Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Researching in Iceland - Marie-Louise Jensen

I like to know the places I write about. I want to be able to describe the smells, the sounds, the birds, the plants – all the details that only come alive when I really know a place. So when I decided to write two novels set during the settlement of Iceland, I just had to go. It cost me a whole year’s book advance – hardly cost efficient. But then I was also fulfilling a lifelong dream.
I studied the Icelandic sagas at university and had always longed to go to the sites – the spot where Njal and his family lived and Gunnar’s farm. They are all real places that can be visited. Even Eirik the Red’s farm has been found and a reconstruction built nearby. There, with the help of a couple of burly Icelanders dressed as Vikings, you can go back in time too.
There is a wonderfully atmospheric museum in Reykjavik where the foundations of a farmhouse from around the year 870 have been excavated. And in the Culture House early extant manuscripts of the Icelandic sagas are preserved in dimly-lit glass cases.
Outside Akueyri, a medieval market is held every July, where blacksmiths and fortune tellers ply their trade and visitors can watch cloth dyes being prepared from plants and whistles being whittled from bones.
And then there were the quieter moments that were just as significant. The broad daylight that lasts all night and the sight of the sun setting at 11.30 at night. The ice that formed on our tents at night when the temperature dropped from a benign 18 degrees during the day to bone-chilling below zero at night. The sparkle of the snow-capped mountains and glaciers in the summer sunshine. The lucky sighting of a gyrfalcon guarding her nest high up a rocky larva formation. Not to mention whales, dolphins, penguins and… well, you’d have to spend six weeks there yourself to really experience the wonders. Perhaps you can find as good an excuse as I did.

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