The joy of research

A 1:25 scale model of The Matthew, the cargo ship sailed by John Cabot to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in 1497

I’ve been embarked on a short story in historical fiction mode that’s taken me back to Viking times. Every Canadian knows, or should know, about the early voyages of Leif the Lucky and Eric the Red, as they explored the coast of the new country they called Vinland. An excavation at l’Anse aux Meadows, on the far northern tip of Newfoundland, across the strait from Belle Isle, has provided archaeological evidence of a Viking settlement there which fits with the Norse sagas written hundreds of years later. For a fictional presentation of these sagas, Margaret Elphinstone’s The Sea Road is a wonderful experience. My assigned short story time period, Vikings, was conveyed to me by the Globe Soup Short Story competition, and I have two weeks to finish.

But I’ve been revelling in the research, though I have my story pretty much sketched out now. I’m back in Viking times all right, but I’m taking up the perspective of the indigenous peoples of Newfoundland, the ones encountered by the exploring Vikings, and tracing their story during that time. In the process I’ve learned wonderful things about the Inuit people who migrated from Labrador and lived on the huge island in the Gulf of St Lawrence for three successive epochs of about 500 years each, until the arrival of John Cabot brought about the eventual demise of the Beothuk culture.

I’m going to work on conflating folk myth, bona fide history, and prophecy in my story, which I hope will reveal a past that we don’t often think about, a past we might not even be aware of. Especially I’ve been entranced by the Inuit oral tradition of Nuliajuk, the spirit goddess of the sea, which is related in an enchanting clip from the Qaumajuq, the Inuit Art Centre in Winnipeg.

Although my story will, I suspect, provide only a glance at that first exposure of foreign peoples (the Vikings) to the First Nations families, that time will be a fulcrum point, leading on to a prophecy of doom that Cabot’s men fulfilled. I don’t know if that time travelling exercise will be appropriate for the historical fiction parameters set by the Globe Soup organisers, or not, and what’s more, I don’t care!

I’m just revelling in the way stories can be made, moulded and enveloped within a historical context that is revealed by questioning research. And, of course, I can’t wait until the story is finished, all 3500 words or so of it!

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