The sea is not my natural home. Travel sickness is a scourge, one that has sadly increased with age rather than diminished. But stood on the prow of a ship in the North Atlantic, sea spray splashing in my face as we went in search of whales, I felt like I was born to it. I must have Viking blood.
This was in Iceland in March 2016, on a whale watching tour out of Reykjavik harbour. I had been in desperate need of a holiday, having gone without rest in eighteen months, and after six months of the thoroughly rewarding but nonetheless exhausting Opening Doors project. I sat down and asked myself “where do I want to go?” The answer whispered back: “Iceland!”
It is twelve months ago today that I first flew out, and though I was there a mere five days it is fair to say I miss it greatly. On this anniversary it seemed fitting to revisit those experiences, particularly in relation to writing. Iceland has a long and proud written tradition going back a millennium, and more recently has played host to films and TV shows as diverse as Batman Begins, Game Of Thrones and Rogue One. As such it is a country with lots to teach writers and other creatives. Here are five things the Land of Fire and Ice can burn into writers:
Ideas Are Like Geysers
Iceland is a land of volcanoes. Situated on top of the Eurasian and North Atlantic plates, geological activity is relatively frequent, from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions to more benign consequences, such as geothermal power providing cheap energy to its 300,000-plus inhabitants. Signs of nature’s awesome power range from the Mid Atlantic ridge, which bisects the Thingvellir National Park, to the spectacular hot springs at Geysir, something I experienced in a tour of the Golden Circle.
From the Icelandic meaning “to gush,” the English language derives its word for such hot springs from their original. Found on a hill called Laugarfjall in the South West of the country, Geysir is surrounded by a spectacular number of other springs in the same valley. From Little Geysir that simmers gently to the awesome Strokkur (The Churn) that bursts forth every ten minutes, showering tourists with fine rain, it is impossible not to be exhilarated in the face of such tremendous force.
In this way the hot springs are a perfect metaphor for creative ideas, in themselves a hugely irresistible force. Some just trickle gently like a small stream, dribbling off into nothing. Some bubble slowly to the surface, generating surprising heat and creating impressive ripples. But there are others. Ones that build with unbelievable pressure and explode suddenly, violently and breathtakingly to the surface. Everyone is going to notice those beauties!
But when they do you need to be ready for them. There can be lots of inactivity between eruptions. You can easily be looking in the wrong direction when they go up, and then who knows when the next one will be? With geysers you need to be ready with the camera. With writing you must always have a notebook handy (or notes app if you’re caught completely unawares) Because when the moment is gone you could have nothing to show for it.
Oh, and like ideas, some of them just stink. The sulphurous, eggy odour that emanate from the bowels of the earth are familiar to writers. It’s not just volcanic water that smells that bad.
Dig Deep To Bring Stories To Life
Vikings settled Iceland in the late 9th Century, seeking a new world away from the tyranny in Scandinavia (or escaping authorities that looked dimly on a bit of murder.) Precious little archaeological evidence from that period survives; homes were built with wood, mud-brick and thatch, and so their remains have long since disappeared. But a Viking longhouse was excavated in Reykjavik in 2001, where it had been excellently preserved in damp swampy conditions. The island’s well-documented volcanic activity means it can be dated to around the 870s. As remarkable as that is, they built a museum around it, The Settlement Exhibition. And it’s incredible.
Along with beautifully displayed artefacts, from jewellery and cooking utensils to game tokens and tools, the real highlight is the longhouse itself. Button activated lamps literally shed light on the building’s key features. A video panorama simulates the unrecognisable 870s landscape (once densely forested, all Iceland’s trees were cut down for iron smelting in the following centuries.) Motion activated panels reveal ghostly figures: a hunter catching a giant bird, children playing, families burying a loved one. It is breathtaking and moving. You feel you are witnessing part of history. Until they build a Westworld style theme park with robot Vikings (note to Jonah Nolan: call me for season two) it’s the best way of experiencing that period.
And this has parallels for writers. Unless you dig deep into your story, and into the lives and psychologies of your characters, you will never uncover the details and the emotion that will captivate audiences. The way you guide audiences through your work, shedding light on important aspects and keeping others in the dark, reveals the narrative to them. And empowering an audience’s imagination allows them to visualise your world, bringing the story to life and put them in the shoes of your characters. Plus I’m not saying every story is better with Vikings, but every story is better with Vikings.
Histories Make Great Stories
Waxwork museums can fill one with trepidation. For every Madame Tussauds, there are a dozen Louis Tussauds. So when the guidebook recommended the Saga Museum, which recreates legendary scenes from those epic tales in wax figures, I was unsure what to expect. Fortunately it was ridiculously good fun, highly informative and very instructive.
