­ine what my Shield Maiden would say or do”

Jan­ina Ramirez on how a his­to­rian ap­proaches writ­ing chil­dren’s his­tor­i­cal fic­tion

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Children’s Fiction -

When I was grow­ing up, all I wanted to do was write books for chil­dren. I had been so in­flu­enced by great writ­ers such as Tolkien, CS Lewis, Ur­sula K Le Guin and, later, JK Rowl­ing. Th­ese books formed me, in­still­ing a taste for the fan­tas­ti­cal, mag­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal.

But in my first year read­ing English Lit­er­a­ture at univer­sity, I was ex­posed to the world of Old English lit­er­a­ture. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to sim­ply read the texts. I wanted to know about the ar­chae­ol­ogy, art and cul­ture that mag­nif­i­cent po­etry like The Wan­derer and Be­owulf had emerged from.

In place of nov­els, I be­gan to de­vour ob­scure aca­demic ar­ti­cles on in­ter­lac­ing gold and ex­ca­va­tions in Swe­den. Study­ing the early me­dieval pe­riod, I started to imag­ine my­self in the minds of peo­ple who lived over a mil­len­nium ago. Twenty years on, I’m a lec­turer at Ox­ford and have pub­lished his­tor­i­cal books, but lit­er­a­ture has re­mained a con­stant source of in­spi­ra­tion. I do not con­sider my­self to be a his­to­rian who has turned her hand to writ­ing fic­tion. I con­sider my­self to be a fic­tion writer who was se­duced into life as a his­to­rian.

When I was ap­proached to be a ‘ his­tor­i­cal con­sul­tant’ for a se­ries of chil­dren’s books set in the Vik­ing Age, it aroused a crea­ture that had been ly­ing qui­etly within. I re­sponded: “I don’t want to be a con­sul­tant, I want to write chil­dren’s books my­self!”

So be­gan a dif­fi­cult jour­ney. In place of facts and foot­notes, I had to write with emo­tion, colour and at­mos­phere. It was tough at first, but once the flood­gates were opened I found that the words flowed from my fin­ger­tips, and it be­came a joy to imag­ine what Alva, my Shield Maiden, would say or do.

But what hung heavy in my mind was the need for his­tor­i­cal ac­cu­racy. I re­searched Vik­ing footwear, me­dieval lock­ing mech­a­nisms and types of stew avail­able in ninth-cen­tury Scan­di­navia. For ev­ery pas­sion­ate hu­man story I told, there was a mun­dane sec­tion de­scrib­ing the in­te­rior of a Vik­ing hall or the cor­rect in­ter­pre­ta­tion of spe­cific runes.

Balancing style with sub­stance is some­thing all writ­ers en­counter. Yet the his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist faces the added chal­lenge of hav­ing to re­con­struct long-lost land­scapes, and char­ac­ters a thou­sand years or more out of reach, with a re­al­ism that mod­ern read­ers can iden­tify with. Throw in the need to com­mu­ni­cate clearly with a younger au­di­ence and the com­plex­ity in­creases.

I be­lieve that chil­dren can han­dle a good deal more drama, in­trigue, pas­sion and nu­ance than might be as­sumed. That said, I have toned down the Vik­ing sacrifices, and the his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion in my sto­ries is wo­ven into a ta­pes­try rather than pre­sented dic­ta­to­ri­ally.

I am still learn­ing, and the jour­ney is a long one. There will be three more books in this se­ries, as the char­ac­ters move from Scan­di­navia to An­glo-Saxon Eng­land, then through Europe to­wards Con­stantino­ple. Each book will in­volve a lot of re­search and, as the land­scape changes, so will the at­mos­phere.

It was my dream to write for chil­dren, and I do it for the sim­ple plea­sure of pass­ing on an early me­dieval world I fell in love with, through a medium I have been ob­sessed with my whole life. Pas­sion breeds pas­sion, and his­tor­i­cal fic­tion is why I do what I do to­day. I would love to light just one spark in a young reader so that they, too, dis­cover a pas­sion for the past that they might carry through to their fu­ture.

A Vik­ing rune­stone from the eighth cen­tury. Jan­ina Ramirez’s new book throws read­ers into a Vik­ing world packed with drama and in­trigue

Dr Jan­ina Ramirez lec­tures in art his­tory at Ox­ford Univer­sity and is a BBC doc­u­men­tary maker. Her new book Rid­dle of the Runes – A Vik­ing Mys­tery (OUP) is out now

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