One afternoon, I sat in an urban bar during a modern happy hour, talking with my friend about 10th century Viking mouthwash. Sarah had a source for something potentially poisonous – bulk angelica root. It was a controlled substance at the tea shop, and the main ingredient Vikings may have used to keep their breath fresh. Angelica was also used to dye yarn and fabric, along with the lichens and birch leaves available in settlement era Iceland – the setting of my first novel, BEAUTIFUL WRECK.
Sarah opened the jar of powdery, musty stuff, and I leaned over my martini to dip a finger in it. It tasted like dirt and licorice. She ate some too, and when neither of us keeled over, we made plans to make mouthwash and dye yarn. I boiled the ground-up roots in an old pot with water, vinegar and some birch leaves, and set it in the narrow alley behind my house for a few weeks.
In order to immerse my readers in the Viking world, I wanted to know so many things. Did the mouthwash taste sweet and kissable? What color did the angelica turn the wool? What did the steam smell like when you lifted the lid off the boiling dye pot? (Kissable but not sweet, yellow, and tea and apples, by the way.)
As authors, we strive to conjure up whole worlds that none of us alive today have ever seen. Our characters are thrown into times and societies they don’t understand and may not have the skills to navigate. To create these worlds, often we writers try the things our characters would be facing.
Many authors spend time visiting the settings of our books: the epic castles and cliffs and ruins that serve as the worlds in which romance takes place. Mary Morgan walked along the banks of Loch Ness while writing DRAGON KNIGHT’S SWORD. Jessi Gage tasted whisky at distilleries in Scotland, and Cate Dean’s spooky experience at the Necropolis, the cemetery next to Glasgow Cathedral, made it into her novella. Peggy L. Henderson started fires the old fashioned way while camping and had some unexpected bear encounters. Susana Ellis visited Leeds Castle in Kent while writing A HOME FOR HELENA, and her mother made her a beautiful Regency gown. My own trip to a reconstructed Viking house in Iceland helped me imagine my heroine’s home.
Our hands-on research may cause some strange reactions. Katherine Lowry Logan needed to write about a stampede for THE RUBY BROOCH, so she made her first-ever visit to a gun store, where she told the cashier, “I need a gun that will kill as many cows as possible in the shortest amount of time.” The store full of holiday shoppers went completely silent. “After they discovered I was a writer, everyone wanted to give me gun advice.” (I was met with a similar brief silence when I asked a librarian how to cut up a whale with hand tools.)
By the time my book was written, it turned out that I was not a natural at many of the skills needed to be a Viking age woman. I couldn’t even get a drop spindle to spin, and I never made a toe, let alone a whole sock, using the ancient needle art of naalbinding. My ride on an Icelandic horse was wonderful, but a little frightening.
But I was grateful for my failures. I was glad I’d made a few inches of stitches, a pale yellow lump of yarn, and a bottle of bitter Viking mouthwash. These experiences made BEAUTIFUL WRECK rich in detail, and I absolutely knew what my character Ginn felt like when she accidentally tumbled back in time and had to try to fit in.
Photos of fiber and horses used via Creative Commons.