There’s a lot of research involved in writing, and just as much in illustrating. I have a degree in Medieval Studies, and many years since then of studying history on my own. Connie hasn’t had time to read nearly so many books yet, so one of the first things I did was start saying, “Read this!” “Take a look at that!” “Have you read such-and-such?”

Fortunately, she headed to the library rather than running away screaming. Vikings. Viking halls, Viking swords, Viking ships, Viking armour, Viking clothes ….

We’re making it up, of course. “The Storyteller” isn’t set in the primary world. (The women’s equality in all these pre-industrial societies should give that away at once, but just in case it doesn’t, don’t email us to tell us that this swordhilt or that pair of boots is Wrong for circa 700 A.D. We know. Not – The – Real – World.) The Kingdoms of the North have Dark Ages Norse and Anglo-Saxon culture as their starting point. Foundation stones. That’s all.

(And incidentally, the Drowned Isles, Moth’s homeland, has nothing to do with Numenor. I was actually thinking of Iceland and Krakatoa.)

An important factor in creating a believable, consistent secondary world is to not have glaring anachronisms that knock the reader out of the story. The story has to enable the reader to maintain what Tolkien, in his 1939 Andrew Lang lecture “On Fairy Stories” called “literary belief” (The Monsters and the Critics, London: HarperCollins, 1997, p.132). The reader has to be able to believe the story while reading it. This means, to quote, er, well, myself:

If you’re writing fantasy rather than historical fiction, this doesn’t mean that you have to adhere rigidly to the pattern of our known history. Europeans didn’t drink tea in the Middle Ages, but there’s no reason you can’t have a medieval [technologically-medieval] European-type society of tea-drinkers, so long as those tea-drinkers have some trading contact with a part of the world where tea could grow. Just don’t give them polyester [because they have no oil refineries and no need yet that would drive them to have developed oil refineries].
(Johansen, “Belief is in the Details: Don’t Take the Present For Granted!”, Phantastes, 2001, and Canadian Writers’ Journal, June 2002.)

I once had an editor who wanted me, in a historical fantasy story, to have my hero sail her ship (Viking ship, single-masted, with oars, but no teleport) from Denmark to the Holy Land in THREE DAYS. And it’s appalling the number of pre-industrial fantasy stories and pre Second World War historical stories that have barns full of baled hay. I’m going to quote my essay “Belief is in the Details” again:

The stationary baler or hay press was invented in the 1850’s and wasn’t common until the 1870’s. The “pick up” baler, the modern square baler (now largely supplanted by round bales and bale-wrappers — and I recently read a medieval fantasy where the hay was in “rolls”, so I guess the round-baler has taken up time-travel as well) only came into being around the 1940’s. These dates are from International Harvester, but other equipment manufacturers would have been building the same types of machines around the same time. And the thing about balers is that, like the automobile, they have the whole Industrial Revolution looming behind them. They’re not something the village blacksmith whips up in his spare time. Sure, maybe he could have made a baling machine of some sort. But why would he, in a society that hadn’t experienced its Industrial Revolution? Would the investment of his time and materials have been worthwhile to him and his society? The Greeks, after all, did invent the steam engine, but they never used it for anything much. They didn’t need to. They had man- and woman-power.

Book on history and especially on archaeology are good research tools for developing settings and artefacts; the work of serious re-enactors can be useful too. Regia Anglorum’s site has lots of useful information to fuel the visual imagination, and their hall at Wychurst was the setting for the recitation of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf translation, which you might have seen in Michael Wood’s excellent documentary “In Search of Beowulf”. (Watching that gives you a taste of Dark Ages storytelling — firelight and dramatic recitation and mead.)

It’s been very interesting so far, watching Connie develop the characters, with their clothing and weapons. Right now she’s working on a book cover for The Black Box (of which more another time), and I’m in the middle of something else too, but within a few weeks we’ll be back to work on “Sword of Ice and Shadows” and I’m looking forward to seeing the final design of Lakkariss itself — Moth’s second sword and the object which drives her wanderings. I paint in words; it’s exciting to see how Connie takes those words and gives them a physical form.

About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at
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