I’m fascinated by historical fiction and often wonder just how I might fare in other times to the age I was born in. It turns out I’m not alone and Michael Wills, author of the Children of the Chieftain Series of books for young readers, has been pondering exactly the same thing. He tells us his views today in a super guest blog.
Michael’s latest book in the Children of the Chieftain Series, Bounty, was published by Silverwood on 8th February 2017 and is available for purchase here.
Children of the Chieftain: Bounty
The young crew of the Viking ship ‘Eagle’ set out on a new journey when they are given the task of delivering a message in the land of the Rus. But fate has a surprise in store for them when they are ordered to travel on the Viking trading route south to Constantinople, a route fraught with danger. They must face warring tribesmen, deadly rapids and a host of other dangers before they reach their destination. There the adventure continues when they find themselves in the service of the emperor of the Greeks.
The Days of Wooden Ships and Iron Men?
A Guest Post by Michael Wills
As an historical novelist, I often find myself wondering whether the physical feats of my protagonists are actually realistic. Publishers of books like mine are very fond of putting a picture of a burly, handsome man on the cover of their books. He is usually half dressed so that the full extent of his musculature may be seen. But were people like that in days gone by? Well, probably some were, but I am certain that most had just an average physique.
This begs the question, how was it then that men could perform the extraordinary feats of strength and physical endurance which litter history? Consider these three examples.
In 1031, Prince Jaroslav in Novgorod, (Russia), commanded his Viking mercenaries to attack his Polish enemy. This army travelled 150 miles by boat and then marched 420 miles, carrying their equipment, over rough terrain before meeting and defeating the Polish army.
In 1066, there was an invasion of Britain, before the famous Norman conquest. In September, a Norwegian Viking army of 16,000 men invaded the north of England and took York. King Harold of England responded by force marching his army from London to a village called Stamford, near York, a distance of 220 miles, in six days. Although outnumbered, his army defeated the Norwegians.
In April 1789, in the South pacific, there was a mutiny on a Royal Navy ship called the Bounty. The commander, Captain Bligh, was set adrift in a 23-foot-long open boat together with 18 men who had stayed loyal to him. They had just 28 gallons of water, 32 pounds of pork and 150 pounds of hard biscuit. For six weeks, with no chart to help him, Bligh navigated the small craft a distance of 3,600 miles. His men endured storms, dangerous reefs, hunger and thirst before they reached the safety of Timor. Only one man died, he was killed by the inhabitants of one of the islands where Bligh sought provisions. Recently, there was a re-enactment of this voyage, though this time the navigator had a chart. Even though the modern crew reached their destination, (after being re-supplied with water), two of the crew had to be taken off by a rescue boat. One had become mentally unstable and the other suffered a severe cut which became infected.
Were men tougher and more resilient in times gone by? Even though their diet, clothes and equipment were far inferior to those of today. British and American Army regulations require that men and women on strenuous duties should be provided with between 4000 and 5000 calories a day. The Viking mercenaries, the Anglo-Saxon army and Bligh’s sailors would have had nothing like that and yet they performed acts of great physical prowess.
So, the conclusion I draw from the examples I have given and hundreds of other historical events is that the truth is often much stranger than fiction and that there was indeed a time of wooden ships and iron men. Of course, there are incredible examples of physical endurance in our day and age too, but I venture to suggest that most of us would be unable to emulate the feats of our forefathers. Thus, using history as a guide, I generally feel comfortable that I am not asking too much of the characters in my books.
About Michael Wills
Michael E Wills was born on the Isle of Wight, UK, and educated at the Priory Boys School and Carisbrooke Grammar. He trained as a teacher at St Peter’s College, Saltley, Birmingham, before working at a secondary school in Kent for two years. After re-training to become a teacher of English as a Foreign Language he worked in Sweden for thirteen years. During this period he wrote several English language teaching books. His teaching career has included time working in rural Sweden, which first sparked his now enduring interest in Scandinavian history and culture – an interest that, after many years of research, both academic and in the field, led him to write Finn’s Fate and the sequel, Three Kings – One Throne.
Continuing in a Viking theme, in June 2015 Michael published Children of the Chieftain: Betrayed, the first of a quartet of Viking adventure stories for young readers. The book was described by the Historical Novel Society as ‘an absolutely excellent novel which I could not put down’ and long-listed for the Historical Novel Society 2016 Indie Prize. The second book in the quartet, Children of the Chieftain: Banished, was published in December 2015.
Today, Michael works part-time as Ombudsman for English UK, the national association of English language providers. Though a lot of his spare time is spent with grandchildren, he also has a wide range of interests including researching for future books, writing, playing the guitar, carpentry and electronics. He spends at least two months a year sailing his boat, which is currently in Scandinavia.