Iceland: Facts for Fiction

If you’re considering Iceland as a setting for your next book, I highly recommend, it. As one friend put it, it’s “otherworldly.” It’s known for amazingly beautiful, natural underground hot springs like Blue Lagoon. Fantastically colorful cityscapes. Volcanoes. A geyser (Geysir) from which all other geysers are named. The spot where European and North American continents split (tectonic plates). Waterfall after waterfall. Some great music. Black sand beaches. And sure, where Game of Thrones has filmed.

Unfiltered photo from my camera! Copyright Bitsy Kemper

Having recently spent a week there, I want to share some ways this landscape can make for an interesting background–if not supporting character–in your next book. Here are some random facts as told to me by historians and locals (that I backed up by other sources):

  1. Names: Besides being crazy long with letters that look like a fly got stuck on the page, there are some things you need to know before you name your Icelandic character:
    • Parents who want to give their child a name that’s never been used in the country before have to get it approved by a governing Icelandic Naming Committee. Really.[https://www.island.is/en/icelandic-names/] I’ve heard they are pretty easy going, as long at it’s not disparaging or derogatory (or, I’m guessing, something like Moon Unit [sorry Frank Zappa] or YouTube). Imagine the fun you’d have with the backstory of the first person named Jane or Pepe!
    • Brothers and sisters have different last names. That’s because the child takes the FIRST name of the dad and adds -son if it’s a boy and -dóttir (daughter) if it’s a girl. A family might have kids named Christopher Vincentson, George Vincentson, and Carolyn Vincentdóttir. (Of course their names wouldn’t be so Anglicized but you get the idea.) The mom can choose to not acknowledge the father and use only her name, although it’s not very common. In that case they’d be Christopher Elisabethson, George Elisabethson, and Caroyln Elizabethdóttir. Rarely, the child can use both names…Christopher Vincentson Elizabethson. [https://wsimag.com/culture/2248-the-peculiarities-of-icelandic-naming]
    • Phonebooks list names alphabetically by first name! Wouldn’t that be a great nugget to sneak into your novel? Well…assuming it’s in a time period when phonebooks were still commonly used…
  2. Space: The population of the ENTIRE COUNTRY is about 340,000, of which about 220,000 live in the capital area of Reykjavik. Think about that…there are fewer living in all of Iceland than in the city of Raleigh, NC; the capital has about as many people as Chesapeake, VA. Average capital city commute time? 11 minutes. (Not a typo. Eleven minutes, door to door. Can you imagine the luxury?) [https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/iceland-population/,
    http://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/reykjavik-population/,
    https://www.icelandreview.com/news/commuting-takes-an-average-11-6-minutes/]
  3. Capital: The city looks more like a town with homes that have been there for generations, with many of the same families living in them since they were hand built. Although there is a (small by US standards) industrial area with high rises, the main part of town has homes and historic buildings side by side everything else. Everything is accessible. Even the Prime Minister’s office is smack in the middle of town, a lovely but nondescript two-story building with no guards or parking lot, that anyone can walk up to. (Due to the high wind, almost no buildings in the main downtown are taller than a few stories.) But even though the capital city is lovely and beautiful and the only “real” city on the island, do you really want to write out “Reykjavik” 600 times? Consider picking a smaller town outside the capital so you don’t have to spell it over and over–or force your reader into trying to read and pronounce it in their head over and over. (FWIW “ray-kuh-vek” is the simplified way to say it…RECK or REYK-ya-vek or REYK-ja-vick with a very soft/minor j sound is how I’ve heard locals say it.) Just know almost all towns have equally awkward names, spellings, and pronunciations, at least by American standards. Maybe make up your own city name. Your call. P.S. The cathedral in the center of the capital city is a landmark that seems to be one many people recognize, and is a common tourist meeting place since it can be seen from far distances and is easy to find while walking from almost any point around town. The church was built in an art deco style of the New York Chrysler Building and is supposed to resemble their famous erupting geysir. P.P.S. The city, and well, island, is pretty darn windy, no bad hair jokes!
  4. Weather: beware of stereotyping.
    • You picture a vast snow-covered land, right? Well surprisingly, there is very little snowfall! And even less accumulation. Reykjavik only gets an average of two to three inches of snow per month in the winter. Due to the natural warm springs resting underground, most snow melts soon after it lands, making for little need to shovel driveways or pave roads. Compare that to Alaska, that might get two feet in January! Virtually no snow May to Oct. Note: it rains often throughout the year in Iceland. Precipitation numbers will be different from snowfall. [https://weatherspark.com/y/31501/Average-Weather-in-Reykjav%C3%ADk-Iceland-Year-Round]
    • Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes.” Since it does rain at least a little bit almost every day–or at least it seems like it, that doesn’t mean it’s a hard rain. It might be a light mist while cloudy or while sunny. Or ten minutes of hard rain that fades out like nothing ever happened. Given the year-round island wind (told you it was windy!), no one but a tourist carries an umbrella, as it’ll just be blown inside out or down the street. I like that a variety of same-day weather might make for a fun backdrop, especially if your character is wishywashy or their future uncertain.
  5. Landscape:
    • There are 600 different types of moss covering land and rocks. [https://grapevine.is/mag/articles/2017/12/07/the-life-and-death-of-icelandic-mosses/] They’ve been around since the Ice Age. Some take 100-150 years to regrow if disturbed, kids are told, so they are taught at a young age to respect and stay away from it. Don’t have characters running off the beaten path. Or if they do, it’s has to be hugely significant.
    • There’s a saying that if you ever get lost in an Icelandic forest, just stand up. 🙂 The Norse deforested most of the original land when they arrived a thousand years ago, using trees for ships, warmth, housing, etc. Around 1950 a plan was put into place to start replanting. Most trees are relatively new to the island, and therefore not very tall. So don’t create any dense forest scenes! Hmm, actually, a pre- and post-1950s landscape might make for some interesting comparisons in character growth.
      [https://guidetoiceland.is/best-of-iceland/the-forests-of-iceland]
    • You’ll find one of the biggest glaciers in Europe on the island.
      [https://www.icelandontheweb.com/articles-on-iceland/nature/glaciers/vatnajokull] (Honestly makes me wonder how many European glaciers can there be to compare it to?) Great place for a character that leads expeditions, ice hikes, or conservation efforts, wouldn’t you say?
  6. Drinking: How’s this for a fun fact? Beer was banned in Iceland from 1915 until 1989. Seriously. [https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31622038] Overall, I found Icelanders to not be big drinkers. Or drinkers at all. Stats agree; studies show they drink less than other cultures: in 2014 there was a reported lifetime abstinence for 14.1% of the drinking age population, and 32.1% of not drinking in the past 12 months, compared to, say, Denmark that had 4.5% and 11.4%. [https://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/global_alcohol_report/msb_gsr_2014_2.pdf?ua=1] Any bar scenes you put in might need to have a larger percentage of visitors with the local beer (say, Gull–pronounced sorta like ‘gulsh’) or vodka (say, Reyka) in their hands. Don’t ask me how I know, lol. Drinking age is 20.
  7. Prices and food: Ah, gee, don’t get me started. Prices are out of control.
    • A pint of that draft Gull beer? $12-$15 (1450-1800 krona). FOR ONE. Mojito? That’ll be $24, please. I got a vodka soda and was charged the equivalent of $22 for the vodka, and an additional $5 for the cute little bottle of seltzer. Dinner meals will cost a solid $40 each for nothing too fancy. Chinese food, Italian, Mexican, etc, all available. And all AT LEAST $25 a meal; most closer to $35. If you’re itching for just a burger and hit a version of a TGIFridays, you’ll get a pretty good burger and fries (only served medium/medium rare) for $25. Iced tea (no refills) $3-$5. I bought a large bottle of Icelandic water in California before I left, for $2, and the exact same one IN ICELAND was almost $4. Explain that to me? But I digress.
    • Their economy seems to be doing well, although some still understandably complain about inflation. <No political discussion will be had here!>
    • Their meal staples are lamb (pretty gamey I hear, since they are only fed a clean diet of grasses) and lots of fish dishes. They are vegan and vegetarian friendly, but are quick to make jokes about the lifestyle (as are the rest of the world, it appears!). Lots of farming generations there…sheep and cows…so the older generations are slower to warm up to meat-free diets.
    • Also they breed special Icelandic horses too but not for eating! It’s a pretty big exporting business; the horses can fetch upwards of $8,000-$20,000 each (told you everything there is more expensive!). They are smaller than other horses but have a unique gait.
  8. Oh–and one more set of random interesting facts: Taco Bell and Dominos are there. McDonalds is not. Nor is Uber. Both are banned.
  9. Ack, I could go on and on but I started this three weeks ago and keep thinking of new things to add. You get the picture, right? If not, see below 🙂 I think this is good enough for now. I hope you do too. Time to hit the PUBLISH key.

One stereotypical and broad-sweeping comment I will make is that I found the Icelandic people to be truly kind and nice and open. While once a secluded country, it’s slowly getting more diverse with people from all over the world moving in and finding a happy home, whether it’s in the fishing industry, aluminum, retail, educational, tourism, whatever. So if you’re looking for a unique main or supporting character you don’t have to limit yourself to the “typical” Icelander. Because just like with every other country in the world, there isn’t one.

There are plenty of ways to make your characters and setting stand out. Iceland just might be one of the better ways.

Let me know if you do!

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