This week I delved into the definition of berserk. Sure, I knew that it meant going a little crazy. I guess I never knew that it originated from the Vikings until I happened upon it in a book and online. A few clicks and turns of the page, and I read some fascinating articles by experts in the psychology field.
What does Merriam-Webster define it as?
Berserk(er): an ancient Scandinavian warrior frenzied in battle and held to be invulnerable
Old Norse berserkr, probably from ber-bear + serkr shirt
First known use was 1800. [ahem: I can’t refer to this elite frenzied warrior sect of the Vikings by that name in my circa 1300’s manuscript unless I can verify its use that early]
While I was on the berserker bandwagon, I also enjoyed (yet again) researching a variety of Scottish and Norse swear words. These are the things research for novels are made of. :) It can be entertaining…and time-consuming. Certainly I do my fair share of research for historicals, but contemporary novels also require a bit of digging for accuracy and authenticity. Writers submerge themselves in their worlds, and research is one powerful way to achieve such immersion. Sometimes I do the research up front, but usually, I find myself veering off the word-count train to look up a medieval remedy for fevers, to figure out if cork or stained glass was available in 1263, to find that perfect curse word, to read about the legends of the Kintail mountains, or to unveil the Norse wolf god Fenrir's story… and, and, and…. :) The list is long. Everything from minor to major…requires some level of research. And I am a bit of a research junkie.
What are my go-to methods for research?
Travel! Explore the location if possible. Be it a small seaside Maine town or the grand castles of the Scottish Highlands, nothing replaces being there, breathing the salty air along a bustling fishing dock, listening to the rustle of trees in an ancient wood, touching the crumbling stones of a grand keep, or observing the patterns of guards flowing in an out of an army base.
Museums: When you can’t get to the location, museums are a great place to find information, see relevant period pieces (furniture, tools, art representing time periods/clothes/culture, weapons, etc.). Also, museum curators and employees usually LOVE to talk about the displays or may share anecdotes not typically found on the information plaques. A recent museum visit to look at dinosaur fossils and geologic specimens was such a delight (granted, I’m not writing any prehistorical novels) as the curator (I think a geology college student) regaled us with lots of information not found on the displays about the collections. This past spring I visited Mystic, CT where the Draken Harald Hårfagre, a reconstructed authentic Viking ship, was being housed. I walked on it, touched it, and asked questions (like why in heavens are there rocks in the hold below the wooden deck? - Answer: they needed to toss anything in there to give it the weight/balance it needed. Insert my college physics that I aced but still don't understand). It was an amazing experience. Lots of oh's and ah's.
Merriam-Webster or other etymology websites: Words have different meaning and usages among time periods and cultures. This website also allows me to know when a word first came about, so if it’s too modern, the phrase/word must go if I am writing a historical novel. Researching slang words and idioms is also quite enlightening!
Websites: Wikipedia is an okay start but I always expand to other websites since Wikipedia is not always accurate or validated. I recommend starting there and then branching off to other reliable website sources. Double check. Find a fact and you’re unsure about? Hop around on the ‘net and verify it. Find academic articles or primary sources. We all have our favorite websites. I will not lie when I say that Mapquest or Google Earth are close seconds to Merriam-Webster. Again, they are stepping stones to lead me to other more time/area-specific mapping resources.
Libraries: Ah, books. Nothing can beat a book. I have so many favorites, and even though I’ve been knee deep in medieval Scotland for years and consider myself adequately knowledgeable, I still fall back on books. There is always room in my library for another book on lore, customs, clans, names, or life in a medieval castle. This time around as I write the prequel to A Hundred Kisses, I added in Viking and old Norse books and they are absolutely fascinating! Librarians are a great asset, too. Like the museum curators, they are filled with hidden knowledge.
In person/interviews or experts: Know somebody from the region you're researching or who has expertise in a specific area? They’d probably be more than happy to answer your questions. Network. Connect. Put fishing poles out on social media. I bet you have a lot of friends and family who are experts in something you need help on. My graduate school thesis adviser and my editor are both from Scotland, so I asked them a few questions about words/phrases. I have a friend who knows all about horses, so she is my horse expert go-to. My father-in-law is an avid sailor who crossed the Atlantic Ocean solo in a sailboat (at the age of 70...yes, that's a story in its own!). I have friends in recovery who know about addiction (applicable to a character I’ve written). I’m a parent of a special needs child. I have relatives who are/were in the military. I connected with authors who live in an area of the country I’ve never traveled to but need to know about for a novel. The list goes on and on. People are a great resource!
I think that covers it. So what do you say…is it time to roll up your sleeves and go a little berserk on some research?
Thistles and heather. Kilts. Castles. Ruins. Craggy mountains. Rain. Lots of rain. Sheep.
My trip to Scotland fulfilled a bucket list goal and it also fed my imagination for writing about this windswept, mystical place. It was a memorable trip indeed!
When I finally made a trip to Scotland in 2008 after reading books set there (Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, or Judy Garwood’s books, anyone?), I was not disappointed. Those books were just teasers. I was going to see the real thing. They don’t call me a Daydream Believer for nothing (although I was not a homecoming queen, but the Monkees got it pretty close). Kilted Highland lairds (and Jamie Frasier), castles, mountains, and enchanting romances…ah, yeah, I was hooked. And as luck would have it, I even married a man with Scottish ancestry, who – drum roll, please – wore a kilt for our wedding (round out with a bagpiper for entertainment). So, for our anniversary a few years later, it only seemed logical to set off on a fairy tale trip. My husband had studied in Scotland for a semester in college, so he brought a wealth of insider knowledge.
Oh, but did I mention that it rains in Scotland? A lot. Even though September is supposed to be a drier month, many of our supposedly breathtaking sights were shrouded in a gray cloud of heavy precipitation. Aside from our mishaps (which I'll elaborate upon in a moment), Scotland fulfilled my preconceived notions, with my own Scottish knight by my side to escort me through the perils of winding highland roads, haunting castle ruins, and dark alleyways to questionable hostels.
Lone sheep wandered down the middle of a meandering country road. Windswept moors, heather fields, and green rolling hills flanked our drives. Wild rocky trails and impressive mountains greeted us on our hikes. Blue lochs were aplenty (yes, Loch Ness is a deep beautiful loch and no, we didn’t see Nessie – but we did see the ghostly remains of Urquhart castle) on our two-week trip in this geological gem of a country. I think I gasped on the tarmac when I emerged from the plane in Glasgow.
My husband and I packed our itinerary because when we go tramping, we set the bar high and want to soak it all in! What can a couple do in less than two weeks? Well…
Visit a dozen castles and palaces (Threave castle required a rowboat ride across an overflowed River Dee)
Kayak on the astutely named Loch Awe to the ruins of Kilchurn Castle
Hike through Highlands and mountains
Watch a Highland game
Partake in culinary delights such as haggis and fish and chips
Carry on conversations with locals (about the upcoming American presidential election)
Drive over sketchy bridges to reach Rua Reidh, a lighthouse hostel on the North Minch of Wester Ross (no, not the Westeros of Game of Thrones fame, but I can see the striking similarities)
Expand our navigation skills on double-roundabouts (like a figure 8), one lane roads, and left-side driving
Meander through abbey and church ruins
Take a moment of reflection at the remains of Culloden battlefield
Stay at the haunted (yes, there's a ghost) 14th century Borthwick Castle