Category Archives: How’d That Happen

In Conversation with Puzzle Editor Mark Lagasse

With our current issue, we are excited to welcome to our pages a new puzzle series: Mixed-Up Anagrams by Mark Lagasse. Mark is a longtime colleague at Dell Magazines and friend to the mystery-fiction titles. Here, we talk with Mark about mysteries, puzzles, and his career—and even get a tip for solving anagrams.

AHMM: Have you always been a fan of word puzzles?

Mark Lagasse: One of my earliest memories is of me emceeing the boxed home versions of TV game shows (with my sisters as contestants) before I was four years old. A little later, I solved my first crossword in a newspaper and I was hooked. There’s never been a day in my life since when I didn’t solve some kind of puzzle or play a game.

AH: What about mysteries?

ML: I adore mysteries and have read thousands.

AH: If you can pick, what’s your favorite mystery work or author?

ML: There’s no doubt: Rex Stout. The relationship that developed over 40 years between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin was complicated, nuanced, funny, and, most importantly, real; these two can easily stand among the most brilliantly defined characters of all fiction. Now, some people find Stout’s plots shaky and his suspects inadequately differentiated. Still, most readers can’t deny that they are chiefly enjoying the novels and novellas for Wolfe, Archie, Fritz, Inspector Cramer, and of course, Wolfe’s brownstone (a character in itself).

I’m also a huge fan of Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Josephine Tey, Stuart Kaminsky, and Lawrence Block. In terms of crime fiction, Patricia Highsmith and James M. Cain reign supreme.

AH: How did you get started constructing and editing puzzles professionally?

ML: I’d been constructing all kinds of puzzles for my own (and friends’) amusement since I was five. Naturally, I bought and devoured hundreds of puzzle magazines published by both Dell and Penny Press. After a BS in management, an MBA, and a couple of years in consulting and banking (all probably misguided), in 1987 I finally wised up and applied to Dell Puzzle Magazines for an assistant-editor job. My résumé was accompanied by a puzzle I made that argued why I would be a good hire; it must have worked because I got the position and have been at Dell for nearly 31 years, today as a Senior Executive Editor.

AH: And your favorite type of puzzle to work? What about your favorite to construct or edit—is it the same?

ML: Dell Puzzle Magazines features hundreds of different variety puzzles, so picking a favorite is tough. I will say I love to solve crosswords, specialty Sudoku, anagram-based material, and Anacrostics. And as corny as it might sound, I’ve never encountered a puzzle I didn’t like to construct.

AH: How do you think the two genres or forms of mystery and puzzles connect?

ML: As Lorenz Hart wrote, “If you asked me, I could write a book” on this subject, as the genres overlap a lot. To be brief, I believe that mysteries and puzzles require both the left and right sides of our brain. We must rationally, deductively, even coldly unravel problems that are presented in a highly artistic, entertaining medium. Furthermore, life doesn’t always provide straightforward solutions or satisfying conclusions; mysteries and puzzles (if done correctly) do. Deriving fun and a sense of accomplishment from mere thinking are rare treats nowadays!

AH: Can you offer a tip for solving anagram puzzles?

ML: Some folks haul out their Scrabble sets and rearrange the tiles to gain a foothold, and others jot the given letters in the margin and scramble them there. It’s key to take into account what exactly you’re forming. For names of characters, for example, a J may lead you to JOHN, JAMES, JACK, JANE, etc. In the November-December 2018 issue, when the answers to Scrambled Grafton will be titles of Kinsey Millhone books, it will be very helpful to realize that each entry will contain IS FOR.

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“In a City of Magic . . .” by Thomas K. Carpenter

Thomas K. Carpenter writes in diverse genres including historical mystery. His short fiction appears in a variety of magazines including AHMM and EQMM, and he writes the Dashkova Memoirs series, the Digital Sea trilogy, and the GAMERS trilogy. Here he talks about his story “The Worth of Felines,” from the current May/June issue of AHMM.

Ancient Alexandria, the setting for the story “The Worth of Felines,” is a city of magic.

