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My Detective: Magnus or Magnús

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I described the beginnings of a plot for my first Icelandic crime novel in an earlier post: The Problem .  What if Tolkien had been inspired by an Icelandic saga?  He probably had been inspired by an Icelandic saga.  So what if he had been inspired by a lost Icelandic saga that someone had found?  And that someone had been murdered.  And my detective had to sort it out. Now I needed a detective. Inventing a detective Creating your detective is probably the most important step for any writer when beginning a crime series.  You want the man or woman to be interesting to you as much as the reader.  You want him (I decided on a man, perhaps because I am a man) to be sympathetic, strong, independent, intelligent.    But to create drama he needs flaws: traits that will get him into trouble.  He needs personal problems.  He needs to be in conflict with family friends or colleagues.   Given these requirements, you can see how writers have created detectives who are middle-aged, divorced, with

The Icelandic language

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I have tried hard to learn Icelandic, I really have.  For two stints of several months each, I spent three-quarters of an hour every morning listening to audio files and reading grammar and teach-yourself books. I'm currently several months in to a lockdown-inspired third attempt.   At first it seemed easy.  Many words, especially the simpler ones, are close to English.  For example, sokkur is sock, takk is thanks and blár is blue. Easy, right?    Wrong.  The grammar is a killer .  Everything has to agree with everything else.  There are cases, moods, tenses, genders.  It’s like Latin, but more complicated.  And the natives really care if you get it right.  For example, the words for the first four numbers are significantly different depending on the gender of the thing you are counting.  In French you only need five words to count to four: un, une, deux, trois, quatre.  In Icelandic you need twelve: einn, ein, eitt, tveir, tvaer, tvö, thrír, thrjár, thrjú, fjórir, fjórar, fjögur

Favourite Places - Thingvellir

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Thingvellir is one of my favourite places in Iceland.   Thingvellir , or ‘Thing Valley’ is one of those rare places in the world: it is steeped in history, it is geologically extraordinary and its beauty takes your breath away.             It is about forty kilometres to the east of Reykjavík.  Once you escape the city’s suburbs you turn inland and drive through dramatic, desolate mountains.    You descend to the entrance of what is now a national park, and after a kilometre or so stop your car at the floor of a green valley.  To the east rise rough foothills, to the west a dramatic cliff face of grizzled grey rock.  A clear stream runs through the valley past a church to a sizeable lake, Thingvallavatn.   Small wooden bridges span the river.  Stop on one of these and stare into the stream into deep pools of clear water whose colour changes and shifts depending on the sky, the clouds and the angle of the sun.  A host of native Icelandic plants line the pools: birch, willow, crowberries

Clinging on the edge of Europe: Iceland's history 1264-1976

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In my last post, I talked about how Iceland came to have a system of government with no actual ruler, but a parliament of the chieftains, known as the Althing.  This lasted until the late thirteenth century, when there were a series of armed clashes between the chieftains , ending with an appeal in 1264 to the King of Norway to take charge and sort things out.  This turned out to be not such a good idea in the long term. The plan was for the Althing to maintain its authority, but over time the power of the Norwegian king in Iceland’s affairs grew. Then, in a bewildering session of a medieval version of the board game Risk, Norway and Sweden united with Denmark. The Danes ended up being in charge, and over the following centuries they established a monopoly of trade with Iceland. Iceland became a very poor country, one of the poorest in Europe. Tough, cold conditions At this time also, Europe was in the throes of the mini-ice age. The climate was becoming colder, which can’t have helpe

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