Seeking Inspiration

Sometimes my mind goes blank. All ideas abandon me, and I sit, staring miserably at the cursor on an empty document. It’s a writer’s worst nightmare, but I’ve come to believe that it happens when the eagerness to write becomes obsession.

Is there a remedy? A good question, but not easily answered. First of all, it doesn’t help to try forcing the issue. If you’ve ever tried to fall asleep on a restless night, you’ll know that the harder you try, the worse the insomnia.

Likewise, the muses can’t be tricked. So, how do we make them smile on us?  Is necessity truly the mother of invention?

Finding inspiration is a personal matter, and every artist, writer, or composer have their own way of courting their muse. Still, there are sources, which lie embedded in our roots. Some authors swear by speed writing. Others have a talisman or need a special environment. Whatever it is, the important issue is to create a ladder, leading to our subconscious.

What are my inspiration triggers? As I write historical fiction, history plays a part. Not so much the dry facts, but the way people dressed, ate, spoke, and even what they believed, or how they spent their evenings. The list is endless. Here I must add that I research dry facts when necessary, but that is an exercise in patience. Naturally, facts are important when writing about a specific period. Also, they’re necessary for making characters believable: they lived with their historical circumstances.

For me, myths are important tools for finding inspiration. It may not matter which mythology, but I mostly see a relationship between the characters I want to portray and their preferred legends. As I see it, all myths are interconnected. Deep down they’re an expression of the collective subconscious.

Talismans are rooted in the dream world. They can take any shape or form. Again, it’s a matter of what resonates within. It is up to the individual, whether amulets work for them or not.

Personally, I can’t work with music in the background. My best guess is that it distracts me, because of years of musical training. I’m at my best when writing alone and in silence.

 

© HMH, 2018

Golden moments in Danish History

An overview of Danish expansions and reductions

At the end of the last glacial period, which was about 11,700 years ago people slowly moved into what we now know as Demark. That doesn’t mean that Denmark emerged as a fully-fledged country: there’s no mention of the Danes until 500 AD. In the 8th – to the 10th Century we know of about eighteen kings, but Gorm the Old was the first recognized King of the Danish area. His son, Harald I Bluetooth took over in 958. The monk Popo convinced Harald to convert, and in the upshot Harald Christianised the Danes.

I won’t go into every detail of the Danish kings, but there are certain periods and personalities of interest, notably Canute the Great. In the summer of 1015, Canute set sail for England with a Danish army of nine to ten-thousand, in two-hundred longboats. The army included Vikings from all over Scandinavia. They fought Edmund Ironside and finally conquered him on the eighteenth October of 1016. Edmund and Canute met to negotiate the terms of peace near Deerhurst. They agreed that Canute should reign over England north of the Thames until Edmund’s death, when Canute would ascend to the throne. Canute was crowned King of England at Christmas that year and reigned for nearly two decades. In 1018 Canute went to Denmark to affirm his succession to the Danish crown. He stayed two years before returning to England. Canute presented himself as a religious man, even though he maintained a sinful relationship with two wives. Also, he has no qualms about treating his fellow Christian opponents harshly.

In 1027 his reign over England and a large part of Scandinavia was stable enough to allow him to witness the accession of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. After Canute’s death Denmark fell into a period of disorder with a power struggle between the pretender to the throne Sweyn Estridsson, son of Ulf, and the Norwegian king. If his sons hadn’t died within a decade after Canute’s death, his reign might well have been the foundation for a political union between England and Scandinavia, a North Sea Empire with blood ties to the Holy Roman Empire.

Jumping ahead to 1157, Valdemar the Great ascended to the Danish throne. His reign ended a long period of intern squabbles. He fought the Wends, who had taken advantage of the previous unrest caused by a weak government to invade the Southern parts of Denmark. Conquering the main Wend city, Waldemar seized Rügen and drove the Wends out of Denmark.

Later Valdemar entrusted his friend and foster brother Bishop Absalon with the fortress at Hafn, later known as København (Copenhagen). Waldemar’s chronicler was Saxo Grammaticus, author of Gesta Danorum, known as Achievements of the Danes. For the next hundred years Denmark was a prosperous kingdom.