Not the kind of magic we might recognize from the latest Marvel movie, or the type that people believe can be summoned from spells and tomes, but the kind that today we call: technology. Alexandria was a strange intersection of knowledge and superstition. This dichotomy was never more present than in the temples of the city, which used technological wonders to provide “miracles” for their followers, so that they might prove their special relationship to the gods and separate their followers from their hard earned coinage.

One of the greatest purveyors of these miracles was Heron of Alexandria, the real life inventor from the story. He accomplished many technological feats during that time, including creating what could be called an early precursor to the steam engine, in service to these temples.

But Heron is not the central focus of the story. That honor goes to Magistrate Ovid, who unlike Heron, was not a real historical figure, though he owes his fictional existence to the inventor.

The original launching point for these stories was the Alexandrian Saga, a seven book series I published earlier in this decade about Heron and how his inventions might have changed the world under different circumstances. The first book, Fires of Alexandria, deals with the mystery of the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and the development of a primitive steam engine, which threatened the slave trade and made enemies for the inventor. Magistrate Ovid has only a bit part in this book, hardly more than an extra in the grand scheme of things.

The books follow how this spark might have changed ancient history forever, bringing about massive technological change, nearly two thousand years before the industrial revolution. But when I finished the seventh and final book (you can find them at all major retailers), I felt like I wasn’t done with Heron, or the city of ancient Alexandria. So I decided to write some smaller mysteries involving the inventor.

In the early stories, Heron is a Sherlockian figure, solving what appear to be intractable problems—in stunning fashion, no less. The magistrate merely provides a Watson to Heron’s Sherlock to hide the solving of the mystery until the last possible moment. They were fun, little mysteries, but ultimately derivative, failing to illustrate the full scope of the character, Heron of Alexandria, from the novels, or allowing Ovid a shred of humanity.

All that changed when I wrote The Curse of the Gorgon. Feeling limited by the structure I’d placed on myself, I decided to try something different, and allowed Magistrate Ovid to become the focus of this story. In Curse, Ovid must solve what appears to be a supernatural crime—the murder of an awful family by the mythical gorgon. While Heron makes a cameo, the story ultimately rests on Ovid’s shoulders and considerable girth.

Thus, the real Magistrate Ovid is born.

But his development wasn’t finished. I wrote a story for a workshop with Kris Rusch a number of years ago. That story was “The Trouble with Virgins.”

In it, Magistrate Ovid is confronted with an impossible situation involving a wealthy Alexandrian and his son, one that mirrors his own struggles with his father. This story was purchased by Janet Hutchings at EQMM in the Department of First Stories.

With a more flesh and blood Ovid, the stories came alive. In the latest AHMM, Magistrate Ovid must save his friend Heron from a Machiavellian rival in the story “The Worth of Felines,” and in a future issue of EQMM, Ovid explores the political implications of the Great Lighthouse in “The Lightness of Man.”

I’m not finished with Magistrate Ovid by any stretch. One of the fun parts about writing these stories, besides getting to explore the characters in more depth, is visiting ancient Alexandria and all her splendor. The story that I’m currently working on involves the Great Library herself. I’d tell you more but I don’t know what happens yet either!

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“A Twisty Path to Publication” by Dara Carr

Maryland writer Dara Carr is the author of the novel Angela Cray Gets Real, a Freddie Award finalist. Her short fiction can be found in Shotgun Honey and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Here she talks about the road to writing and publication of her clever and compelling story “Off-Off-Off Broadway,” from the current March/April issue.

The story, “Off-Off-Off Broadway,” was born in the wrong time and place. It began life as part of a disastrous first novel. Among this novel’s three hundred some pages of dreck, I retained a fondness for two characters, an ancient bulldog named Winston and a former beauty queen from Oklahoma. Not being prone to waste, I wondered if I might resurrect these two in a short story. And, just like that, an awful idea came to light, which I persisted with through many twists and turns.

The early junk novel had a photographer in it, as does the story, “Off-Off-Off Broadway.” But the novel’s photographer, a wiseacre with a bad attitude, wouldn’t join the story’s cast. I needed a different type of photographer, one who took up less oxygen, one who could bring a wry perspective to the unlikely drama the combustible former Miss Oklahoma would inevitably provoke.

