Is there somebody who you have read about, or even personally met, who makes you mutter to yourself, “I want to be him or her.” Not just because that person may be rich and beautiful/handsome. Maybe he/she is attractive, but more important, he is smart, plus creative, maybe athletic, and is engaged in a career built on his gifts, and must be having a great time every day. Granted, nobody is all that. But every now and then, someone checks a lot more of those boxes than I do, and I sort of yearn to be him or her. The back half of this blog is about a writer who seems to fill that bill for me.
In my life I’ve been a compulsive serial consumer of a progression of pop fiction authors. In junior high school, young adult novelist Jim Kjelgaard was my man. He wrote young adult books like Big Red about an Irish setter and other doggie and outdoor tales.
Then in high school it was Ian Fleming’s James Bond spy books, and John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. And of course, Robert Heinlein’s treasure trove of science fiction drew me like a moth to a light bulb.
As an adult, I have overdosed on questionable fictional heroes like Nero Wolf--the obese private eye of the 1930’s in NYC, Horatio Hornblower--the British navy officer of the Napoleonic Wars, Richard Sharpe--the green-coated British rifleman, George Smiley—the modern day English spy, and a bunch of others.
My newest go-to historical fiction writer is American, not British. His name is James L. Nelson. He lives in Maine with his wife and four kids, and writes a delightful series of novels about Viking raiders in Ireland in the dark ages—the 800’s.
I’m a fan of the series for the normal reasons like pacing and likable characters. Beyond that, I admire Nelson’s Viking saga for an odd reason: The Vikings raided Ireland, murdering, raping, and plundering pretty much just because they could. At least our Native American Indians were doing the same thing to slow the inexorable advance of the white settlers. Whereas with the Vikings, the unprovoked terrible violence was just their way of doing things. The Irish certainly were not threatening to displace the Vikings from their homelands on the other side of the North Sea.
I’ve learned through writing my own novels that it is a big challenge to create and maintain a sympathetic character when he is leading a tiny army of soldiers to wreak havoc in another land. I struggled to keep my most recent novel’s main character a likable and honorable guy, given the context of the real Texas Rangers’ raid into Mexico that was the foundation of my plot.
Nelson builds sympathy for his primary Viking character by making him a father and in his way a compassionate man. He also sidesteps many of the violent particulars of the Vikings’ raids, making the books suitable Young Adult literature. Nelson even manages to make Thorgrim’s pet beserker warrior, Starri, a likable wacko who time and again leaps mindlessly into battle wacking Irishmen with his two axes.
Speaking of axes, here is Mr. Nelson on a replica Viking ship. Notice that he's wearing what is almost a cowboy hat! Maybe he is a closet Texan.
I also admire Mr. Nelson because, according to his website, as a school kid he built a wooden boat and a wooden canoe and both floated. As a young man he crewed for some years on big sailing ships, including the HMS Rose, the centerpiece real sailing ship used as the primary set for Master and Commander, Russell Crowe’s best film. Nelson even wrote his first novel while working as ship’s crewman.
I very much like that James L Nelson learned through personal experience that which he went on to write about. Not that he ran around in chain mail terrorizing the good folks in Maine, but he has climbed the rigging, quite literally, sailing old military ships, and he nicely embeds that background into his stories without overly dwelling on the mechanics of sailing. I tried to do that in my Captain McBee Honor trilogy in regards to Civil War infantrymen, relying on what I learned about being a musket toting citizen-soldier during my twenty years as a reenactor. And like Mr. Nelson, I’ve tried not to overly dwell on the details.
Another plus is that Mr. Nelson self-publishes some of his novels, as I do, and he appears to make a full-time living writing and doing historical programs related to his writing, which I do not. But I would love to be that good.
Find James L Nelson’s books on Amazon and try one of them. They are good stuff.