The Baltic empire didn’t last.

In 1223 Henrik of Schwerin captured Valdemar the Victorious. In ransom Valdemar gave up his North German territories. Valdemar turned his attention to legislation and his ‘Jutland-law’ is still the basis for Danish lawgiving.

Things went from bad to worse and, in 1252 Denmark was literally open for assaults from North German princes. Seven years later Erik the fifth, known as Erik Klipping (the cropper) kept his throne, but had to sign a charter forced on him by Danish nobles. He devaluated the legal tender. But it didn’t help him. On the 22 of November 1286, a few of Erik’s closest vassals murdered him in his sleep. That was the last regicide in Denmark, so far.

Afterwards nothing worked for years and by 1332 most of the country was pawned. Also, there was no king until the next Valdemar Atterdag (his nickname is best translated as ’tomorrow is another day’) ended an eight-year long interregnum. Perhaps, the plague of 1351 helped Valdemar, re-conquest parts of the lost territory. He managed to redeem the rest of the mortgaged country and showed his diplomacy in dealings with his peers.

After Valdemar’s death without male offspring, his five-year old grandson, Oluf came to the throne. His mother Margrethe ruled for him, and stayed on after Oluf’s death. Margrethe the First was a successful regent. Her greatest achievement was the Kalmar Union, in which she united Scandinavia. Norway came to Denmark through Oluf, who was the next in line when Hakon the sixth died, and Sweden preferred Margrethe to the alternative, the unpopular King Albrecht of Mecklenburg.

Unfortunately, the cooperation soured, as Denmark too advantage of its position at the helm of the union. The problem came to a head when Christian the Second, chopped the head of several Swedish bishops in 1523. Sweden pulled out of the Union when Gustav Vasa celebrated his victory over Christian the Second. Norway remained with Denmark, but Christian lost the throne, and ended his life imprisoned for 27 years, first in Sønderborg Castle until 1549, and afterwards at the castle of Kalundborg.

Christian the fourth was a true renaissance king. He engaged the best musicians and built castles all over the place. On the other hand, his foreign policy was disastrous. His engagement in the thirty-years’ war and his skirmishes with Gustav Adolph of Sweden cost the country territory in Schleswig as well as in Sweden. All the same, he remains one of the most popular kings in Danish history.

Frederik the Third became the first absolute monarch in Denmark. That didn’t stop the Swedish king Charles X from invade Danish territory on the 17th July 1658. The war raged back and forth, notably through the icy winter of 1657. That was Gustav Adolph’s chance, because the straits between Jutland, Fyn and Zeeland froze. His army walked from Fredericia to Korsør and mounted a siege of Copenhagen.  Frederik stayed there prepared ‘to die in his nest’, and leading the defence of the city. The invasion went on for two years lasted until 1660, when Denmark ceded Scania, Halland and Blekinge to Sweden.

By this time Denmark was sorely reduced, but worse was to come.

Hundred years of war plague and bad economy took its toll, but eventually things became better. In 1750 a general economic improvement in Europe helped considerably. Also, Denmark managed to stay neutral in the various skirmishes. The only drawback was an insane monarch: Frederik the Seventh. His personal physician Struensee gained vast power and influenced the realm considerably. At the same time, he fell in love with the queen Caroline Amalie, and their love affair eventually caused Struensee’s downfall. His life ended with a traitor’s death, broken on the wheel.

The French revolution didn’t change much for Denmark, especially as serfdom was abolished in 1788. In the war following the revolution, Denmark tried to remain neutral, but that gave Nelson an excuse to bomb Copenhagen and demolish the Danish navy. Ultimately, Frederik the Sixth admiration for Napoleon resulted in Denmark losing Norway, which went to Sweden through the former Marshal Bernadotte, present king Charles XIV John of Sweden.

Sorely reduced, but still holding Greenland, Iceland the Faroe Islands, as well as territories in India (Tranquebar), The Caribbean St Thomas, St Jan, and St Croix), and Afrika (Ghana), Denmark went bankrupt in 1813. The oversea territory was sold, and Denmark became a small and poor country.