This was how I started with two women and an elderly bulldog in a photography studio. The next obvious question: What could possibly go wrong? Determined to find out, I poked and prodded, exploring the possibilities for disaster. As I did so, the story became an odd but welcome mental escape from the terrible events unfolding in my personal life, where my mother was losing a battle against time and multiple illnesses.

Eventually, through a fog of grief, the story took shape. Hurrah! With the story finished, my focus returned to my job, another novel, and the bureaucracy of death.

Some while later, I realized the story still felt unresolved. At the same time, the sight lines through it were too clear. This was more koan than critique but nevertheless I set to work tinkering again. Once more, the story crystallized. Done.

Flash forward several months when, around bedtime, further changes to the story came to me. Bam! This was it, the fullest realization of the characters and plot. I couldn’t push the material any further. The end. Finally.

Unfortunately, the story was already in the submission queue at AHMM. After a quick investigation, I realized I couldn’t tiptoe into the system and quietly retract my story. I would have to issue a manufacturer’s recall. And I would have to do so knowing that writers, especially newer ones, were constantly being advised to never submit a piece until it was ready.

How do you know when a piece is ready? If the reader experiences twists and turns with a story, it’s quite possible the author experienced them as well, just earlier and in slower motion. In the case of my story, much slower motion.

After putting the final touches on the final version of the story, I reread it again with the distance of time. It struck me that every character in this story, my escape hatch from grief, was dealing with some form of loss. And thus, this piece had one last twist to offer up.

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“Chin Yong-Yun Stays at Home” by S. J. Rozan

Novelist and short-story writer S. J. Rozan is the award-winning author of Ghost Hero and co-author of of Blood of the LambShe writes the P.I. Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series, and the related series featuring Lydia’s mother. Here she talks about that series, including her story “Chin Yong-Yun Stays at Home” from the January/February 2017 issue of AHMM.

Lydia Chin’s mother, Chin Yong-Yun (her name means “always in motion”) is the dark horse favorite of many of the readers of my Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series. Lydia has her partisans, and so does Bill, but Chin Yong-Yun seems to appear on everybody’s list. Including mine.

I created her when I started out because although Bill Smith is the archetypal loner private eye, a character who continues to interest me deeply, his partner Lydia Chin comes from the opposite end of the spectrum: friends, community, abounding family. I was intrigued with how a character with many attachments would operate within the context of the private eye. I soon found out.

Lydia has four older brothers; their father’s passed on, though that doesn’t stop their mother from invoking his wishes in order to put pressure on the Chin children if she feels she needs to. (She’ll be doing that to Lydia in my upcoming novel, Paper Son.) I used her as an important, but not central, character in the series in a number of books. Then I was invited, in 2010, to contribute a story to an anthology called Damn Near Dead 2. All the detectives had to be at least sixty years old.

Now, Mrs. Chin doesn’t approve of Lydia’s profession, nor of her partner, and she’s never hesitated to say so. But she’s a smart woman. Over the years, sewing and cooking, she’s listened to Lydia talk about her work even while sniffing in disdain. And being a snoop and a gossip, she’s sort of a natural at it.

So, I concluded, if a case came along that Chin Yong-Yun would rather Lydia didn’t get mixed up in, for whatever reason, she might be tempted to take it herself.

That was what happened in “Chin Yong-Yun Takes a Case,” which I wrote for that anthology; and I had such a good time working in her voice that I’ve since written three more, “Chin Yong-Yun Stays at Home” being the most recent.

The cases Chin Yong-Yun takes on have involved crime, but so far not murder. In solving them she also finds the answer to some other problem that has been irritating her or someone close to her. She quietly revels in her own cleverness (to point it out would be unseemly) while delivering moral lessons to all involved.

Where does she come from? Is she based on any Chinese mothers I know?

You don’t have to be Chinese. Chin Yong-Yun is every ethnic mother any of us ever had. Any mother who left her home to find a better life for her children, but frets that in becoming Americans they’re losing the virtues of their culture. Most of the things she does (re-washing the dishes, for example, because she can’t tell from looking at them if Lydia’s washed them yet—though they’re in the dish drainer) are things mothers of my friends have done, as told to me by their children. Not my own mother; I didn’t use stories I or my sibs have about her because I didn’t want her to recognize herself. That fact notwithstanding, my mother, may she rest in peace, used to come to my book signings and tell anyone who’d listen that she was not the model for Lydia’s mother. Well, if Lydia had written a book . . . I rest my case.

