I am very excited to have another fantastic guest on Just History Posts for our interview series, Thilde Kold Holdt. Thilde is a Viking, traveller and a polygot fluent in Danish, French, English and Korean. As a writer, she is an avid researcher. This is how she first came to row for hours upon hours on a Viking warship. She loved the experience so much that she has sailed with the Viking ship the Sea Stallion ever since. Another research trip brought her to all corners of South Korea where she also learnt the art of traditional Korean archery. Born in Denmark, Thilde has lived in many places and countries, taking a bit of each culture with her. She is currently based in Southern France where she writes full-time. You can find her over at her website.

Thilde, it is lovely to speak to you. You have just finished your first trilogy, The Hanged God, a fantasy series based on the Vikings and the Norse gods. What made you want to write about the Vikings?

For me, the research came first, the story later. As a Dane growing up abroad, being a Viking was my defining trait. Our ways seemed odd to the locals. We hosted Yule parties for the entire neighbourhood, insisted on sitting outside even in winter and had a clear ease with laughter. All of this was dismissed with head shakes as simply being the customs of crazy Vikings.

I began to wonder what it truly meant to be a Viking, and when I dove into research, I discovered that most of the customs and cultural oddities I still bring with me from Denmark, really did originate in the Viking Age. The more research I did, the more I began to see myself a lot more as a Viking than a Dane and I wanted to explore that in more depth. The story sprung from that research.

Although the trilogy is a fantasy series, it is obviously based in a historic people and culture. What kind of research did you need to do to make the series realistic?

I probably needed to do less than I actually did, because by the goddesses did I take research seriously. I still do, but nowadays I go a little easier on drawing out moon calendars and heat maps showing native vegetation.

Among other things I did in the name of research for The Hanged God trilogy are the following: I studied law texts to write a report on human rights in Iron Age Scandinavia. I devoured every book about Vikings I could find. I visited museums, and bare fields across which my characters would travel, so I could see the shape of the landscape. I attended Viking festivals, and finally, I joined the sailing crew of the Sea Stallion. The Sea Stallion is a sixty-oar reconstructed warship, and it is beautiful. It sails like a dream and being part of that piece of experimental archaeology defined my view of the Vikings. That’s what made them into real people for me, and hence it was this final research project which helped me bring realism to the story.

The Sea Stallion, via Vikingeskibs Museet.

It sounds like great fun! How did you strike a balance between history and fantasy? Was it difficult?

Very difficult, yes. At least at the beginning. Us, modern day people, mostly don’t believe in magic or giants or multiple gods, so we discount past accounts thereof easily, but to the Vikings these things were real. I began to wonder: who is to say there is a line there at all, or precisely where it lies? Our beliefs often steer our eyes to what we want to see in the world, after all, and the Vikings believed in gods and giants, so naturally they saw signs of them everywhere. Even the 12th century Christian scholar Saxo Grammaticus could not discount this. He wrote in a letter to the King of Denmark that there were in fact, once, giants in Denmark, as this is evidenced by the huge stones used to build passage graves.

The beliefs that Viking Age folk held were such a big part of who they were and how they interacted with the world. I did not feel as though I could divorce them from their gods and still tell the story from their point of view. So, I added some of their omens and beliefs, and the more I wrote, the more of it I added. Once I introduced gods on the page, I knew that I was by default in the realm of fantasy. When I reached that point, I accepted my fate and fully leaned into the magic. Yet, the fantasy bits too are based on meticulous research. I began to treat the Eddas, our main sources for the Norse myths, as historical documents of a long-forgotten past. I took the Norse gods as seriously as I did archaeological research and the sagas. Only then did I feel like I could present the Vikings to the fullest.

That’s a really great approach. Did anything surprise you about the Vikings when you were doing your historical research?

A lot surprised me. My first surprise is a well-known fact, but it’s the reason I got pushed into years of research. Because I saw my whole life flash before my eyes when I realized that Vikings didn’t actually wear horned helmets. That forced me to reconsider everything I thought I knew about Vikings.

