The view from our cottage window on an island in Sweden

[Note: this is a longish post. If you want to skip straight to the activity, scroll down to the bottom and look for the runes.]

I was stuck.

I’d turned in A Pixie’s Promise to my publisher in May 2018 and had intended to finish up An Elf’s Equations by August 2018, but it was July already, and I’d barely written anything. I had thought this would be easy. After all, it was already half-written.

An Elf’s Equations was originally the second half of A Pixie’s Promise, but the fabulous Corie Weaver at Dreaming Robot Press thought that there was entirely too much going on in A Pixie’s Promise and, furthermore, that for the second half of the book, Sagara was really the focal character. She wanted me to split the two plotlines into two books and make Sagara the protagonist. After much groaning and complaining, I agreed, and it took me only three months to expand and reshape A Pixie’s Promise into a much more fully realized story focused firmly on Petunia. So I expected that it would take me about the same amount of time to finish up An Elf’s Equations. Right?

Wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. First, I couldn’t just change who was speaking from Petunia to Sagara, because Sagara wouldn’t say the same things Petunia does (far fewer bad jokes, much more sarcasm). And I couldn’t just have Sagara do the things I’d had Petunia do, not least because Sagara isn’t six inches tall. She’d make different decisions, come up with different solutions. Second, I hadn’t done all the character work that I’d done for Petunia. I had a vague idea of her background, I knew that her mother had been exiled to the Logical Realm, and that Sagara really didn’t get along with her grandmother. And I knew that Sagara was fascinated by math. But why? What drove Sagara? And how would she end up leading the expedition to Vanaheim to save her friend Thea?

The more I tried to just gloss over the differences, the more the story unraveled on me, until I was utterly lost and deeply despondent that I would never get the novel done.

And then, something magical happened.

My family and I went to Sweden and Finland to visit my husband’s family and give our daughters some sense of their cultural heritage. I’m also 1/16th Swedish, thanks to a great-great-grandmother who emigrated from Malmö. When we arrived in Gothenburg in the middle of July, we went directly to an island on Lake Mjörn. Sweden was experiencing a terrible drought that summer. Forest fires raged in the north of the country, though quite far from us. The water level in the lake had dropped so much that we had to move the dock to keep the motorboats and sailboat from scraping bottom. And the leaves on the birch trees were turning yellow and dropping everywhere.

One night, around 3 AM local time, I awoke, jet-lagged and disoriented and needing to use the outhouse. A single solar panel provides all the electricity for the island, and that meant no power at night. I had a flashlight, but there was a beautiful full moon. It was easy to find my way from our little cottage to the outhouse because the path there was strewn with yellow leaves, which practically glowed in the moonlight. And as I walked, I imagined Sagara, riding her deer on the Path in the Enchanted Forest, following her grandmother home after the trial of Cretacia. I imagined all the emotion boiling up within her as she herself remembered running through the Sylvan Vale in the moonlight to the trial of her mother. And I started to hear her talking to her grandmother, angrily, blaming, and so very hurt and lonely.

I grabbed my laptop and wrote until dawn was beginning to lighten up the horizon and my laptop’s battery had completely run out. I’d just banged out the whole of chapter two, and I went back to my bed with a smile on my face.

Scandinavia inspired me in many other ways during that trip. Here’s a photo album I put together of some of the things that found their way into An Elf’s Equations.

A runestone at SkansenOne of the things that had fascinated me on previous trips as well as this one were the runestones we often came across. Viking runes are an ancient writing system, an alphabet made entirely of trees. They were used throughout Scandinavia and also show up in the British Isles and Ireland. Robert Graves, who was a historian as well as the author of Count Belisarius and Hercules, My Shipmate, wrote about the fabled battle of the trees. Taken literally, it sounds as if two bards used magic to call up entire forests to do battle. In fact, it was a metaphor for a poetry competition, and the trees doing battle were runes upon parchment. Each rune represents a tree as well as a single sound.

Here are a few resources where you can learn more about Viking runes and runestones:

In preparation for An Elf’s Equations, I modified the standard runic alphabet for the Vanir. Vanaheim, the Realm that Sagara and her friends travel to, is based upon a scrap of Norse mythology in which the universe is composed of nine worlds or realms, all connected by the World Tree. We live in Midgard, the Norse gods live in Asgard (as you’ve seen in the Avengers movies). Those gods were called the Aesir, but they had cousins in another realm, the Vanir, who lived in the realm of Vanaheim. All that remains of the myths about the Vanir is that they specialized in nature magic, which I interpreted to mean elemental magic, and that the goddess Freya/Freja/Frigga was originally a Vanir.

Cretacia is half Vanir, which is one of the reasons she’s placed under geas to retrieve Thea from Vanaheim at the end of A Pixie’s Promise. Her father is a high-ranking Vanir and she speaks the language. Cretacia also happens to be dyslexic, which means she has some trouble reading and thinks she’s terribly stupid. But her father Ljot (that’s pronounced Lee-OHT) explains to her that all Vanir have trouble reading, which is why they invented a magical language that is easy to read.

I had heard about fonts that are easier for dyslexics to read. There’s some debate about whether this actually works, but I have a friend who swears by it. Whether it works or not, I was intrigued by the idea, and I thought, well, if you have magic, couldn’t you make an alphabet that dyslexics can read easily? So I modified the runic alphabet, making all the runes look the same forwards and backwards — no mistaking “b” for “d” in this language. Here’s what I came up with:

Vanir runes created for An Elf's Equations

Can you find the runes to open the Vanaheim portal on the cover of An Elf’s Equations?Book Cover for An Elf's Equations

For those of you who enjoyed creating secret messages last week, you can now write secret message using my runic alphabet.Note that there are no runes for Q or V. In many Northern European languages, W and V are almost interchangeable. And for Q, I recommend using CW together. The Vanir Runes also have runes for two sounds that are represented by multiple letters in English: NG and TH. And the rune for Magic has no corresponding letter. That’s because it’s not something that’s spoken aloud, it just indicates the need to use magic.

Now that you’ve seen how easy it is to create an alphabet, why don’t you try creating one yourself? If you do, take a photo and share it in the comments here or on my Facebook page. Enjoy!