Chin Yong-Yun is still a new voice for me, and one I enjoy hearing. I’m hoping readers enjoy it too, and I hope I can come up with things for her to do for a long time to come.

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Jay Carey on “We Are Trapped at the Morgue”

Jay Carey is the author of The Crossley Baby and It’s a Crime among other notable novels. She writes the Detective Eureka Kilburn short-story series. Here she talks about her story “We Are Trapped at the Morgue” from the January/February 2017 issue.

I read mysteries because I love explanations. I am happy when order is restored. Now that the world I knew as a child seems to be in danger, this feeling is all the more precious to me.

What I am trying to do in my Eureka Kilburn mysteries is capture that sense of danger and also at least a fleeting sense of resolution. To heighten the danger, I have spun forward a few decades to the future.

This was a difficult choice for me. Although I admire some works of science fiction (especially Millennium by John Varley), I think most of it is silly. So I don’t like to emphasize the futuristic parts of the Eureka Kilburn stories.

That said, it really is fun to imagine what could happen. Eureka is a police detective in what is left of Sarasota, Florida, after sea levels have risen and most people have left the state. A good deal of the southern part of the state is underwater. Resources are minimal. What are people going to eat? How are they going to get around?

In “We Are Trapped at the Morgue,” bottle bombs are being found all over town. That struck me as an interesting way to make mischief with limited materials. To make one you need only some chemical cleaner, some tin foil, and a plastic soda bottle with a top. These things would be easy to find in the many abandoned houses.

The key is that when I am writing these stories I am subtracting from the world as we know it rather than adding to it. No flying cars for me! That means Eureka has to be shrewd in making do with very little in crisis situations – which might not be much fun to experience in real life, but is very satisfying to write about. You can make up all sorts of tricks.

I hope that this near-future world is frighteningly recognizable.

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How I Came to Write “The Hawaii Murder Case” by Terence Faherty

 

Terence Faherty is the author of The Quiet Woman as well as the Owen Keane and Scott Elliott mystery series. His recent short-story collection Tales of the Star Republic is available from Gisbourne Press. Here he talks about the inspiration behind and the writing of his story “The Hawaii Murder Case” from the January/February 2017 issue of AHMM.

My wife and I enjoy traveling, and I thought it would be fun to write a new short story for each place we visited. Instead of forcing a whodunit format on each locale, I decided to let the setting suggest the proper story to tell. For example, St. Simons Island, where we stayed in a creaking old carriage house, seemed like a good place for a ghost story. When we visited Scotland, we encountered the life and legend of Mary Queen of Scots everywhere we went, so I came up with a suspense story that used the famous queen.

But I was hoping for more inspiration than just what type of story to write. Years ago, I came across a writer’s block remedy. It consisted of a deck of cards that would randomly generate certain basics of a story, like setting, protagonist, and problem. Trying to weave together those random elements was supposed to stimulate creativity. I never used the card system, but it occurred to me that I could let our trips serve the same role. I began traveling with my notebook at the ready, so I could jot down random elements that I would later weave together in a story. I’m happy to report that the system worked. And it not only served as a creativity stimulus, it made each story a scrapbook of that particular vacation.

“The Hawaii Murder Case,” as the title reveals, was inspired by our vacation on Kawai. I came back with the following story elements. 1) During the trip, I was reading a Philo Vance mystery, The Kidnap Murder Case. 2) While we were standing at the edge of a remote waterfall, a branch the size of a suburban tree fell from the forest canopy and narrowly missed us. 3) To access the beach nearest our condo, we had to go up and down a long, steep stairway that was out of sight of anyone not on the stairway itself. 4) On the beach, we observed a May/December couple who barely spoke to one another. 5) Our condo building contained three units, all of which were owned by the same person and decorated identically.

From those major elements, and a dozen minor ones, I came up the story of a vacationer who is conked on the head by a falling tree branch and begins to take on the characteristics of the fictional detective he’s been reading about. There follows a sudden death, of course. I made it a comic mystery—told by the “famous” detective’s harried wife—because the crazy premise pointed that way and because I enjoy writing funny stories. They’re a nice break from the grim stuff. You can check out the results in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s January/February double issue. And if you’re ever facing writer’s block, try the random detail remedy. I recommend trying it in Hawaii.

