Writing in Ice

Ice in the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in Iceland.  Photo by Michael Ridpath, author of the Magnus series of crime novels
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 that a foreigner can see some things more clearly than a native. I hope it’s true; I think it is.

Iceland is an extraordinary country. It is a mixture of the old and the new. This is true of the people: most Icelanders are avid users of social media; most Icelanders’ grandmothers have had at least one conversation with an elf.

It’s also true of the landscape. Very recently, at least in geological terms, Iceland was thrust out of the North Atlantic by the vigorous rubbing together of two tectonic plates, the North American and the European. There are volcanoes active and dormant, lava fields new and old, glaciers made of snow that fell ten thousand years ago, fjords, bleak mountains, green dales. There is wind, rain and snow, and in the interior vast areas of cold desert where there is no precipitation at all. The sun shines sometimes.

It is a country where the extraordinary is ordinary, where at least sometimes it takes a foreigner to point to an everyday Icelandic moment and say: ‘Take a look at that!’

In 2007, after a reasonably successful career as an author of financial thrillers, I decided to write a series of detective novels set in Iceland. I knew next to nothing about the country, but it intrigued me.

This is the story of how I set about discovering Iceland, of getting to know the place well enough that I could convincingly set a series of mysteries there.

I needed to see the landscape, the capital city, the fishing villages, the farms. But I also needed to meet the people, to understand how they thought, what they liked, what they feared. To get to know them as individuals, not just as Icelanders. To become acquainted with the country’s history, its literature, its religion and in particular its folklore.

I hope anyone who has visited Iceland or plans to travel to the country will find something of interest here. I will include posts on my favourite places in Iceland, a few well known, most less so. This story may also be of interest to anyone with a passing curiosity in how a detective series is put together.

And to any Icelanders who stumble upon this blog and feel irritation at my generalizations or impatience with my errors, I say: ‘Get over it. It’s your fault for living in such a fascinating country.’

A final note. With the exception of my publishers and the Icelandic authors, I plan to refer to people by fictitious names, in order to lightly disguise them. When I first met them, I told them I was researching a novel set in Iceland, so they cannot reasonably have expected to appear in a future blog of mine as themselves. Which is why they don’t.

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  1. I love Iceland, I fell in love with it when I first visited. I very much enjoy your books, and the way the country becomes a character in itself, as well as the humans who live there.


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