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Thursday Things: Smallpox, Vikings, and the medieval Arab world #ArabHeritageMonth

thursday thingsI’m currently working on a series (almost done with book 2! Yay!) that’s basically fairy tales with Vikings. While it’s a historical fantasy, I’m doing my best to make everything plausible based on historical context.

The first book, Captive and the Cursed, is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. But because I’m trying to make these stories realistic, the beast’s curse is basically a noncontagious form of smallpox rather than something magical.

In the second book, Sleeping Shaman, the main characters travel to the country of Aghlabid (modern-day Tunisia) because the dad of one of the guys is a scholar at the university there and they hope he can help with the cure. The dad knew the Viking king and owes him a favor.

I initially made this all up, but as I researched, I found out some pretty cool things.

First, there really was an Arabic scholar who traveled up to see the Vikings. In 921, Ahmad ibn Fadlan traveled from Baghdad to Bulgaria, and he documented everything he observed. My guy would’ve traveled to Britain in about 900. Not exactly the same thing, but it’s still pretty damn close and fits with my story.

Second, the Arabic empire was renowned for its scholars, who excelled in medicine, among other things. The first person to really study smallpox and write a medical book about it was Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, who lived in Persia in 854-932. So, it’s very plausible that the Tunisian university library could have a copy of this guy’s book for my characters to find (I know that Iran isn’t an Arabic country, but this guy also did a lot in Baghdad so I’m including him).

Finally, the Vikings raided along Spain, past Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean, possibly even to Italy, in 860. I write about this expedition in a prequel short story, “The Brave Little Thrall.”

Here’s a song about that raid, and about Vikings in general.

I love historical fiction, especially when it’s about periods I know very little about (Morgan Llewellyn is awesome for this), so I’m really excited to be bringing actual historical events, people, and locations into these books, even if I do fictionalize everything. And it’s been really fun researching the medieval Arab world, because they were out kicking ass with science and literature and culture while Europe was not.

Also, last month I was in Detroit and went to the Arab American National Museum. It was very informative, and I’ve definitely incorporated a lot of what I learned there into these books. If you’re ever in Detroit, make sure you stop by.

If you read or write historical fiction, what’s your favorite period? Do you like when authors put in lots of details like this, or do you prefer a more generically-set story?

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  1. I love the details. That’s often what leads me to research different time periods, something fiction sparked my curiosity.

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