A Sense of Place: How to create atmosphere in your Novels…
My grandmother used to say, “I don’t think I’m living in Lapland as much as Lapland is living in me.” Growing up in northern Sweden has made its mark on me. The long winters, the six months of darkness, and the seemingly endless forest landscape are in sharp contrast to the summer midnight sun, the hot weather, and the absolute explosion of flora and fauna. One season is lived as quietly as the other is experienced exuberantly. To a large part, this setting governs the rhythm of our lives and imprints itself on our psyches.
As a child, my family had a habit of “huddling twilight” together around the kitchen table in the evening, watching day turn to night. Such routines made a great impression on me. There is a Swedish word, vemod, that has no direct English translation but means a sort of bittersweet melancholy, a longing. I believe that vemod is a typical national trait, perhaps because our days of sunlight are numbered. This “missing” feeling dampens me and makes me ache, but it is also what drives me. I don’t think I would want to be without it.
Because of how powerfully we are marked by it, place—in the broadest sense of the word—has taken on a big role in Scandinavian crime writing and contributes to its uniqueness. The location where the scene is laid—the architect of the experience in the mind of the reader—is more than simply a supporting element in much of our fiction. I believe that this is why Scandinavian crime writing has such a broad appeal, blurring the line between highbrow and lowbrow forms of literature.
As for physical settings, there is the contrasting imagery of a small, picturesque town ravaged by murder, as in the novels by Camilla Läckberg, or the quite remarkable urban scene in the Stockholm Noir trilogy by Jens Lapidus. The Killing’s TV stars walk the streets of a Copenhagen where it is always cold, always night. The snow in Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow not only helps Smilla to solve the crime, but provides for poetic descriptions of a foreign and exotic landscape. All of these authors manage to captivate the reader with sights, smells, and sounds, not merely the crime to be solved. As opposed to simply a physical setting, these backgrounds provide soul.
Then there is the social setting. Swedish crime writing has often contained large doses of societal criticism against the unsuccessful “Swedish model,” as many feel that the values of equality, democracy, and solidarity have not been lived up to. We see it as early as the 1960s and ’70s in the groundbreaking series about policeman Martin Beck, written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. We find it in Henning Mankell’s books about Wallander and, lately, in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. The crimes to be solved demonstrate blatantly and shockingly the failure of the system, and the heroes come to realize its shortcomings.
Scandinavian crime fiction also includes a strong cultural setting: our heroes tend to be tenacious, uncompromising, and not very sociable—a bit like our landscapes. Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole is a good example. The language is often sparse, the unsaid, paramount. Our protagonists struggle with existential dilemmas. They have lives outside the case at hand: we see them marry, have children, and divorce. An interesting part of this cultural theme is the spiritual aspect. In a radio program this summer, crime writer Åsa Larsson stated that a big inspiration of hers is the Bible—the Old Testament, not the New. Where else would you find such gruesome murders? Using the Old Testament as muse is something I recognize in myself and my own writing.
And then there is the rich folklore. For a people who grew up with stories about sprites and fairies—where Santa Claus was not a large, jovial man dressed in red but a small, gray goblin who lived in the barn and who would punish you if you did not treat him right—there is a lot of material to take inspiration from. Johan Theorin is a Swedish crime writer who allows folklore to influence his stories and set context. Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardóttir successfully mixes mystery with spooky ghost stories.
As a writer, it was fascinating to me to open up this sense of place so it became almost a character in its own right. In Wolf Winter, I brought it down upon the characters, influencing not only them but ultimately, the outcome of the story. The danger of most “set-piece descriptions” is, as David Lodge puts it in The Art of Fiction, that “a succession of well-formed declarative sentences, combined with the suspension of narrative interest, will send the reader to sleep.” But Scandinavian crime writers seem to succeed in transcending place being mere “set-piece descriptions.” For the most part, the characters, the plot, and the setting are so tightly bound together that they seem inseparable. Perhaps because this is the way things actually are for us: place is indelibly etched upon our consciousness, and upon our lives.
Cecilia’s novel WOLF WINTER, will be on sale in January 2015 and is available for preorder now.