One of of the things I love to do in my author visits to schools is share the research behind my books with student writers. Kids love seeing photos of the real places where Ranger in Time stories takes place, and it’s fun to share how a tiny detail I might notice on a research trip – a feather on a grassy trail, a line in a letter from an earthquake survivor – turns into a plot thread in the story.
Today is book release day for RANGER IN TIME #5: JOURNEY THROUGH ASH AND SMOKE, so I thought I’d do a mini-author-visit here on my blog for the readers I won’t see in person this week. This book is set in Viking Age Iceland and features a Viking girl named Helga as the main human character.
My research for the Ranger in Time books always begins with a big pile of books from the library, so that I can get a solid overview of the time period in which I’m writing. I start reading with a list of basic questions. What was happening in my particular setting and in the larger world at this time? What were the details of the historical event taking place in the book? What was the social structure of the society in which my characters live? Who had power and who didn’t? What did people believe? How did they live? What did their homes look like? What jobs had to happen on a day to day basis? Who did those jobs and how did they get done? What did they eat/wear/do for fun?
From there, I branch out to articles and websites written by archaeologists and historians. This is important because even though we often think of history as a subject that’s literally set in stone, we’re constantly making new discoveries. Sometimes, that happens via archaeology, as in this recent case where a team in Poland was working at the site of a Nazi death camp and found a pendant believed to have ties to Anne Frank. Sometimes, historians find documents that shed new light on old stories from history. And sometimes, newly developed technology lets us learn more about artifacts that we found a long time ago. That’s how scientists and historians working together found out that many of the bright white marble statues we see in museum exhibits about Ancient Greece and Rome were once painted in bright, colorful hues.
After this part of my research, I often still have questions, so for almost every Ranger in Time book, I also plan a trip to the setting where the story takes place. That allows me to visit more museums, talk with historians and archaeologists who live and work in the place they’re studying, and see the settings my character would have inhabited.
Two summers ago, I spent a week in Iceland, doing research for RANGER IN TIME: JOURNEY THROUGH ASH AND SMOKE. Before I take a research trip like this, I already have a lot of notes and a rough idea for how the story might go. But there are always details I haven’t discovered yet and settings I can’t quite picture yet in my mind, and that’s where the site visits come in.
My first stop in Iceland was The Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik, a fantastic museum that was literally built around the archaeological discovery of one of Iceland’s first farms.
This museum, along with the National Museum of Iceland, gave me great insight as to how Helga and her family might have lived. Here’s a conjectural image from the National Museum of Iceland, showing how a Viking longhouse was constructed.
In this new Ranger book, you’ll read about a woman who works for Helga’s family making cloth on a loom. It would have looked like this one, on display at the National Museum of Iceland.
In every Ranger in Time book, the historical character gives Ranger a small token of remembrance when it’s time for him to go home. As I research each book, I’m looking for ideas for what that item might be, and sometimes, I find it on my research trip. Here’s a broken brooch from a display at the Settlement Exhibition. You’ll see it again in the story.
Iceland’s geography is largely formed by geothermal activity, and there are amazing lava caves in parts of the country. I knew this would be one of the settings for Helga’s story, so I spent some time exploring those areas and taking reference photos for Ranger in Time illustrator Kelley McMorris.
At one point in the story, Helga climbs out of one of the lava caves, and when I saw that Scholastic had chosen that scene for Kelley to illustrate, I sent her this photo of my daughter in case it was helpful. Here’s my daughter climbing…
And here’s Helga…
Another big scene in the story takes place at Thingvellir, the site of Iceland’s first parliament, where chieftains would come from all over the island for two weeks each summer, to make laws, talk about issues that affected everyone, and settle disputes. Here’s a speculative painting from the National Museum of Iceland showing what that might have looked like in Helga’s time.
And here’s what Thingvellir looks like today.
I’d been searching on this trip for a place where the story’s climax could take place, and I found it in these crumbly, hazardous cliffs.
On a different rocky cliff near the ocean, I got to see Iceland’s puffins. They’re an important part of Helga’s story and also amazing to watch. I stood here for hours taking photos.
But probably my favorite part of each Ranger in Time research trip is the part I’m not expecting – the tiny detail that I wasn’t looking for but can’t imagine leaving out of the story once I find it. In Iceland, that detail was Funi.
When my family was hiking near an extinct volcano in the interior, we met this tiny arctic fox pup near the base camp. Local guides told us his mother had been shot by a hunter, so they’d sort of adopted him. He was curious and adorable, and I was smitten, as both an animal lover and a writer.
A quick check of Iceland’s natural history told me that the arctic fox was indeed around when the Vikings arrived, so if you read RANGER IN TIME: JOURNEY THROUGH ASH AND SMOKE, you’ll discover that in addition to looking after Helga, Ranger finds himself babysitting a mischievous arctic fox pup as well.
Iceland is a beautiful, rugged place, and visiting pushed me to think more about Helga’s character. What would it be like for a girl who left her home in Norway to live in a rocky land so far away?
I’ll wrap up this post with some tiny purple and yellow flowers that seemed to answer that question for me. They grow everywhere in Iceland — on the most windswept, rockiest stretches of land. You’ll find these in the story, too. They’re defiant and tough, and they seemed to embody Helga’s spirit. I thought she might find inspiration in them, just as I did when I was working on her story.