So, the people of this insignificant country shook themselves and went about life. What emerged? A period, where Danish culture blossomed like never before. Young talents flourished in architecture (M.G. Bindesbøll), ballet (August Bournonville), poetry (N.F.S. Grundtvig), literature (Hans Christian Andersen), visual arts (C.W. Eckersberg & Bertel Thorvaldsen), and philosophy (Søren Kierkegaard). The nineteenth century became a golden age through the national crisis.

Out of this golden age evolved a new political awareness, which finally resulted in demands for freedom and liberty:  on the fifth of June 1845, Frederik the Seventh signed Denmark’s new constitution and turned Denmark into a constitutional monarchy.

Around this time, people in Schleswig-Holstein began to clamour for their rights. In Holstein the majority was of German descent, they spoke German and felt they belonged to the German empire. Likewise, in Schleswig, but here the majority was of Danish descent. Still, there were many German speakers, and they felt like the people of Holstein. Out of this nationalistic conflict started the first Schleswig-Holstein war. The Danes won this time round.

Drunk with victory, Denmark decided to boot out Holstein, and integrate Schleswig. This was a clear breach of the London Protocol of 1852, and Otto von Bismarck declared war. The result was another catastrophe for Denmark. Reduced to its smallest size ever, the Danish border moved north to Kongeå south of Kolding. A conservative government took over from the national liberals.

Hvad udad tabes skal indad vindes (what’s lost outwards must be won inwards). Farmers everywhere worked harder, new land was ploughed up, especially on the heath in central Jutland. Denmark increased its crop export, primarily to England. Most towns expanded, and new railways spread everywhere. All in all, Denmark prospered. As a result of the industrialization, a new worker community grew, and eventually that brought Denmark democracy in 1901. Also, the Danish women gained the right to vote, but that didn’t happen before 1915, on the fifth of June.

During the Great War, Denmark remained neutral.

The German defeat paved the way for a plebiscite in South Jutland and the reunification with a large part of the territory lost in 1864. There’s still a Danish minority south of the Danish/German border and a German minority north of it.

© HMH, 2018

Snippets of Norse Mythology: The Creation and The World Tree, Yggdrasil

In the beginning there was nothing but a void. Then two regions appeared. The southern was Muspelheim, full of fire, light, and heat. In the north Nifelheim came to be. It was made of arctic waters, mists, and cold. In between the two realms stretched a yawning emptiness, Ginungagap. Sparks and smoke from Muspelheim spilled into the gap and met layers of rime and frost. Out of the melting ice, Ymir, the giant, emerged. The cow Audhumla suckled him, and he grew fast and strong. Then Ymir gave birth to man and woman out of his left armpit. The first Jötnar sprang from his legs.

Audhumla licked the salty ice and released Buri.  His son, Borr, begat three sons: Odin, Vili, and Ve. When they were ready, they killed Ymir and the Jötnar, except two.

Odin, Vili and Ve used Ymir’s body to make the land, his blood became the sea. Then the three Vanir raised his skull to create a dome, they called the sky. His bones became mountains, his hair grew as trees, but Odin used his eyebrow as fence against the Jötnar.

Thus, the world came to be. The brothers Odin, Vili, and Ve caused time to begin. They placed two orbs in the sky: the sun and the moon and made them orbit the world.

Then Odin found two young giants, Sol and Mani. They were beautiful, and Odin decided to let them drive the chariots, belonging to the sun and the moon. To make sure they’d keep a steady pace Odin set two wolves to pursue them across the sky, and devour them if they caught them.

Yggdrasil, the World Ash, holds the world together: the roots envelop all the spheres. They also keep different areas separated. At the bottom is the realm of the dead, called Helheim. Hel, who is Loke’s daughter, reigns. Her region is dark: a realm of shadows and hunger, covered by one of the big roots. A wellspring, Hvergelmir, which is infested with snakes, bars the way to Nifelheim. Here the dragon Nidhogg gnaws Yggdrasil’s root. The gods convene at a place known as Domsted. The Norns, Urda, Skulda and Verdandi, live at Domstead. They tend the tree and spin the threads of fate. The root, which runs beyond Domsted supports Midgard, where humans live. The third root supports Jotunheim, the realm of the Giants.

