Historical fiction: How to write about Vikings


28 October 2022
Historical fantasy author Thilde Kold Holdt's top tips for researching Norse history and mythology

To write my historical fantasy series The Hanged God trilogy, I heavily researched Vikings. Using my research as an example, here are my three top research tips which can be applied to any writer wishing to write accurately about any point in history.

Forget what you think you know

Most people think horned helmets when they hear 'Vikings', so here’s the irony: Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets.

Only two horned helmets have been unearthed in Scandinavia. Both are dated to more than a thousand years before the Viking Age. It’s even hypothesised that they were imported from the Mediterranean area. Why, then, do we associate horned helmets with Vikings, when it had nothing to do with them?

It apparently started with painters in the 1800s who thought their representations of Vikings lacked something. The imagery of horned helmets spread like wildfire to the point that we stopped questioning its origins and all simply started to associate horned helmets with Vikings.

All of this to say that many things we take for granted might not actually be true. For even the most accurately researched book will eventually have to make use of the creator’s imagination. As writers relying on history, we must forget what we think we know and start fresh, so that we don’t unknowingly help create another horned helmet phenomena.

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Go local

The discrepancies between local sources and foreign ones can be enormous.

When it comes to the Vikings, English sources tend to be focused on the foreign presence of Vikings in the UK, on battles and what they left behind. In Scandinavia the focus is on their daily life and their household items. Here we’ll find dissertations about combs, games, and local farming techniques. It’s important to understand the perspective of the people we write about and it’s impossible to get there purely by looking at outside sources, so my advice is to go local.

But how to go about exploring local sources? Travelling to the place in question to do in person research is perhaps the most obvious solution, but might not always be possible. It’s lucky then that there are many local sources to be found online.

Most museums have good websites (in English too), and there are many archives full of artefacts where it’s possible to learn everything from how to make dyes to how to build a Viking warship. There are troves of knowledge to be found if we search for local sources, and if we dare search in a local language with a translation app open, there’s even more.

Go offline

In today’s world, with so much information at our fingertips, it’s easy to overlook this step. I nearly did, since I read thousands of research papers, books and texts about the Vikings and thought I knew everything. Yet, it was only when I went out to sea on a Viking warship that all of it came together and I truly understood who they were.

By going offline, I don’t merely mean that we ought to visit the places we write about and go to museums, although that is part of it. I specifically mean that there is a lot to be learned by trying things instead of merely reading about them. Experimental archaeology is the research from which I have personally learned the most. Be it sewing a Viking dress, trying to fight in Viking garments or going sailing with a warship.

These kinds of experience are in abundance locally and may be harder to find at a distance, but when it comes to the Vikings, there are also many re-enactment groups in the UK, across Europe, and in North America. Same goes for sailing with a square-rigged wooden ship. It doesn’t have to be an exact Viking replica, if it’s a boat rigged in a similar fashion, we can learn a lot from a little sail trip or two, or from trying to spin wool, or churn butter, or cook a meal over a real fire with Viking Age ingredients.

My advice here is try the things you read about and look specificially for details to enhance your descriptions and story. After all, details are what immerses readers into a story and makes it come to life.

Slaughtered Gods, the third book in the Hanged Gods trilogy, is published by Solaris


Want to try your hand at rewriting history? Here's an exercise to get you started!