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Bruce Arthurs on “Beks and the Second Note”

Bruce Arthurs is a writer in the mystery, science-fiction, and fantasy genres across several different mediums, including television and, occasionally, poetry. Here he talks about his story “Beks and the Second Note” from the December issue—his first to appear in a mystery-specific publication.

In “Beks and the Second Note” the takeaway quote is this:

I thought about why I was a detective, about wanting to understand the why of people’s stories, not just the what.”

I’m not a detective, but that question—Why do people do the things they do?—has been a puzzle my entire life. It’s a common question, one almost everyone asks at some point, or at lots of points, in their lives. Why do good people make bad choices? Why do bad people sometimes make good choices?

In the universe inside my head, I’m writing this wonderful script where everyone in the world behaves rationally and understandably; everyone makes sense. In the real world outside my head, everyone keeps ad-libbing. It’s terribly frustrating.

Writing fiction is one way I deal with that frustration. In a story, the writer is in control of characters and events and motivations. It can help to make sense of, and deal with, real life.

“Beks and the Second Note” arose from a stew of news items from recent years: police shootings of black men; economic hardship and homelessness; the increasing presence of surveillance technology; the legalization of concealed carry in many states and the myth of the Good Guy With A Gun. All this simmered in the back of my mind for months until that “Ah-ha!” moment when the potential for a story fell into place.

And the oddly-named Bok Beks seemed the right character to tell that story. It’s not his first appearance; Bok first appeared over a decade ago in a very-small-press chapbook-sized anthology of stories about radioactive monkeys. (Yes, really. Small press can get very weird.) He has a pretty extensive backstory in my head, and I’m hoping future work will occasionally return to reveal more of Bok’s own story and the choices he’s made. But that probably involves a lot more simmering on my brain’s back burner.

My scattershot bibliography has mostly been in the science fiction and fantasy genres, a reflection of my primary reading over the years. The first book I remember reading, at age six, was Todd Ruthven’s Space Cat. But mystery and detective fiction has always been a close second (the Encyclopedia Brown stories are another memory of early reading), and almost every story I’ve written has fallen into one genre or the other. And occasionally, as with “Clues,” the episode I wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation, something falls solidly into both genres.

But I’m pleased as Punch to break into Alfred Hitchcock’s with “Beks and the Second Note.” It’s my first sale to a specifically-mystery market, and it’s especially satisfying to make it to one of the most important markets for short mystery fiction.

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The Story Behind “Lady Appleton and the Creature of the Night” by Kathy Lynn Emerson

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Kilt at the Highland Games) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall) as Kathy. Here, she talks about the newest tale in her Lady Appleton series, “Lady Appleton and the Creature of the Night,” in the current issue of AHMM.

I’ve been writing about Lady Appleton and her friends, on and off, for twenty years, ever since she first appeared in Face Down in the Marrow-Bone Pie, published in 1997. In all those novels and short stories, I’ve tried my best to be accurate in my presentation of life in sixteenth-century England. As much as I enjoy reading a good paranormal tale, I’ve been meticulous about sticking to reality when I write historical mysteries.

Until now.

What can I say? The sixteenth century was a superstitious time. Even a rational woman like Lady Appleton would have been unable to explain everything in the world around her. In Face Down Under the Wych Elm, she helped clear a woman of an accusation of witchcraft, knowing full well that some plants are poisonous and require no supernatural assistance to kill. But witches weren’t the only unnatural beings that were real to people of that time. They also believed in pixies, fairies, and ghosts. In Cornwall, it was thought that tommy-knockers lived in mines and gave warning of cave-ins. To prevent the restless dead from walking, suicides (who had committed the crime of self-murder) were supposed to be buried in a public highway between nine and midnight . . . after a stake had been driven into the body. At least in legend, there were creatures who were only half human, or who could change from human to animal.

