“Did you write this?”
My publisher asked me that question after reading the manuscript for the novella Island. The reasons he asked was straightforward. It is completely unlike the writing style for the five novels that constitute the Dancing Priest series.
The novella is closely connected to but not dependent upon Dancing Prince, the fifth and final novel in the series just published last week. The choices were to publish it as a separate work or include it as a bonus with the novel. Ultimately, we included it as a bonus with the novel. (The photograph above is the one that would have been used for the cover if we’d decided to make it a separate work.)
Early readers of Dancing Prince have discovered that the novel itself is about the same length as its four predecessors. But the novella adds another 20,000 words.
Island is story that a character in Dancing Prince, Erica Larsson, begins to write to explain – at least in fiction – how a tomb on the island of Broughby in the Orkneys might have come to be. The story doesn’t play a critical role in the main narrative, but it does stand as something of an extension of it.
The novella tells the story of Aoife and Ulf, two people living at the end of the 9th century. Aoife was born on the island, the daughter of a Celtic fisherman and the Dane woman he marries. Ulf is the third son of the king of Trondelag, a city and region in what is now Norway. Island is even given an introduction by Farley MacNeill, a character in the book who is the professor and academic mentor for Thomas Kent-Hughes. Thomas, or Tommy, is the fourth natural child and second son of Michal and Sarah Kent-Hughes and leads the archaeological dig that finds the tomb on the island of Broughby.
MacNeill writes that he finds the story compelling historically, and he notes as almost an aside that he finds that the author has told something of her own story.
The idea for the novella predates Dancing Prince itself. In 2014, I was fascinated by an article in Discover Britain magazine entitled “All roads lead Norse: Mysteries of the Orkney Islands.” It described the Neolithic and Norse relics and sites that are common in these islands off the northern coast of Scotland. The story is available online but is behind the magazine’s paywall. A similar story, “Discover the ancient island history of Orkney,” is available on the magazine’s web site and includes a photo of St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, which has a brief mention in Dancing Prince.
In 2015, when my wife and I visited Britain, I made a point of visiting the Lewis Chessmen exhibition at the British Museum. These game pieces are among a hoard of similar pieces found buried on the Isle of Lewis in the Orkneys in the 19th century. I even picked up a few replicas, and this crowd sits on the shelf above my computer screen. They watched me write the manuscripts for Dancing King, Dancing Prophet, and Dancing Prince. The original chessmen are a couple of hundred years older than the period for Island, but they have been a good reminder of where the story came from.
The names and events of Island are based on a lot of online research into Viking / Norse and Celtic names and customs, as well as a lot of reading of Viking and Scottish history. I won’t claim that I got everything right; in fact, the story in the novella and the main novel turns on a Viking expedition about a century earlier than what history tells us.
As the publisher discovered, the writing style is very different from the five novels. For one thing, it’s written entirely in the present tense; most novels, including mine, are usually written in the past tense. It’s also what’s called historical fiction; the five novels are closer to something I might call contemporary alternative history. Plain fiction works, too.
But that’s where the novella came from.