Chasing the Dragons

Photo by author, taken at Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway
Photo by author, taken at Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway
I am walking along a wooded path that hugs the edge of one of Norway’s largest fjords, a few miles outside the city of Trondheim. This close to the Arctic Circle, there are only a few hours of daylight to see where you’re stepping, so I quicken my pace, trying to get as much trail-time as I can before turning for home. The cold air feels like snow.

Yesterday, I had an eight-hour train ride from Oslo to get up here and the view alone is worth it: snow-capped peaks sliding down to the flat, blue glass of deep water, just like the postcard. But this is not an impromptu vacation, this is actually research. I’m working on my next novel Armageddon, Texas, the third and final part in the Messiah Trilogy from Atticus Books. When I told my friends I was flying up here for a week to work on the book, their reactions were all the same: Norway? The book’s not even set in Norway, or anywhere close to it.

My answer is simple, really: I’m here because I’m hot on the trail of dragons.

I should mention that Armageddon, Texas has a dragon in it. Not a metaphorical dragon, or someone nicknamed “The Dragon,” but an actual dragon. And when you’re writing a book with an actual dragon in it, it doesn’t matter if you think dragons are real or not; the time and effort you must spend researching dragons is real enough.

When you have read about dragons as much as I have, you realize that Norway is more or less Dragon Central. Much of what we think dragons look like comes straight from Scandinavian myth: fire, scales, bat wings, bad attitude, all of it. From Beowulf to Tolkien’s The Hobbit all the way up to that action movie with a bald Matthew McConaughey, our ideas about dragons come directly from those dusty tales of Viking legends. Indeed, Norway is filled with dragons, even today. Now all I have to do is track a few down and find a way to get them to appear in my own book.

For the record, I totally believe dragons are real.

Admittedly, writers are an odd bunch. When we hear someone at a party say, “I could write a book,” we grind our teeth. We want to say, No, you couldn’t. Because we know the writing is the easy part. The hard part is everything else you don’t see: the research, the leg work, the chasing down of dragons.

For the record, I totally believe dragons are real.

Listen, people: writing is not sitting in front of a laptop. Real writing is done when you get out there and hunt down every possible lead for the story. Yes, being a serious artist is a lot like being a social worker or a private detective; you need to move. You don’t do it for money or prestige, because there is very little promise of that unless your name is Cheryl Strayed or, well, Cheryl Strayed. No. You do it because you have a problem, an addiction that really has no cure besides finishing that fucking book or painting or poem just so you can move on to the next one.

From the outside, we realize this all looks pretty crazy. (Probably about as crazy as saying out loud, “I believe in dragons!”)

Tommy ZSome folks tell me they’ve had a taste of what it means to write a book, because they wrote some really good short stories back in college. But the truth is, writing a book is nothing like writing a short story. Any serious novelist will tell you these are two completely different processes. If writing a short story is like, say, making a pizza – you put in the basic ingredients (dough, sauce, cheese), maybe add a personal flair or two (anchovies! eggplant!), and then bake it all together – then writing a novel is not like making a giant pizza. It’s like building your own pizzeria: you are building an entire system of stories that somehow have to work together. There’s so much to worry about, and to hold together.

This is hard work, and that’s why most people just give up. It only takes a page or two for most folks to realize they’re not ready for this kind of commitment. It’s not that they lack creativity or imagination; when you actually finish a book, however, you realize imagination was only probably about ten percent of it. The other ninety percent was what really kept you busy: hitting the library, hitting the road, chasing the dragons.

After three novels under my belt, I believe creativity is not the most vital part of art. It’s important, of course, but it only serves as the glue that holds together everything else, all those unique experiences and details and research you and I cannot fake. Melville could never have written Moby Dick if he hadn’t spent all those years sailing the Pacific, Hemingway would probably have been a surly high school English teacher if he hadn’t experienced Italy and Africa and the Spanish Civil War, and Plath could never have written The Bell Jar if she herself hadn’t lived and breathed the streets of New York.

The research is the hard part, but for a lot of us, it’s the only part. It’s the part we can’t get enough of. Which is probably why right now, I find myself walking alone next to a Norwegian fjord as it gets dark.

It begins to snow again when I finally call it a day and head back to Trondheim. It’s only a little after three o’clock in the afternoon but the sun has already dipped behind the mountains to the west, leaving me in tall shadows.

Tonight in town, I’ll find the corner bar again and buy a round of cold Ringnes lager for myself and the old men already saddled up to the bar. We’ll toast our glasses and say, “Skal!” After all, it’s a celebration: for me, this trip has been a success. I’ve seen my share of dragons, and I’ve got some great new leads for the book. I’ve got plenty of notes and some photographs to pore over when I get home. They’ll give me some direction for what comes next in the book.

Where will I find myself next for this project? Texas? Taipei? Who knows. Only one thing is certain: when I hit a wall and I ask myself, how far will I go for this book? There should really only be one answer: as far as it takes.

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