Back in 2004, I first had the idea to write about a fictional sixteenth-century English family with a dark secret—they were weres. Not werewolves. There were already too many werewolf stories out there. I was thinking of something in the cat family, maybe a lynx or a Scottish wildcat. Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with a angle that worked. I couldn’t even decide on the decade in which to set the story. One false start (“The King’s Weres”) had members of the Catsby family at the court of Henry VIII early in his reign. Another (“On Little Cat Feet”) let Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth discover their secret and vow to keep it, so long as they would serve her loyally. A separate problem was whether to go all-out paranormal or provide an alternate, rational explanation for everything that happened in my story.

Eventually, “Lady Appleton and the Creature of the Night” began to take shape in my mind. It still took me more than six months to write and when I finished it, I wasn’t sure that anyone would want such an odd little tale. Fortunately, it did find a home. Now I just have to hope that sticklers for historical accuracy will forgive me this little side-trip into the supernatural world, one the Elizabethans believed could exist side by side with their own.

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“Writing Iron Chef” by Eve Fisher

Eve Fisher is a novelist, playwright, and short-story writer living in South Dakota. She volunteers with The Alternatives to Violence Project and blogs at SleuthSayers. Her stories in AHMM include many set in Laskin, SD, and here she talks about her story “Iron Chef” from the current November 2016 issue.

“Iron Chef” began as a rant. I’ve worked in the judicial system in Tennessee and South Dakota; been a college history professor; and for the last few years I’ve been doing volunteer work in the prison with the Alternatives to Violence Project. Along the line I’ve gotten to know many, many, many teenage addicts, who come and go through the judicial system because of course they know they have no problems whatsoever.

Finally, one day, I started ranting:

There’s nothing more gullible than a teenage addict. He thinks he’s smart because he can read. He thinks he’s street-smart because someone showed him how to make a Band-Aid from toilet paper and masking tape. He thinks bragging proves whatever he’s bragging about, from being tough to being a player. He thinks he’s a lady’s man because he wants to get laid.

When he’s trying to get some stuff, he believes everything the dealer says. When he’s high, he believes anything that will get him more stuff. If someone tells him he can make two, three, four, five thousand a week, he believes it. If someone tells him he won’t get caught, he believes that, too.

He believes that his dealer will help keep him out of trouble and get him out of jail. He believes that his dealer, his girlfriend, his baby mamma, and the woman currently giving him a lap dance all think he’s wonderful. He believes that the judge, the sheriff, and the state’s attorney all have it in for him personally. He believes that he is unjustly accused, tried, and convicted. He believes that with the right attorney he could have gotten off.

He believes that he doesn’t have to play the game in prison, whatever the game is. He usually gets beaten out of that. After that, he believes every rumor he hears, every tale he is told. He believes that when he gets out, he will never come back. He believes, often against all evidence, that he has a home to go to. He believes that he deserves a wonderful first day home, complete with alcohol, sex, drugs, and long drives. He believes that his old friends will still be his old friends whether he does drugs or not. He believes that there is a thing as social meth.

And at that point, I stopped ranting, because I was crying. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than a teenage addict, because you know how much he’s going to have to go through before (if!) he gets a clue, grows up, gets a life. And so many don’t . . .

And that’s when I started writing “Iron Chef.”

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All Things About “Althing” by Stephen P. Kelner, Jr.

Massachusetts-based writer Stephen P. Kelner, Jr. is a management consultant and the author of Motivate Your Writing! (UPNE). His fiction appears in the Level Best anthology Undertow, featuring stories by New England crime writers. Here he talks about the history behind his story “Death at the Althing” from the November issue.

Vikings get a bad rap. The horned-helmet berserkers of cartoons bear little resemblance to the human beings of Nordic settlements between the 700s and 1066. The early descriptions of them as horrific attackers—“from the fury of the Northmen, God deliver us”—came from people who were not only victims, but, unusually for the time, literate. Imagine Twitter if only one party could type!

Most “Vikings” farmed, of course. History marks the Scandinavian people of this time out because they rapidly expanded into and colonized many areas—most of the modern UK and Ireland, Russia, France (Normandy is Old Norse for “North-Man-Town”—in other words, a Norse settlement), Greenland, and Iceland. Their explorations went even further: Norsemen composed the Varangian Guard of the Emperor in Constantinople. And, yes, many fought to achieve this dominance, but they also traded and settled to leave their profound impact on Europe.

