For the #242 30 Mar 2022 issue of Writers’ Forum, Christina Courtenay (Pia Fenton) explained to me why seeing and experiencing things first-hand is the best kind of research.
Being half Swedish, she has been interested in the Vikings for a long time and wanted to showcase their amazing achievements as craftsmen, traders and explorers, as well as their fearlessness, curiosity and sense of adventure.
She started by researching the background and history, then studied particular aspects more in depth, which included reading loads of books, watching a wide range of TV programmes and visiting museums. She found there are a lot of resources out there on the Vikings and her main problem was in trying to choose the resources that would be most useful.
Christina told me that if she can’t find the relevant non-fiction books in the library, she will buy second-hand copies online from AbeBooks, where she has discovered some real bargains. Whilst reading, she take notes and compiles a summary of the information she needs.
“It is a long process and it’s ongoing as I keep finding and adding more information all the time. I also chatted to re-enactors and contacted an archaeologist who is a specialist in the Vikings. I managed to make contact via social media – Twitter and Facebook are very useful for that.”Christina Courtenay
To keep track of her research, she creates Word documents with headings like ‘Clothes’, ‘Food’, ‘Weapons’ etc in alphabetical order and whenever she finds new and relevant information she adds it under the specific heading so she can easily find it later.
Christina revealed her most frustrating experience when writing her Icelandic stories was they had to be mostly written without ever going to Iceland, and it wasn’t until right before her deadline that the Covid restrictions were eased and she finally managed a trip over there. Before this she had to rely on contacting all the people she knew who had either been to Iceland or lived there, and sent them a questionnaire.
“I also read an awful lot of travel blogs, and watched YouTube clips as well. For specific places, there is always Google Earth if you need to see the layout of the land. But I won’t lie – it was extremely difficult and I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with the result so it was a huge relief when I was able to go there myself.”Christina Courtenay
For Christina, seeing and experiencing things first hand is key. In Ribe, Denmark, there is an outdoor museum with a dozen buildings of various types.¹ Sitting in the longhouse and chieftain’s hall helped her to imagine myself back in time and she was able to lie down on a sleeping bench covered in old furs.
Near Skanör in the south of Sweden is a similar museum, the Fotevikens Museum², and in Iceland she found a reconstructed turf house at the Eiriksstadir Museum³, which was invaluable. These museums always have dedicated and knowledgeable staff who are more than happy to answer questions. There are also places like the Jorvik Viking Centre⁴ in York https://www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk/ where you can experience life in that city. She said the best thing about visiting living history museums and events like the Jorvik Viking Festival is seeing the re-enactors (and talking to them) and the various craftsmen.
Christina explained replica Viking clothing and jewellery are readily available for the purposes of re-enactment, as are weapons. You can see examples on the Jelldragon Viking Craft Store⁵ online. In fact, her family have become used to buying her Viking artefacts for Christmas and birthdays. Christina told me she has also learnt to weave properly on a loom and suggested a great book with instructions for band-weaving is Weaving Patterned Bands by my teacher Susan J Foulkes
“Wearing them or handling them allows me to imagine what it would feel like to live in that era. And I bought myself a fire iron and tried striking it with the flint to make fire – it worked just fine.”Christina Courtenay
Christina told me she has also learnt to weave properly on a loom and recommended, Weaving Patterned Bands by Susan J Foulkes as it contains excellent instructions for band-weaving.
The heroine in one of her stories has to sew herself some clothes so Christina decided to try to make a so called smokkr – the apron overdress worn by some Viking women. Re-enactors recommended she purchase the woollen material needed from Bernie the Bolt Cloth Merchant⁶ on Facebook, as he stocks authentic fabric for historical garments. She found a pattern in a leaflet she’d bought some years earlier. She sewed several of the seams by hand to find out how long it would take.
She revealed the main surprise was how heavy the resulting dress was – several yards of woollen fabric weighed a lot more than she’d imagined. She also realised the garment had to be fairly loose as there were no buttons/openings, and also for ease of movement.
“Paired with a linen underdress (which I had bought readymade), it felt great, although it’s still missing a decorative border. I did a weekend course to learn how to do band-weaving though, so I will soon be adding that. Apron dresses were held up by straps fastened with tortoise brooches, so of course I asked for a pair for Christmas, as well as a belt with a Viking buckle and some Viking leather half-boots. And I bought beads for a necklace to string between the brooches.”Christina Courtenay
Her favourite piece of hands-on research so far was helping to row a Viking ship round Roskilde harbour in a reconstructed longship at the Viking Ship Museum⁷ there. She found out it was a very smooth ride. The most unusual research was when she visited an open air museum in Gudvangen, Norway, called Njardarheimr⁸ where I was allowed to try throwing a Viking axe with the aim of hitting a huge block of wood. To my intense surprise, I managed it. (Lucky throw?)
For Viking food Christina recommends cookbooks such as, Eat Like a Viking by Craig Brooks and revealed she has tried some of the recipes.
A lot of their food was fairly bland and monotonous and, for me, not salty enough. (I love salt!) For the purposes of preserving meat, either smoking it or keeping it in whey was more common.
While visiting the island of Birka she went to the Birka Vikingastaden⁹, just west of Stockholm, where she was shown how Vikings made flatbread – delicious. And tried mead which she found lovely and sweet.
Christina’s list of useful websites on Vikings
- Ribe Viking Center – www.ribevikingecenter.dk/en
- Foteviken Museum – www.fotevikensmuseum.se
- Eiriksstadir Museum – www.eiriksstadir.is/en
- Jorvik Viking Centre – www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk
- Jelldragon Viking Craft Store – www.jelldragon.com
- Bernie the Bolt Cloth Merchant – www.facebook.com/Bernie-the-Bolt-Cloth-Merchant-738089226363967/
- Viking Ship Museum – www.vikingeskibsmuseet.dk
- Njardarheimr – www.vikingvalley.no
- Birka Vikingastaden – www.birkavikingastaden.se
- Christina has an extensive range of research features on her website, which includes information about the Vikings – www.christinacourtenay.com
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