The earth is a circle of land surrounded by ocean. In the ocean resides the world serpent, Midgårdsormen. In the centre of the land stands the World Tree, Yggdrasil. Its roots descend to the underworld, and its branches support the sky.

It is well known that Valhalla forms the playing ground for death heroes. Shield maidens carry the dead from their battles and give them new life. This is where the cauldron of resurrection comes into its own. Each day the heroes fight their old battles again, and each evening the shield maidens submit the dead to the cauldron. This way, they can feast through the night, drinking mead from the goat Heidrun’s udder. She stands atop the roof of Valhalla and feeds from the leaves and branches of the tree.

The gods, the Aesir, live in Yggdrasil’s top branches: their realm is known as Asgaard. Their greatest foes, the Vanir stay in Vanaheim.

The Giants, the Jötnar, have their abode in Utgaard in Jotunheim, which is placed beyond the ocean that surrounds Midgard.

© HMH, 2017

 

Eating Habits in Old Copenhagen

1: Festive Occasions

In the ‘season’ from October to March, wealthy burghers and upper classes spend a large amount of time giving dinners and balls, and accepting invitations to similar events.

The housewife would perform a full-time job to control a household’s festivities but, obviously, she’d look after the general household too. She wouldn’t do this alone: in an average upper-class household there’d be a cook, one or two maids, and, possibly, a coachman. The servants would have to work hard in order too keep the residence presentable, always overseen by their mistress.

It was up to the lady of the house to arrange the season’s festivity and make sure that nobody in the family’s circle was overlooked. To do this she’d have to keep strict accounts of every party, who was invited, what food was served, on what date the event took place, and sometimes the seating order. She’d also keep books regarding invitations, and other events, like theatre evenings etc.

At dinner parties the number of guests could vary from three to twenty or more. Gentlemen’s dinners would have fewer participants to allow an intimate atmosphere. In most families the close family would figure in most invitation lists, but it was also important to include such people as political contacts, cultural personalities, and or colleagues.

It wasn’t unusual to invite between fifty and sixty guests for balls.

All in all, around hundred to two hundred persons from perhaps ninety-five different families would be represented during a ‘season’.

Below I have entered examples of menus for festive occasions.

DINNER PARTY

Menu with wines

Turtle soup

Pike                                                White Wine (Rhone, Bourgogne, Rhein)

Cutlets with vegetables              Red Wine (decanted)

Venison                                          Champagne

Cheese                                            Red Wine

Ice cream                                       Madeira, Port

Dessert (Pralines, Marzipan)     Tokay

GENTLEMEN’S DINNER

Menu with wines

Oysters                                              Sparkling White Wine

Soup w egg dumplings

Fish rolls in lobster sauce             Sparkling White Wine

Fillet of Beef with Tomatoes        Champagne/Bourgogne

Cauliflower Gratin                         Champagne/Bourgogne

Partridge                                          Champagne/Bourgogne

Pineapple Blanc Mange                Madeira, Tokay

Fresh Fruit                                       Madeira, Tokay

SOUPER AT BALLS

Buffet with Champagne

Croustades                                         Champagne (sweet)

Venison Ragout

Pineapple Jelly

Open Sandwiches

XMAS DINNER

Cod

Goose

Rice a la mande

SUNDAY LUNCH

smoked eel with scrambled eggs

honey-roasted ham, rolled sausage

various garnishes

boiled eggs

liver pâté with fried mushrooms and bacon

pickled herring

cheeses: Havarti, Camembert, Samsø, Gammel-Ole

Rye bread.

Wheat bread

Savoury biscuits

 

©HMH, 2017

Master’s Right

In Denmark, according to the Servants’ Statutes of 1854, anyone, seeking employment or wanting to leave his or her birthplace, should be able to prove he or she had been confirmed. All servants had to present a servant’s conduct book, which should be authorized by the local clergy or, in Copenhagen, by the police. In this book the employer should chronicle for how long and in what capacity the servant had worked. It was optional whether he would add a testimonial. Should he give a gloving reference that could be proved incorrect, he could be sentenced to pay retribution to a third party, aka the new employer. But, likewise, he was liable to pay retribution for damaging a servant’s losses, should he lie about the quality of the servant’s work. It is notable that it wasn’t allowed to pass a servant to another employer.

