Each year in June about 25 local authors and illustrators meet on Rottnest Island for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Rottnest Retreat, and you must agree, SCBWI would have to be one of the most-unpronounceable acronyms in history. Just try saying it. Anyway, the retreat is a chance for creators to share ideas and gain inspiration and support from colleagues in our strange and lonely field. The odd laugh or giggle is permitted as well.
On the first day of the retreat, James and the other illustrators all went out to the end of the jetty to sit in the sun and be creative with their pencils and sketchbooks. When they came home that afternoon I glanced over James’ shoulder and saw he had drawn a picture of the little knight he now uses on his website, and I was immediately captivated by how cute the character was.
For years I’ve had an idea in the back of my mind that I should do a Viking story, considering my Danish heritage and surname, even if the bloodline has been considerably watered down after all the years the family has been in Australia.
My mind did a quick leap. If a small boy can pretend to be a knight, then why can’t the same boy pretend to be a Viking? I tentatively suggested the idea to James, but with no real expectations – I had only just met him. To my surprise and delight, the very next day he presented me with a sketch showing the little Viking exactly as I imagined him. I called him Knut– a proper Viking name.
I was so excited I couldn’t get off the island quick enough to show my publisher, Cate Sutherland at Fremantle Press. Before then, though, I had to come up with a plot. And it would have to be a good one. Cate is lovely but she is not easy to impress.
When my good friend, Mark Greenwood, writes award-winning picture books he totally immerses himself in the story and research so that when he came to write Simpson and his Donkey he had pored over original records and even travelled to Gallipoli and Newcastle in England, and for Ned Kelly and the Green Sash he went to Kelly Country and Old Melbourne Gaol, the settings of Ned’s antics. And here I was about to do a Viking story and I was sitting on a villa wall on Rottnest Island looking back at Perth, not actually the scene of much Viking action at all. The Vikings were the greatest sailors the world has seen but I don’t think they ever reached Thompson Bay, or even Cottesloe Beach. Perhaps they tipped off the edge of the world before they got here. It quickly dawned on me, like a flash of thunder and lightning from Thor’s hammer, I was going to have to do some research. Damn.