However, in the long run, what surprised me the most was their values. Their emphasis on hospitality, on aiding one another. The stress on the fact that no one ought to be embarrassed of their means or lack thereof, be they monetary or corporal. Through law texts, old sagas and the myths, I discovered such a warm people, and considering how the Vikings are usually described, that warmth surprised me. As a Scandinavian myself, perhaps it shouldn’t have, but it did.

How did you first get into writing and when did you decide you wanted to be an author?

The first thing I ever wrote was in my last year of high school. I had a friend who wanted to do this thing called NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), where you write a novel in a month. I had never heard of it before, nor ever considered writing a book. I agreed to do it purely to encourage her, but in the process, I fell in love with writing.

When it was time to consider university half a year later, I enrolled in a Creative Writing bachelor. That’s how I started to learn how to write. Since writing was so new to me, I started out barely able to string sentences together, but surely and steadily I expanded my skillset. It wasn’t until the end of my second year of university that I thought: “Hey I’m really enjoying this, maybe I should continue along this path?” I made a pact with myself, right then and there, that if I could write a full novel and a full film manuscript during my third year of university, I would allow myself to pursue writing for real. I did, and here we are.

Why did you want to write historical fiction, rather than another genre of fantasy?

To me this whole thing started with history. That was the driving force. To begin with, I thought I was writing pure historical fiction (that is until the gods showed up). It seems obvious now, when I look back, that writing fantasy was the right match for me. Growing up, I always loved fantasy, but only when I was already halfway through the first draft of Northern Wrath, did I have the thought that maybe epic fantasy was the right way to go with this story, and with my career too.

Even so, history and research continue to be important to me. I like the idea that people reading my books might learn something or want to do their own historical research upon finishing the read. I have been very fortunate as a writer that a few readers have already reached out and told me that was their exact experience with The Hanged God trilogy.

Your next series is going to be set in 7th century Korea. Have you found you have needed to tackle your historical research in a different way for this?

My research followed a lot of the same patterns as for The Hanged God trilogy. First, I read everything about the time period I could get my hands on, then I went into the practical side of things, where I visited important sites and tried a few key things myself. While I didn’t join a sailing crew for this one, I did learn traditional Korean archery, which I still practice.

However, there are two major differences between what I had to do for research for the Vikings and for the Korea story. For this one, I first had to improve my Korean language skills significantly to be able to fully digest research papers and history books in Korean before I could even begin. That was an added step of difficulty. 7th century Korea also presented a different kind of challenge in that a lot less research has been done on this era, compared to the Viking Age. So, my resources were much scarcer and I had to pull more from preceding and following eras in order to fill the huge gaps of knowledge.

What do you find most difficult about writing – and what is the best part?

The most difficult for me is usually the middle part of any story I’m writing. I’ll have days where it’s difficult to pull through. At the start, I have a lot of stamina. Once I can see the end I get a lot of energy as well, but the middle can sometimes feel never-ending.

The best part makes it all worth it, though. That’s when something clicks in my mind and I have a moment of eureka. Everything falls into place, and I gain a sense of euphoria at seeing all of the pieces so clearly. Suddenly, I know where my characters are going. I know why they have been acting out. I can see the end sequence. I can see all of the bits I was missing before. Those kinds of clear moments are my absolute favourite part of writing.

Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?

My advice tends to differ depending on how far along people are on their writing journey, but here is something that is always useful to think about: The trick is in the details. That is why I do such in-depth research, because the details are what makes a story feel real and makes it come alive. Be it steam rising from a freshly cooked meal, a splinter digging into the hand of a rower, or a crystalised breath on a cold battle morning, small descriptions are what make stories come alive. A few well-placed details can make even a story of pure fantasy feel absolutely real.

Thank you so much to Thilde for speaking with us today, I found her research and answers so fascinating and insightful and I hope you did too! If you want to grab the trilogy, then they can be found here: Northern Wrath (book 1); Shackled Fates (book 2); and Slaughtered Gods (book 3).

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2 thoughts on “An Interview With: Thilde Kold Holdt, Historical Fantasy Author

  1. Great interview! The importance the Vikings’ placed on hospitality reminds me of the Greek concept of xenia, or hospitality to all, be they a stranger or even your enemy 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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