If you haven't already noticed (where have you been?!), a new book series is storming the book charts - Viking Blood & Blade, by Peter Gibbons. The Viking era is very popular, but the way in which this saga is written is truly magical, weaving high adventure with all the violence and brutality of the period with a soulful and moving character journey.
Today, it is my pleasure to chat with Peter about history, writing and life, here on my blog!
Question: History is absolutely littered with really juicy stories. As a writer, I feel constantly pulled to many different eras. What drew you to the Viking period specifically and made you think 'this is it'?
I agree, there are so many exciting periods and events across history to write about. I have always had a particular interest in the ancient world, Sparta, Macedon, Rome etc. But I chose the Vikings for my first series of books because I think it's a period in time which people can relate to, in a strange sort of way.
For people in the UK, especially in the north of England, we can still see and feel the Vikings all around us in place names and family names. Also, it's a similar story in Ireland where I currently live. Dublin is a Viking city, as is Waterford, and where I live in Kilcullen in Kildare there is a plaque by the river Liffey which boldly states that the Vikings raided nearby - which is certainly inspirational!
The series moves from Viking Age England in Viking Blood and Blade, to France in The Wrath of Ivar, and then on to Ireland in the third book Axes for Valhalla. I know those places very well, so I think it made sense to start my writing career with places I am familiar with.
Question: Hundr is a really compelling protagonist. Is there a little bit of you in there, or did you create him from scratch?
I created Hundr from scratch. I wanted to pick a big story in the Viking Age - and what story is bigger than Ivar the Boneless and the Great Heathen Army - and put a little story within it.
The little story is Hundr's story. I wanted to create a character who has to find his way in the brutal world of the Vikings, but who also has his own interesting backstory which can be teased out and explored in future books. He has one great skill - which is his training and proficiency with weapons. That certainly came in useful in the Viking Age! But other than that, he is as human and fallible as all of us. I wanted him to be vulnerable, and to not always make the right decisions, and also to lose sometimes...
In the first three books we have only seen Viking Age England, France, and Ireland, but in future books I do plan for Hundr to travel to Scandinavia, and eventually on to the lands of the Rus, and maybe even south to Constantinople - if he lives that long...
And as for the historical cast, your take on Ivar the Boneless is quite incredible! Can you give a short background on him for readers who (like me until very recently) haven't heard of him?
Ivar is one of my favourite historical characters. One of the most interesting things about well known Viking war-leaders and Kings is the brilliant names they gave each other. Erik Bloodaxe, Bjorn Ironside, Ragnar Lothbrok, Harald Bluetooth, to name a few of the best ones. Ivar and his brothers Sigurd Snake Eye, Bjorn Ironside, Halvdan, Ubba and Hvitserk were the sons of a great hero of the Norse Saga's; Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar is a semi mythical figure, but the story goes that he was a great raider and hero who was eventually shipwrecked off the coast of Northumbria in England, and captured by the Northumbrian King Aella.
Aella threw Ragnar into a pit of snakes, and as he died Ragnar called out "how the little pigs will grunt when they hear how the old boar died." The little pigs were his sons Ivar et al. Ivar and his brothers swore vengeance on Aella and swore to invade and ravage the Saxon Kingdoms of England, which they did!
Ivar is famous for his terrible methods of torture, when he eventually caught King Aelle he subjected the unfortunate King to the "Blood Eagle." What I like about Ivar is the sheer daring in his venture, so gather together an army of warships from Denmark and sail them to England to wage a war which would see him eventually become ruler in York (which was called Eoforwich by the Saxons, but the Vikings couldn't pronounce the word and it quickly became Yorvik and then York), and years later he became the King of Dublin.
Historians have speculated that his name indicated that Ivar had a disability, that his epithet of "the boneless" meant that he lacked bones or legs, or perhaps that he was impotent...! In the Vikings TV show, they portray Ivar as being unable to walk, but I very much see Ivar as a great warrior and soldier. So, my version of Ivar gets his name from his battle skill, and his ability to move so fast it's as though he has no bones in his body, and I made him handsome just to subvert the traditional "baddie" trope.
Question: In terms of writing craft, you must have found your approach changing as you moved past your first novel and went on to write parts 2 and 3. What would you say has been the most radical shift in your process?
My writing process has definitely changed over the course of the three books. The first novel was very much a voyage of discovery in terms of story structure, writing style and plot development. I wrote that book in the traditional "pantser" style of writing, where a writer just puts pen to page (or finger to keyboard!) and discovers where the story goes. The second and third book were both planned and plotted in advance of writing, which I think I prefer and is probably the most radical change. I like to have a genesis of an idea, flesh it and build into a coherent structure, and then develop the plot.
Question: Where do you stand on the 'historical accuracy' vs 'a damned good story' spectrum?
This is a tough question - but at the risk of sitting on the fence - I think you need to have both and that it depends upon the period of history in which the story is set. The historical setting is the backdrop for the story, and the reader has an expectation of accuracy and research from the author. But, the story is paramount and I do think it's OK to change elements of the historical facts if it serves the story. If it's a period where the evidence is sparse and open to interpretation then it makes it easier to forge the facts in the interests of the story. But, if one was writing about Julius Caesar where there are buckets of documentary evidence, then it's harder to bend the facts and readers would expect the story to be historically accurate. For example, in the recent Vikings Valhalla Netflix series, they have moved Harald Hardrada back in time so he can inhabit the same world as other characters such as King Canute, Leif Eriksson etc. That's OK because now we get to have lots of cool characters inhabit the same story!
Question: Viking Blood & Blade is soaring high in the book charts. Having chosen the self-publishing route for this series, you've achieved this entirely off your own back which is really, really impressive (I know from my own so far fruitless efforts to hit such heights). What approach did you take to marketing and spreading the news about the series?
You are being very generous in your praise Gordon, I know first hand that your books are brilliant and that you have been super successful in your own right. I am simply following the trail already blazed by authors like you. For a self published author, marketing is almost as important as writing. If you want people to see your book, and for it to be in any way successful, then an understanding of marketing is paramount. Fortunately, Amazon is amazing and provides tools and training to help authors.
I haven't really done much in the way of social media, but I am working on that now and realise how important it is. For any self published author, I would say that an understanding of metadata, cover design, and online advertising is very important.
Question: Can you give us a line or a short scene from the series that will send a shiver up the spine?
To avoid spoilers, I think a good chiller of a scene takes place in book one where Ivar cuts the Blood Eagle into King Aelle's back. This actually happened, so its gruesomeness is a real event and that is what makes it so chilling.
Ivar works on King Aelle's back with axe, knife and chisel. He chips the King's ribs away from his spine carefully so that Aelle remains alive throughout the process. He then opens up the ribs and flesh of the king's back open so that they resemble an eagle's spread wings, and hauls up to a hanging position, the ribs then burst the King's heart and he dies. What a way to go! Apologies if I have put anyone off their cornflakes with that one....
Final Question: please tell me there are more works to come from you? :-)
I have a new book which I am just finishing, it’s a Saxon adventure in keeping with the genre which I will publish in the next couple of months. I also wrote a historical fantasy novel some time ago which I am trying to whip into shape. It’s set in the ancient world and starts at the time of Cyrus the Great and his battle with Tomyris and the Massagetae and then on to the time of Alexander. It’s a time travel/magic system type novel (I love a bit fantasy!)
Thank you, Peter. What an interview.
It's been brilliant to have you on the blog. May your words continue to flow!
Gordon Doherty: writer, history fan, explorer.
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