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Gap years raiding and trading: Iceland's history 874-1264

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Before there were people in Iceland, there were trees.  Really.  In the ninth century the whole country was covered with trees, and there wasn’t a soul to cut them down.   Discovery        There are hints that Irish monks may have inhabited Iceland during the early ninth century, and a couple of wayward Vikings sailors stumbled across the island while lost, but the first Viking that we know of who sailed there deliberately was a man called Flóki.  He took three ravens with him to help him find Iceland.  He let them loose.  The first two returned to the ship, but the third flew straight off over the horizon.  Flóki followed it and made landfall.    At first Flóki was dismayed by the cold.  He climbed to the top of a mountain and looking out at drift ice choking the island’s fjords, so he decided to call the country ‘Iceland’.  He returned to Norway disappointed, although one of his mates claimed that in spring butter dripped from every blade of grass.  This optimist was henceforth known

Where's the ice? Background reading on Iceland

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  I began to read.  At this stage I was just trying to get a general idea of the country, its society and its people.  Wide was good; serendipity ruled.  I had done this before: I had set books in Brazil and South Africa, and Iceland is much smaller than those two countries, and therefore less daunting. Books  The first book I picked up was  Dreaming of Iceland  by  Sally Magnusson , a charming description of a one-week holiday the author took with her famous father Magnus back to his homeland.    Then I read  Ring of Seasons , by Terry Lacy, an American who has lived in Iceland for many years and  The Killer’s Guide to Iceland  by Zane Radcliffe, an excellent novel about an Englishman visiting the country and getting himself into deep trouble.  Radcliffe has a way with food similes: lava-like digestive biscuits, glaciers like icing on a cake.  It sounds corny, but it’s actually rather good.   I assumed that there were no crime writers of note in Iceland, which was unforgivably naïve. 

The problem: an author in search of a book

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In the Autumn of 2007 I had a problem. I hoped – I prayed – that Iceland was the solution. Every successful author has a moment of good fortune. For me, it was right at the very beginning of my career. In 1993 Carole Blake, the ‘Blake’ of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency, fell while on holiday in the South of France and broke her leg. I was working in the City at the time, as a bond trader. I had decided to write a novel, a thriller. On the strength of the excellent advice to write what you know, I wrote a thriller about a bond trader. It was called Free To Trade . After years of writing and rewriting, I bought a pretty box with flowers on it from the department store John Lewis, printed off the manuscript, put the manuscript into the box and sent it off to agents. Actually, I initially sent them the first two chapters plus the synopsis. All agents and publishers have a ‘slush pile’. Nowadays, it is a virtual pile of zeroes and noughts stored in servers around the world; then

Dinner, elves and Björk

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Last week, I told you how I visited Iceland on a book tour in 1995.  I had dinner the first evening with my publishers Ólafur, Pétur and three of their colleagues.   On the way, I spotted my first tree!  It was, squat, no more than ten feet high, its naked, twisted branches shivering in the front garden of a small house.  The house itself seemed to be constructed of white-painted corrugated iron with a red-painted iron roof.  Indeed the hill in the centre of Reykjavík seemed to be covered in these brightly painted toy metal houses, gleaming in the evening sunshine.  It was all rather jolly.   We went to a crowded restaurant and ate delicious fish. By this time, I was becoming used to dinners with publishers. Publishers are by and large well-read, friendly, interesting people. The talk often revolves around books, new and old, and people. Despite the bad press they sometimes get, people in book marketing love books as much as editors do. Elves  The person in charge of marketing my b

A book tour in the land of lava and tin houses

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  If you ever fly to Iceland from Europe, be sure to book yourself into a window seat on the right-hand side of the aeroplane. Your first view of Iceland will be unforgettable. My first landing at Keflavík airport was in the autumn of 1995. My debut novel, a financial thriller entitled  Free To Trade , had been published in January that year to an acclaim which was both satisfying and bewildering. I was lucky: it was the right book at the right time for the publishing world, and the following twelve months exploded in the competing demands of a frenzy of publicity and a contractual requirement to sit down and write a second book. I received invitations from foreign publishers to travel to Australia, the United States, France, Norway, Denmark, Holland. And Iceland. I was urged by my agent to accept most of these invitations, but I didn’t really have to go to Iceland.  Although its population are avid readers, there are only three hundred thousand of them; it’s scarcely an important mark

Writing in Ice

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WRITING IN ICE is the story of how I fell in love with Iceland: a memoir of researching and writing a detective series set in the Land of Fire and Ice. The blog will describe the landscape, society, history and people of Iceland as seen through the eyes of a writer researching a crime novel. There will be posts on crime and the police, language, the sagas, volcanoes, the financial crash and the pots and pans revolution, folklore and elves, the sagas, the rapid modernisation of the country in the twentieth century, sheep farming, fishing and the Viking discovery of America. All these will relate to researching the characters, settings and plots of my Magnus novels. I intend to show what is involved in writing a crime series set in a foreign country: how to come up with a detective, how to describe landscape, how to invent characters, how to plot and how to revise. The Icelanders’ have a saying: ‘ Glöggt er gests augad ,’ which means something like ‘Clear is a guest’s eye’. The idea is