Barbara Henderson’s latest novel, The Chessmen Thief, is about to hit the shelves. Full of intriguing characters, we couldn’t resist picking her brain and asking all about… creating characters.
I had known for some time that I wanted to write a Viking story.
I had known for around a year that I might want to write a story about the Lewis Chessmen. But who or what else was going to go into the magic story pot?
The obvious solution, perhaps, would be to use the chess pieces themselves, a sort of cartoon world with talking objects. The facial expressions of the famous figures are certainly comical, and I’d love to know if they were intended to be. In any case, sadly, that’s not the sort of writer I am. I do atmospheric and tense, not laugh out loud.
The Protagonist: I needed a child. Someone who could be in the workshop when the figures were carved. A servant? Better, even: a slave (or thrall, as the Vikings called them) – that way he could already have a Scottish connection. Perhaps he could have been abducted in a raid? Initially I considered calling the boy Lewis after the island of his birth, but the many mentions of the word became confusing. The truth is, I had trouble deciding on a suitable name which had been in use in the 12th century Hebridean world. Time to enlist some help from my book-penpal-schools. I got them to vote on three options and they chose Kylan. As with all of my Middle Grade protagonists, he is 12. He is also determined to make it home and locate his mother. Soon it becomes evident that his fate is deeply entwined with that of the chessmen.
The Villains: There are a few contenders here. At first, Jarl Magnus, the Archbishop’s right-hand-man seems to fit the bill, as does Gunnar, the violent workshop owner and Master Carver. As we proceed through the book I borrowed an additional villain from the medieval Orkneyinga Saga: Sven Asleifsson, simplifying the spelling for accessibility. In the saga he is described like this:
“This was how Sveinn used to live. Winter he would spend at home on Gairsay, where he entertained some eighty men at his own expense. His drinking hall was so big, there was nothing in Orkney to compare with it. In the spring he had more than enough to occupy him, with a great deal of seed to sow which he saw to carefully himself. Then when that job was done, he would go off plundering in the Hebrides and in Ireland on what he called his ‘spring-trip’, then back home just after mid-summer, where he stayed till the cornfields had been reaped and the grain was safely in. After that he would go off raiding again, and never came back till the first month of winter was ended. This he used to call his ‘autumn-trip’.” (OS ch. 105).
In other chapters of the saga, Sven murders and loots, takes revenge and betrays leaders and lords alike. He was my man. There is every likelihood he actually existed – and if so, he would have been a contemporary of my Viking slave.
The real people: My story is rooted in actual events of the 1150s. We know that the Archdiocese of Nidaros was established in Trondheim in 1153. The Archbishop was a man called Jon Birgersson who now appears in my story. We also know that the Earl of Orkney Earl Ragnvald Kali Kolsson, went on a Crusade around that time. He, too appears in my story, as does his daughter Ingirid who becomes friends with Kylan. Finally, I stumbled across the theory that the Chessmen may have been created by an Icelandic woman called Margrét hin haga. According to the Saga of Bishop Pall, she made the “bishop’s crozier of walrus ivory, carved so skilfully that no one in Iceland had ever seen such artistry before; it was made by Margaret the Adroit, who at that time was the most skilled carver in all Iceland.” Even though records place her slightly later, I was determined to throw her into the book – I badly wanted some more female characters, and here was a perfect opportunity to include one.
The Chessmen Thief, written largely in the first lockdown, became a labour of love. I was prevented from going anywhere, but I could visit Norway, Orkney and the Hebrides in my mind. I was prevented from meeting friends, but Kylan, Ingirid, Margaret, Gunnar and Sven became my gang, keeping me company as the story took shape.
And I’ll tell you a secret.
They still do.