So far so good: there isn’t much to say against such a law.

If one reads on, through the 77 clauses certain points stick out. The employer has the right to submit servants to domestic discipline and chastisements can be given until a male servant is eighteen. The female servants get off a bit better: they can only be corporeally punished until they’re sixteen.

It is interesting to read that the master could dismiss any servant that ‘seduced the children of the household to corrupt actions’, ‘if the servant has a contagious or repulsive illness’ or incurs such illness during his or her service. Fornication with a member of the household would lead to instant dismissal. And, last but not least, a pregnant servant out of wedlock would face getting sacked without recommendation.

It stands to reason that a servant, who had a complaint against his or her master, would find it problematic to win a case against the employer. The proprietor would be backed by his status, and a servant would have to prove the case against a skeptical if not prejudiced judge. Should a young woman in such a position become pregnant, she would have nothing left: if her seducer was a part of the household, she could even be punished for corrupting the male who got her pregnant.

I can give an example. August Strindberg was a virile youngster in 1873. He is as discreet about his habits as is usual in that period, but, in The Red Room, he reveals some of his habits. He and his male friends, have an easygoing companionship, they share clothes as well as ‘girls’ — such girls that can be visited late in the evening. Strindberg writes about them in the same way as he’d mention a late-night snack.

In 1873, Strindberg initiated a relationship with a young woman, Ida Charlotta Olsson. She was a servant, but she was known to be available for young men from the upper echelons, without expecting marriage. The relationship lasted for two years but, during this period, Strindberg tried to donate her to a companion. In 1875, she became pregnant, but Strindberg denied responsibility. Later, in The Servant Girl’s Son, he gives his personal version of the matter, claiming that Ida Charlotta was a married woman and seduced him. As his career takes off she tries to blackmail him and, eventually, she’s unfaithful.

It is unclear, whether Strindberg was the father, but Ida Charlotta gave her son one of Strindberg’s Christian names, a clear suggestion of the actual situation. Anyway, Strindberg breaks up the relationship, and begins to court a young girl of the middle classes.

Years later Strindberg’s friend Carl Larsson seeks Strindberg’s assistance. He has been accused of getting a ‘girl’ with child. Strindberg writes Carl Larsson a letter, advising him to ‘give the girl fifty Kroner’: that should last her a year. Also, he adds, ‘that will save you paying for a children’s home, which would cost more. Don’t forget, there is a chance that the child doesn’t survive.’ As Post Scriptum he includes this piece of advice: ‘Next time you want to fuck a girl, don’t forget to put something on!’

To me, this portrays a society that has hardly moved on from the droit du seigneur, the right of the lord, or the medieval Ius Primae Noctis. No wonder that we still struggle against sexual harassment.

© HMH 2017

The Little Old Table

My great grandmother had a sewing table, a real beauty. I remember it from my granny’s flat when I was a child. Later it came to me. It stands in my home now and has followed me from Denmark to England, and later to Bremerhaven. I think I’d bring it with me, wherever I might go.

This table always held a strange attraction to me. Without a doubt, it inspired certain scenes in my debut novel, Snares and Delusions.

What is so special about it? Apart from the high polish and stylish legs, it contains small treasures from long ago. Under the lid that hinges on the back of the table, little compartments, each with a cover, hides old lace, crocheted gloves, a tatting shuttle, and a mysterious photo of a man I don’t recognize. This photo is enclosed in a narrow gold frame. It was probably taken by a professional photographer. The man in the photo looks distinguished, he wears formal clothes of a bygone time. The sepia coloured picture is fading, and would probably have disappeared completely, if it hadn’t been hidden in the table. Underneath the table is a large drawer, which was full of lace-making bobbins. I took them out, when I was trying to learn lace-making. I didn’t get far, but I still remember the basics. I believe it was made by a Danish cabinet-maker around the turn of the century, but there is no manufacturer’s placard to help identify its origin.

Whoever owns it anon, and hears it, will never know what a history hangs upon this creak from long ago. Thomas Hardy

© HMH 2017