Inspired by my Scandinavian blood, in college I discovered the richness of the Norse Sagas. They have been considered history, myth, and, since the discovery of the Newfoundland “Vinland” colonies, partway back to history again. They can give you a feeling for their culture, and make you confront assumptions in yours. Followers of the Old Norse religion believed they had a predestined fate, a “wyrd,” not unlike Calvinist beliefs of a later time, but reached very different conclusions on how to live your life. While some Calvinists were strict and dour, hoping that they would make it into heaven despite their sins, the Norse believed in living life to the utmost, because if your wyrd was written anyway, you might as well live large—a philosophy more “YOLO” than Puritan!

Iceland is home to some of the most famous sagas. Founded in the 900s mostly by Norwegians fleeing the unification efforts of King Olaf, Icelanders formed a surprisingly democratic state, where all landowners spoke their minds at the Althing—the “Everybody-meeting,” their “Congress,” and still the name of the Icelandic legislature. Admittedly, some of these debates and lawsuits devolved into combat; but they usually managed to work things out.

Like the sagas, myths and history blend in Iceland. To this day, you can see the rock where Grettir the Strong hid; discuss the misshapen skull of Egil the Seer; hear an Icelander describe an elf neighbor; or go to the site of the original Althing and the Law Rock where the Lawspeaker would recite one third of the laws each meeting.

For an amateur historian such as myself, it was tough tackling the academic literature. As a PhD in a different field, I understand that papers assume a common grounding possessed by any graduate student, but not me. At first, I read non-academic books and popular works to give me a basic view of the working society, roleplayers—guides for Icelandic garb, or even children’s books, if well researched. Why the latter? Because while an academic article might delve into the chemical formation of fabrics or distances a brooch may have traveled, an illustrated children’s book shows you what a person looks like wearing them, standing in their town.

I also visited places and things myself: a scaled-down replica of Leif Erikson’s ship came to Boston once for the millennium of his voyage, and I could discuss the realities of sailing with the crew. The Jorvik Viking Centre in York, UK—the heart of much Viking activity back in the day—is a wonderful resource to show you both how people lived and how modern archeology is done. (Hint: not like Indiana Jones.) I haven’t been able to go to Iceland myself, but Icelandair has a nonstop from Boston and specials, so someday . . .

As I dug into Old Norse and Icelandic culture, I found other startling differences. Most people have heard of “weregild,” money paid as partial compensation for an illegal death, e.g., murder. But did you know the weregild for a young woman equaled that of a adult male warrior? And the weregild for a woman who had given birth was more! This culture valued women, believing they had wisdom not accessible to men—sexist, yes, but at least both sides had special value. Again and again in the sagas, women initiated the events—whether negative or positive. (Sometimes as real-life warriors, too: Look up the formidable Freydis Eiriksdotter. But avoid for the negative stories propagated by early Christian missionaries making her “unwomanly” instead of courageous.)

The challenge of historical fiction is balancing today’s modern audience against yesterday’s realities to make it accurate yet understandable, sometimes despite assumptions that may shock today. Worse, we only know a fingernail fragment about these people, much written by the victims of Vikings, not by the Norse people themselves, and what we do have was not exactly annotated. For example, Viking-era storytellers loved using kennings—poetic metaphors for objects, many completely incomprehensible today. Things taken for granted then baffle us today—and no doubt vice versa, could we raise a few Viking shades to ask. Of course, this also makes it fun for writers and audiences: debunking a myth or two, illuminating what life might have been like, or drawing a conclusion obvious to an 10th century Icelander that pleasantly surprises the modern reader.

In this particular story, the characters obviously follow the classic “Holmes and Watson” pattern, with a Norse twist. Leipt-Egil and Thorbjorn not only represent Holmes’ brains and Watson’s heart, respectively, but also elements from Norse myth: the smart, tricky problem-solver (Loki) and the less-bright but strong, trustworthy one (Thor). At the same time, my characters are human beings, not mythic archetypes, each with their strengths and weaknesses. Thorbjorn is smarter than Egil, when it comes to people; Egil has strong feelings, but poorly expressed. They have histories and families, some of which may appear in later stories! And if you see them, trust me, they won’t have horns on their helmets.

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