Rooting a contemporary story in an actual place is something that is important to me, as I’m a firm believer in using reality to give stories the authentic details that make the readers invest in the story they’re reading. I think, for instance, that I wasn’t authentic enough in my debut, where I just placed the setting somewhere in Northern Norway (which is also a vague term). In everything I’ve written since that book, though, I’ve used authentic names, place names, street names and so on as much as I can. This may cause some pronunciation problems, but it also means that dedicated readers will be able to walk in the footsteps of my characters through Google Maps and such, or maybe even travel there if they want. I love that idea!
I realize that not all readers like to face a vast number of unfamiliar names and places that come from a different language. I still want to challenge my readers on this topic, because I truly believe that authenticity in as many aspects as possible enhances the impact of a story, making it feel more real and genuine. I went all in on this when I wrote FJORD BLUE. How do you pronounce Sognefjorden? The name Eindride? Or Arnljot (which can be a mouthful in Norwegian too)? I think not knowing, and perhaps making up your own way of saying the names, make you more invested in the plot.
Using an authentic setting can be a very effective tool in the development of a story and to make the impact all the stronger. Now, there are thousands of fjords in Norway, and not all of them are spectacular (says the writer who lives on the shores of one such fjord!). The fjord where my novel is set, though, is a stunner of the kind that leaves visitors – from Norway too – speechless. This meant that I really had to make an effort not to fall into the trap of describing nature all the time, sounding like a tourist brochure or a travel magazine instead of focusing on character development. Nature is a backdrop, not the main character – but, of course, the surroundings can play an important part in a story. In the case of FJORD BLUE, the isolation, the tranquility and the contrast to his home environment help change the main character’s views on many issues – not because his surroundings are so spectacular but because the contrast to home gives him the opportunity to focus on deeper personal issues. As such, the setting works to enhance the plot rather than interfere with it. (And honestly, how much time would a grumpy teen afford on being overwhelmed by a beautiful blue fjord anyway? An important secondary character in that book has fjord blue eyes, though – hence the title!)
In the end, I couldn’t resist letting my characters visit one popular tourist spot that I was very fascinated by myself: the famous cliff called Trolltunga (the Troll’s Tongue). Walking the trail would be too easy, I thought, since it’s “just” a 12-hour round trip on foot, so in the novel, I make them take a climbing route to up the challenge a bit. I’m scared of heights, so I let my fictional characters do something I didn’t dare. Only, I did dare after I had written the book! In the summer of 2015, when FJORD BLUE was in the final stages of editing with my publisher, I walked and climbed in the footsteps of my own characters. I definitely learned something new about myself on that trip, and it made me understand the characters I had created even better – strange as that may sound!
Sometimes, though, authenticity changes. It can be something simple, like a ferry route closing because a bridge is built in its place, or a shop shutting its doors. None of this should be important to a reader enjoying the story – because the story drives the plot, not the closed shop or the house you made up. When it comes to Trolltunga, authenticity took an unexpectedly dark turn. In my book, the guide calms the nervous characters by telling them that despite thousands and thousands of tourists visiting every year, no one has ever fallen off the ledge (there’s a fatal 200-meter drop if you do). That was true at the time of writing the book. It was also true when I climbed up there. Tragically, a young Australian tourist fell off the Troll’s Tongue in the late summer of 2015. Her death was a stark reminder that nature can be a very dangerous place, and that the call of the wild comes with risks.
Would I still tell you to go to this place if you ever get a chance to visit Norway? Yes. Not because of the thrill of it or the danger, but for the most indescribable feeling that the trip gives you of being alive, of being strong, of being at the mercy of something greater than yourself, and still feeling completely at ease. I think those feelings are similar to being immersed in a good book, and if I can add to such awareness with my own works, through the authentic use of names and places, and the unique but still universal experiences of my characters, I would feel accomplished indeed.
PS: For those who are extra curious to know the authentic way of pronouncing the many Norwegian names used in FJORD BLUE, I have already made a post dedicated to this, with sound clips!
This is a slightly revised version of a guest blog post I made for MyFictionNook.