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
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