The Co-Evolution of a Story and its Teller

Just over three years ago, I started writing Black Wolf, not really expecting it to go anywhere. I’ve started other novels but never finished them—I wrote myself into corners, or discovered that I had introduced significant technical errors because I didn’t do enough research, or I just didn’t like how the story was turning out. But Black Wolf practically wrote itself. I was just there to pound the keyboard.

Four years ago, if you had asked me what I knew about Norse mythology, I would have shrugged and mumbled something about Thor dressing up as a woman to get his hammer back. I couldn’t even remember the name of Odin’s wife, and Loki was little more than a dark figure in my mind.

Nonetheless, it was Loki who sparked my imagination (and not just because of Tom Hiddleston, although he sparks my imagination, too).

After watching Marvel’s Thor, I was rather charmed by the characters. Action movies aren’t usually my thing, but the characters were interesting and, uh, very beautiful, but that wasn’t quite enough to trigger my curiosity about the original myths. However, an io9 post about about what Marvel gets wrong about Norse mythology (which, I now see, also gets some details wrong) made the old pagan universe much more fascinating. Discovering that Loki was the mother of Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir piqued my interest.

I was happy to have a new research project, and started by digging through the internet to look for what might be reliable sources of information. Over time I started figuring out which sites were good sources, and I could identify some of the major scholars in the fields of Viking studies and Norse mythology/old English.

I was also binge-watching Supernatural at the time. In the episode “Hammer of the Gods” various non-Judaeo-Christian gods discuss what to do about the upcoming apocalypse. Odin just shrugs it off because everyone knows how the world ends (of course) and nonchalantly remarks that he’ll be eaten by a giant wolf. Moments later, “Loki” bursts in, greets Baldr with disdain, and muses that his invitation must have been lost in the mail. I’m quite certain the neighbours four floors down heard me cackling.

The stories swirling through my brain started forming their own spin-offs and I started writing mythology-based Supernatural episodes in my head. As I researched Viking culture more deeply, these episodes became more intricate and developed into an independent story with Loki as its focus.

More importantly, my new understanding of the Vikings made their gods seem much more real to me. I began to see some of the inner workings of a society just as lawful—and just as lawless—as my own, although its moral and legal codes were different. I could now recognize the gods as complex moral agents upholding a society that would eventually fail because of pressures from within and thereby become vulnerable to external forces. At Ragnarök, those forces would destroy this society, and those who remained would form a new society on the ashes of the old.

To create a world that made sense within the pagan traditions of the mythology, I had to set aside my modern Western values to see through the eyes of my characters. However, to create a world that modern Western readers could relate to, I had to find touchpoints between two cultures separated by a millennium. I had to blend old and new while stitching together inconsistent and sometimes contradictory myths to develop a coherent narrative that adhered to the spirit of those myths.

Additionally, I had a lot of blanks to fill in with respect to certain characters, especially the goddesses Sif and Sigyn, the wives of Thor and Loki, respectively. Viking women may have been largely restricted to domestic roles, but they were no shrinking violets; rather, as the sagas indicate, they could exert tremendous power by influencing male relatives. Thus, in the real world, these mythical women would have played crucial roles behind the scenes and deserved just as much attention as the men. Unfortunately, the extant myths give few clues as to the specific roles and attributes of these women, so the task of developing their characters was both liberating and onerous.

Writing the book changed me, too. Shortly after I started writing, the toxic patterns that had defined some of my family relationships exploded, I discovered that a man I had trusted and confided in for years finally revealed himself as a frenemy who actually enjoyed watching me suffer, and a long-term corporate client that was trying to save money reallocated my work to an in-house editor—all while I was recovering from hip replacement surgery. And the hits kept coming over the next year or so.

I suffered severe depression and anxiety. There was nothing and nowhere that felt safe; trusting anyone at all became nearly impossible. I couldn’t sleep more than a few hours a night and anything that stressed me out in the slightest put an end to my ability to work for the day. Most days I couldn’t do more than four hours of paid work.

Black Wolf  helped keep me going. Having a creative outlet with no deadlines gave me something stress-free to focus on and, indirectly, a way to deal with everything I was going through. The book was always going to culminate in rage and pain and destruction because everyone dies in a fiery war preceded by a three-year winter in which brother kills brother, representing the breakdown of society. (Shakespeare’s got nothing on the medieval Scandinavians.) The trick was to use my experiences to inform the development of the story and its characters in a natural way without projecting myself into the narrative. My beta readers were instructed to watch for anything that strayed into the realm of disguised autobiography.

Despite my personal struggle—and perhaps in part because of it—I completed my first novel. I had always thought about becoming a published writer but never expected to do it, given my track record of abandoning books. Somehow, though, it seems this book found me at exactly the time I was ready to write it.

Now here we are, my book and I, evolving together towards some unknown end. I don’t know what my world will look like once Black Wolf is published, but it already looks very different from when I started writing it.

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