the power of myth, and research

norse mythology

A lot of people ask me where I got the idea for the Valhalla series. Old Norse gods living in Portland, having to live ordinary lives and work regular jobs while secretly protecting the world as we know it? That came from a simple, musing thought I had one day while out running errands: Wouldn’t it be funny if Thor had to repair a photocopier? And then it developed (rather slowly) from there.

But no one has asked why I chose the Norse pantheon.

I didn’t know much about the gods and legends from old Scandinavia. I grew up studying “classical” mythology (Greek and Roman), and dabbled in Egyptian mythos and Native American legends. For years, I’d just assumed that I’d eventually turn to the stories of Asian and Indian religion to fuel my stories, but I ended up with Thor and Odin. I admittedly knew very little about Norse mythology, and I think that’s what attracted me to it. I wasn’t constrained by preconceived ideas about the characters, yet they seemed easily relatable. I didn’t have a vested interest in “getting it right.”

So I did some research, and immediately felt overwhelmed?man, the Norse pantheon is complicated! Different sources offer different legends, and even conflicting family relationships. I had to make some executive decisions about who was going to be related to whom, and took what I assumed was vast amounts of creative license in crafting the story of the gods’ new lives in the New World.

But something funny started to happen. Often, I’d plot out a story line and then go back to the mythology to check a spelling or get an idea for a more minor character I could throw in, only to discover that the action I’d mapped out was eerily parallel to what was in the original mythology (which I’d not yet read). A big example?while steering clear of spoilers?is the connection between Bragi and Iduna, and the character arcs I’d planned for each of them. The story I’d mapped out was almost exactly what the mythology said it should be. The serendipity of it was amazingly convenient, so I kept going. And I stopped worrying about upsetting mythological scholars or purists.

The other night, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture on Norse mythology given by Clark College professor Dr. Kate Bruner. I’d had some trepidation that her talk would show me that I’d gotten everything completely wrong, or that at least one of my major assumptions or plot lines would be very far off-base. But sitting in the shadows among other members of the rapt audience, I discovered precisely the opposite?not only that, but I was encouraged to find that the details that are beginning to take shape for the third installment in the series are easily in line with some of the more subtle nuances of Norse mythology. Through my own writing and development, I’d come to know these characters and their histories a lot better than I thought I did.

I’m still taking these traditional characters off on wild tangents. I’m writing stories that I enjoy, and am hoping that readers will want to come along for the ride, too. I am grounding my work in research of at least some level of diligence, but I’m not relying on it too heavily. Re-imagining ancient tales requires modern adaptation but also a letting go?even if that means you find that your “new” stories are riding parallel rings on the spiral.

Chalk one up to the collective unconscious.

Creative Commons photo by mararie.

Posted in writing & publishing and tagged , .


  1. I suppose that same approach would come in handy with historical research. I have an idea for a novel that is set partly in early 19th Century Ontario but I’m daunted by the amount of research that would be required. I have to let my imagination take over somewhere!

    • Absolutely! I do a fair amount of research for all of my fiction projects, and every time there’s a point where I just have to push myself away from the research and start writing. Long walks and focusing on other activities are good ways to let the research mix with your plot lines and germinate some amazing stuff!

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