Many readers have asked me how I, being a Danish author, found the idea of writing a series that takes place in Anglo-Viking England.
Well, first of all you must remember, that Cnut was king of Denmark as well as of England (and Norway), so I have - so to speak - known him since my school days. But it was my encounter with M.K. Lawson's brilliant book Cnut - England's Viking King (Tempus, 2004) that opened my eyes to how great his influence on England and its history really was.
I soon decided to make this England torn between Saxon, Anglian, Danish, and Viking interests the scene of a crime series - in the books I use the terms Danes and Danish to indicate the Norsemen who came over with the myckle here (The Great Army) of 865 and had settled down in what was known as the Danelaw, and the term Vikings for the new marauders that Cnut and his father Svend Forkbeard brought with them.
What impressed me most about Cnut was that he - who was around 20 years old when he became king - decided to call a meeting of all the magnates of England - Saxon as well as Danish and Viking - in Oxford to decide according to which laws he was to govern his new country. That was so unlike the Conqueror of 1066 and showed me a young king who - probably under the influence of e.g. Wulfstan Lupus, Arch-bishop of York - saw himself as the country's king and not merely as its conqueror.
I then had a vision of a Saxon warrior meeting a Viking in Oxford. The last time their eyes met was over shield edges during the decisive battle of Ashingdon and maybe one of them recognized the other as the one who had killed his brother. Would he keep the king's peace and refrain from revenge? And next I visioned a dead magnate, who had stood up to Cnut, being found. How would the king react? Would he swear to his innocense or would he be aware that the suspicion of his involvement in a murder alone could jeopardize his project?
Next I needed a detective. Someone who would not run into a closed door when he began asking his questions. Someone who stood outside the normal and very rigid social system that existed in those days. Chance would have that I had just been browsing through a book of medieval illustrations in a book shop some days before, and now I was struck with the idea of letting an illuminator be the crime solver.
But not the protagonist. I had, namely, decided in the guise of a crime novel series to tell of a young man's development from a selfish womanizer to a responsible grown up. I now decided that we should hear the story through him and from his angle so that the reader would see, what he is not aware of himself: That he is rather an unpleasant man. Because he tells the story he does not repudiate himself but the reader clearly - at least I hope so - sees him for what he is: An intolerable ruffian who has only two interests: Women and becoming a man of importance. The English historian Ian Mortimer - known also as the crime writer James Forrester - wrote to me about Halfdan: 'I'm glad you made him lecherous as young men are.'
Lecherous, indeed, and callous as well as touchy - that is until he suddenly finds himself in a spot where he is challenged to take on the responsibility for others than himself. Then, I am happy to disclose, he gradually, but not all that willingly, undergoes the development most of us have experienced from being a happy-go-lucky lad to becoming a responsible man.
But that's far into the future when The King's Hounds opens, and although I saw this development from the very beginning I still had some work to do before I could write the first word. After some thoughts I decided to add a third head person.The traditional Holmes-Watson formula works with two persons and I would like to see what might happen if i added a third, especially - and that was my main motive - if that third person was an intelligent woman who might be seen as a threat by the skirt-chaser Halfdan.
To these three was added the fourth main character, that of Cnut. Not that he is active in solving the crimes - in fact there are volumes where he does not figure as such - but not only is he the one who assigns them to their different tasks, he is the overwhelming power behind all that they do and works not by being active but by hovering somewhere in the background. And he provides the spur that Halfdan needs by never fulfilling his promise of land and title to the ambitious knave.
And then of course one might claim that there is a fifth character, that of Anglo-Viking England itself. From the very beginning I have bought, borrowed and read all I could lay my hands on in the field of Anglo-Saxon history, so that today I believe my book shelves room the biggest private collection of pre-1066 history books in Denmark.
I have not only ploughed through the political history - which is indeed interesting. My library contains books on Anglo-Saxon farming, food and drink (this will come as no surprise to my readers, I'm sure) warfare, metalwork, landscapes, you name it, at it is still growing as I must confess that my interest for this period has only increased as I have worked with the novels.
And how do I work, then, is another question that is frequently put to me by readers.
Well, let me confess that one of the reasons that Cnut is so long in fulfilling his promise to Halfdan has a reason: I don't want the three hounds to settle down until the very end. A spin-off of Winston being an illuminator is that he has to travel to get to the monasteries, manors, and minsters where there's work for him, and with Halfdan not getting his reward he has but one choice: To follow his master.
This makes it plausible that they stumble on so many murders - if they had stayed in one place it would not have been realistic that a man was murdered every year.
And it allows me to move them into a new focus for treason and treachery, betrayal and scheming by the men that Cnut - with or without good reason - suspects of trying to undermine him and his grip of England.
Following the publication of The King's Hounds I received a grant from the Ministry of Culture which enabled me to go to England for research purposes. My publisher - KLIM Publishing - offered that my editor come with me and that meant not only a strengthening of our already commendable cooperation but also the beginning of a fine tradition where he and I - and in recent years even a second editor - have spent a week every spring somewhere in England.
The Anglo-Saxons did not build in stone or bricks but in wood but luckily they used stone for one purpose: The erection of churches. My starting point therefore is: Where I find a Saxon church there must have been some sort of Saxon community, let's go there.
That way we have visited Brixworth, Deerhurst, Bradford-on-Avon, Shaftesbury, to name a few, that have all worked as settings for a novel. Once there we visit libraries, museums, book shops, local antiquarian societies, every single institution or place that may hold information of the place's history in Saxon times. I also study maps, old and new, and - which is very important to me - walk the landscape crisscross in order to get it into my body, feel the grass and the slopes beneath my boots, smell the rivers and meadows, hear the birds and take in the air.
Back in Denmark I read all the books and pamphlets that I have brought home with me looking for some detail, a piece of information of a person, an incident, a building, anything out of the ordinary that may trigger my imagination and serve as a basis for a murder.
Then, in May or June, my brother - and sometimes my son - and I go to the Welsh market town of Tregaron to spend some days fishing and staying with old Welsh friends. I never catch as much as the others as my mind is not concentrated on the fly and the river but on finding a good murder. And with a good I mean a plausible one. One that the reader will believe, will accept that this man was murdered for that reason.
And there - under the blue, Welsh sky circled by soaring kites, surrounded by hills resonating with the bleating of sheep and with water up to my thighs - it comes to me. I suddenly see why, how, where and when a man was murdered sometime in the 11th century. I understand the schemes that led to his murder and the power game Halfdan, Winston and Alfilda have to understand if they want to bring the murderer to pay for his crime.
When that has happened, I begin catching trout and go home a happy man.
The rest is three to four months spent in front of my PC every morning from 9 to 12 followed by two hours of reading and correcting the morning's work and then one day I hold the newly printed volume in my hand and send it into the world hoping that you, my reader, will enjoy it.