The Stories In Between

I’ve never been asked that hackneyed question of writers “where do you get your ideas?” or, at least, it’s been asked in a more subtle way. I don’t really think about it any more, because I’ve learned that ideas come from anywhere, at anytime. Ideas are the opportunistic catch of the fishing mind and they are malleable, furtive, and everywhere. You just have to be ready with the net.

One story idea was handed to me on a platter on a trip to Norway. Naturally, there’s a smorgasbord of material when you visit a beautiful European country with mind-boggling scenery, a storied Viking past, and not unattractive women. And, of course, those ideas went into the journal I keep when I travel. But it was the unexpected parts that stuck.

I’d made plans to visit Vik, a small town on the Sognefjord. The word “vik” means bay and it’s where the word Vikings comes from, but the reason I wanted to travel there was to see the Hopperstad stave church, one of the ancient wooden Christian churches that are iconic Scandinavian. They’re the narrow, spooky-looking towers that look less like churches and more like dragon boats that have been put up on end and made into buildings (which they should, as most were erected by the same boat builders that had constructed the dragon boats in earlier times).

The setting was fascinating. Many of the stave churches—of which only 28 of 1,000 remain—are a millennium old. They were built in a harsh age, but are dark, foreboding buildings almost by accident: the swirling animalistic decorations were part of the culture (granted, a fairly warlike culture), but they’re black because they were covered in pitch to protect them from the elements, not to increase their intimidating look. Inside, the buildings are modest and humble.

The lore was equal to the setting. One gruesome tradition was that there was no cemetery for many years (centuries?) because the hamlet’s dead were placed under the floorboards of the church. Not buried, mind you; simply wrapped and laid under the floor. The tradition continued until the smell became so bad that alternative arrangements had to be made. Less repellent and more touching: children who had died in childbirth—and so were denied baptism—were not allowed burial under the church. Mothers were said to sneak to the church in the middle of the night to slip the bodies of their stillborn babies under the floorboards in an attempt to get them into Heaven.

But perhaps the story that stuck with me the most was when our guide almost casually described how, as the churches aged, the great wooden pillars that supported the structure (the “staves”) had to be replaced. These were single, enormous oak trees that were grown, tended, and harvested in a special grove to be the replacement supports for the church. This in and of itself I find amazing.

Here’s the story in between, though: for both strength and looks, each tree was trimmed of branches and shoots the minute they appeared so that all the growth would occur straight up the trunk. By the time it was ready to be harvested, each trunk was a perfect wooden pillar. When this tidbit was related to my tour group, most everyone nodded and moved on.

But I was stunned. Simple math and a little bit of knowledge reveals an amazing story. Oaks of the size and strength needed for the church’s staves take decades to grow. In an age where few people lived to age 40, the groves had to be tended by someone their entire life or, what seems more likely, two or even three successive generations. That is an incredible act of community commitment–on the order of building of cathedrals. Yet it received a few seconds’ mention on the tour.

Who tended the trees? Did they pass on the responsibility to their children? What happened when a tree died of disease or accident or even vandalism? What was the status of the person or people who tended the trees? What happened to them when their grove was cut down for its very purpose…the building of a new church?

A small thing, and maybe I have the calculations wrong or have even misunderstood the significance of the tale. But I’d prefer to think that there’s a brilliant story buried in the simple facts, waiting to be teased out and caught.


Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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Posted in Craft, Travel
6 comments on “The Stories In Between
  1. beatbox32 says:

    Fascinating stuff! There are a couple of books I’ve read involving Viking culture that I think you’d enjoy (if you haven’t read them already) – The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson and The Icelandic Sagas. The Long Ships is an excellent novel and The Icelandic Sagas are epic tales written from the 8th to 11th centuries. You can find them both on Amazon and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with either.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      HI Beatbox – Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve not read The Long Ships, but will put it on the list. I’ve read a few of the sagas (Njall’s Saga, most recently), the Penguin Classics editions, and they are rich, and very real, very accessible. The tension and violence in them make the dramas of American Westerns seem pretty weak in comparison!

  2. Wo3lf says:

    An amazing article, Matt. Thanks. It reminds me of how important the details can be (Should be?) and how easy we tend to accept things on face value only.

    Your article also reminded me of Follett’s ‘The Pillars of the Earth’. I read the book many years ago and I recall being fascinated by the design process of the cathedrals and the amount of work that went into building these giants. The details of the aforesaid made for a good story because I enjoyed the book.

    On a side note, part of my research for “The Spirit Bow” took me to the Cedars of Lebanon. As I delved deeper into my story’s time period, I discovered the value cedar wood held for ancient people, and the many uses, including ‘magical properties’, they had for the wood. 🙂

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Thanks, Woelf – I love Pillars. Follett hit just the right note of drama, history, but also those telling details about the construction of the cathedrals. I almost laugh to think what his editor/agent thought when he told them he wanted to follow up Eye of the Needle with an 800 page tome about old churches, lol. But thank goodness somebody ran with it, because it’s a classic (now, his Code to Zero…that could’ve used an editor wiht a stronger spine).

      Re: cedars, that’s fascinating. Let me know if you’ve written about it or will. I’ve always been struck by the passages in the Old Testament that talk about the cedars of Lebanon, being spoken of as if they were as precious as gold.

      • Wo3lf says:

        I didn’t know that, lol. Can you imagine the amount of research that went into that book? Oh, man!

        I have not read Code to Zero, but I will put it on my very, very, long list of books to read.

        Spirit Bow is a fantasy novel that I’ve been developing for the last six months or so, based on a short story I wrote a year prior to that. It takes place on a young antediluvian earth. I won’t bore you with all the details, but when I did my research I ended up reading about the history of the Sumerians, their myths and legends and it just sparked some ideas and gave new life to my story. Actually, it changed it completely. Part of the plot requires my hero to travel to a mythical forrest to find a magical tree (Simplified). I did some research on location and, of course, discovered the history of the Cedars of Lebanon and the nearby “Holy Valley”. At one time Lebanon’s cedar forests were legendary and vast. Centuries of deforestation destroyed what once must have been a magnificent sight. Solomon’s great temple, for instance, was constructed from Lebanon cedars. I read that the resin of a cedar protects it from most, if not all insects, which makes it one of the strongest and healthiest trees in the world, along with it being the most ancient. The Egyptians used the resin for mummification. it was even used to treat leprosy. The wood itself had many uses. The list just goes on really.

        I tend to disappear when I do research. I get too enthralled. 😉

  3. jakeescholl says:

    Sounds like a very fun place to visit..As for what you said about ideas, you could pull a Harlan Ellison and say “I get my ideas from Schenectady”. 🙂

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