Iceland’s history, intertwined with myth, is full of rich stories. From the island’s earliest visitors surprised to find Irish monks already there (they’d travelled by currach to live as hermits… Happy St Patrick’s Day, all!) to its purported founding by Ingólfur Arnarson (he threw the pillars of his high seat into the sea, and he settled Reykjavik where they drifted,) the Saga Museum recounts them with panache. Others are colourful and lurid, like Leif Eriksson’s discovery of Vinland (his party got drunk on grapes) or his sister Freydís, who innovatively repelled a native tribe attack by threatening to cut her breast off with a sword. But all of them are fascinating, evocative and intriguing. If a bit weird.
As writers know, some of the best stories don’t require much invention at all. Real events can provide fantastic inspiration, whether from our own lives or from the dim and distant past. Find a yarn that hasn’t been spun and weave it with these threads and who knows what tapestry will unfold?
Travel Broadens The Mind, and Your Character Base
Any trip abroad you encounter many different characters, from the wonderfully friendly to the downright bizarre. Apoplectic British tourists grumbling despite being in the country a mere forty-five minutes, maybe because the baggage carousel felt like a game show or perhaps just ‘because.’ Other Brits sneering about overcharging when, in a satisfying twist, they’d been undercharged (such is the inflated value of the krona to the pound, 176krona for £1 on my visit, any calculation is mind bending but never requiring rudeness.) The weirdly Zen Golden Circle tour guide who resembled an Icelandic Louis Van Gaal: “You will have forty five minutes to yourselves. It will be good for you!” The Scots couple taking “a wee dram” for the bus. Irish holidaymakers backstroking through the Blue Lagoon’s tranquil waters with thudding splashes. And the strange drunk who, at 4am on an empty street as I waited for the bus to the airport, told me he dreamed of being an international hitman but didn’t know where to find the work, all the while wearing a metallic silver wig unfavoured by clandestine assassins. These random people and more I met on my travels.
Characters are writers’ treasure. You can’t tell a good story without them. And the best, most vivid, most authentic and most unbelievable characters can be found in life. Some of the finest dialogue ever uttered came not from writer’s pen but the mouths of real people, and whether in the shop queue, the hospital waiting room or over a thousand miles away from home, creative people must always keep their eyes and ears open. It might be a scrap of speech, the way they walk, their attitude or everything about them, but characters that catch your attention in the world beyond your desk will help make those you create distinctive too.
A Little Adventure Never Hurt Anybody
At the harbour, I was more than a little anxious. The receptionist gestured to the bowl of travel sickness tablets, suggesting a rough ride. “It’s ok, I brought my own,” I said. Always come prepared. As I clambered into the red wetsuit and the boat cast off in the morning mist, the anxiety grew. Will this rain last? Will I see any whales? Will I see my breakfast again instead? Slowly the weather began to clear, but the clouds of doubt were much more stubborn.
About an hour out we got the call. A sighting! We rushed up the ladders to the deck and peered out. Unmistakable. A dark hump breaking the waves. A whale! No… whales! More than one! And what? Dolphins! There are dolphins? Dolphins jumping over whales, teasing them, harassing them, being general dicks about the whole thing and finding it hilarious. As did we. For more than an hour we watched as these majestic creatures leapt, splashed their tails and blew out water. With the North Atlantic spray splashing my face, I felt like a pirate. At the final count we must have seen a dozen whales, as many if not more dolphins, as well as sea birds of all kinds. By the time we turned back to harbour the cold had set in. I was starting to shiver, the water had seeped into my wetsuit and was sapping my strength. Fortunately the below deck café revived me. Only a black tea; I hadn’t the heart to try the famous and tempting “whale punch” (hot chocolate and rum.)
“Write what you know” is a refrain writers have heard a million times. It is sound advice, but we can be a timid, retiring tribe, and most people’s lives are somewhat lacking in excitement. If we wish to write extraordinary, exotic and intoxicating stories, what do we do? The answer is simple: have an adventure! Going to Iceland, exploring the waterfalls and landscapes, streets, lagoons and oceans, the history, culture and the present gave me that adventure. It helped recharge my creative batteries and give me insights into a world I would never have known. It also set me on a path to my latest feature film script, something I doubt would have happened if I hadn’t listened to the call of the wild.
Adventure can benefit your writing too. Whether it’s Iceland or elsewhere, listen to your inner voice. Where does it tell you to go?