Scott Oden

The Anatomy of a Novel

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This past August, I trashed the novel known up till that point as TWILIGHT OF THE GODS, the sequel to A GATHERING OF RAVENS.  I took two years’ worth of notes, character sketches, research, and preliminary writing, put it in a file labeled “TotG — Attempt A”, moved it aside, and opened a new Word document entitled “TotG — Attempt B”.  I went back to square one; started over from scratch.

What went wrong, you ask?  Honestly, after the first eight chapters, I realized Grimnir could end the novel in Chapter Three by merely remaining true to form.  Get him within arm’s reach of the villain, give him thirty seconds, and then wipe the blood off the lens as we cut to “and they lived happily ever after . . .”  And since padding that out would make for a boring read, we return to square one.

 

For a goodly chunk of August, September, and now into October, I’ve been working steadily on the next iteration of the book.  Using a line from one of JRR Tolkien’s letters, where he talks about “Orc cults” in the Fourth Age of Middle-earth, I’ve created a scenario where Grimnir is responsible, after a fashion, for the lives of a couple hundred men, women, and children — an obscure tribe of Geats living to themselves on the shores of Lake Vänern in Sweden; the last pagans in a world largely given over to Christianity.  From there, I threw in Northern crusaders, a troll-wife, berserkers, a shield-maiden with a terrifying secret, an enchanted sword, and the avatar of Odin who has come seeking redress against the Nailed God.  Somewhat slowly, I’ve been building a detailed outline/rough draft.  I’ve written the first two chapters.  So far, so good.

My plan is to have the outline/draft done by the end of October, and then use National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo — or “November”, as it is colloquially known) to write the first half, and December to write the second.  I’ll then give it to my agent as a New Year’s gift and plunge in to the third and final Grimnir tale, THE DOOM OF ODIN (which takes him to 14th century Rome during the Black Death).  All the while, I plan to let you peek under the hood, Gentle Readers, to watch as I cobble together these bits and bobs and make a novel from them.

Here, then, in the spirit of good will, is a bit from the opening chapter of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS:

Chapter One

 

The Vale of Guðbrandr, central Norway.
Late Autumn in the Year of Our Lord 1217.

Corpses sprawled atop a low hill, beneath a sky the color of old slate. They lay in their tattered war-gear, mail riven, shields broken, and helmets split asunder from the ferocity of their blows. There were scores of them, arranged not in the perfect windrows borne of clashing shield-walls, where the dead fall like grain beneath a thresher-man’s blade, but rather in heaps and mounds – as though the Tangled God himself, cunning Loki, had decided to remold the land from the bodies of slain Northmen. Their blood mingled with other vital fluids, turning the early snow underfoot to a scarlet slurry.

A cold north wind moaned through the evergreen spruces ringing the hill. It rattled the shafts of spears that grew from bodies of the slain like corpse-flowers, their blades rooted in bellies and spines; it snapped the fabric of cast-off pennons. Some displayed a wolf’s head against a white field. Others, more numerous, bore a stark black cross. The wind faded; utter silence returned.

Amid this desolation, there came a single flicker of movement. A chestnut-haired giant clad in a ragged corselet thrust himself to his feet, notched sword clenched tight in his bloody fist. His breath steamed as he panted from the exertion of battle. Blood and spittle dripped from his beard; he turned his gore-blasted face to the heavens. Unsteady on his feet, he staggered from the tangle of corpses marking the crucible of the fight and searched above for even the smallest sign of God’s favor for this victory – a rent in the clouds, a finger of light from the celestial realm, something. But he saw only a limitless expanse of deep gray, as solid as arctic ice. Tears welled in his eyes; he raised his sword hilt-first to the sky.

“C-Christ!” he said, voice cracking. Then, louder: “Christ!”

“He can’t hear you,” someone behind him purred in answer.

The man whirled.

From the same welter of the dead, a woman arose. A one-handed daughter of Odin whose left wrist ended in an iron fist made to hold a shield. Blood clotted like rubies in the links of her mail hauberk – hacked and ragged now that this spear-shattering had run its course.

“Úlfrún Hakonardottir,” the man said, lips peeling back in a snarl of hate.

The woman, Úlfrún, leaned heavily on the long oak haft of an axe. With her good hand, she drew off the ruin of her helmet, its crown ruptured along the seams where it took the blow that should have killed her. Úlfrún tossed it aside. Sodden hair the color of wood ash uncoiled and fell around her shoulders. “Heimdul Oath-breaker,” she growled.

“Woman, you have more lives than a cat! I saw old Guthrum deal you a mortal blow.”

“Your Guthrum hit like a child!” Úlfrún said. “And he died for it.”

“Then he sits in a place of glory by Christ’s right hand, alongside the saints and martyrs.”

She gave a bark of laughter like the sharp grate of stones. “Does that lie bring you comfort, Oath-breaker? Comfort from the truth of it all?”

“And what is that?” Heimdul cracked the bones in his neck and rolled the tension from his shoulders. He struck the flat of his sword against the heel of his hobnailed boot, knocking the rime of bloody ice loose from its edge.

“The truth?” Úlfrún hefted her axe, its bearded blade forged from Spanish steel; hard iron straps crisscrossed the haft. “The truth is, all your dogs sit outside the doors of Valhöll, begging for scraps from the Allfather’s board! You turned your back on him! Tore down his altars, burned the sacred groves, and for what? So your wretched king might have his crown blessed by some cross-kissing fool in Rome? No, Heimdul Oath-Breaker, you will know the truth soon enough!”

“Heathen bitch! There is only one Father of All, and he’s not the one-eyed fairy tale we tell children! Odin? I spit on your Odin! I piss on your Odin! I am a son of God, sworn to the White Christ!” Quicker than his brutish frame belied, Heimdul struck. He swept his jagged-edged blade up in a vicious backhand blow.

Úlfrún did not flinch. She did not shy away from the whistling blade that sought to end her life. Instead, she stepped in and caught it on the knuckles of her iron fist. The sword sparked, rebounded; the clangor of impact reverberated. Far to the north, from among the cloud-wreathed peaks, came the echo of thunder as if in answer. Úlfrún tilted her head back, listening to something only she could hear; she bared her teeth in a fierce smile that did nothing to soften the hard planes of her face. “I told you,” she said, lowering her gaze to meet his. Her blue eyes gleamed with a fey and terrible light. “Your Nailed God can’t hear you.”

And Úlfrún Hakonardottir – Úlfrún of the Iron Hand – came on like a tempest.

More to come . . .

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