The literary germ is going to be obvious to you once I mention it: Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Specifically the scene with the wreckers towards the end.
Of course that led to a bunch of research that revealed how the whole scenario doesn’t really work, you’re more likely to wreck a ship by turning off a real lighthouse than by erecting a fake one. Which is then what I had the wreckers do in my story.
The second inspiration is a little bit more personal: my great-grandmother’s farm in Staðasveit.
My great-grandmother, María Ásmundsdóttir, was a remarkable woman. She was one of Iceland’s earliest photographers. When she was born, Iceland was a pre-industrial agricultural economy. When she died, it was an advanced western economy with high living standards, free healthcare and free education.
When María was born, a child had only a 50/50 chance of reaching the age of five (which is why life expectancy numbers are so misleading, but that’s a topic for another day). She survived tuberculosis, two wars, saw Iceland declare independence, and got to experience radio, photography, movies, cars, TV, computers, airplanes when they were new and shiny inventions nobody had quite figured out yet.
She also made a decision early in her life which meant that her descendants are cut out of the farm on Snæfellsnes.
Well, maybe cut out is too harsh a word. Her siblings’ descendants own the farm. Her own descendants don’t.
For good reason, as well.
The farm is a beautiful thing to behold. It isn’t a grand thing like you’d expect an old well-to-do farm in Europe to look like. Iceland doesn’t have cottages or estates. A nice two story building covered with corrugated iron is pretty much as grand old style as Iceland gets.
The current farmhouse was built when my great-grandmother an adult. The farmhouse she had grown up in was a traditional Icelandic turf house.
Yeah, like I said. Iceland was a pre-industrial farming economy until the 1940s.
I’ve never seen the original burstabær, it was in ruins by the time I managed to visit the place, but María lived there with her two daughters for the first few years of their life. My grandmother, Áslaug, on a good day, could recall stories and details about the old farmhouse, about a way of life that hadn’t changed much Iceland for almost two hundred years.
My great-grandmother was a single mother in the early twentieth century.
Now, anybody who is familiar with Icelandic culture knows that most Icelanders are proud to live in a country where a single mother can raise her kids without sinking into poverty, anything else is a failure of society. There’s no judgement or condemnation. You cope. Relatives help. Whatever flaws Iceland has (and there are plenty) intolerance towards single mothers isn’t one of them.
This wasn’t the case when my great-grandmother was raising her two daughters.
Iceland used to be a strict Lutheran society. Thinking bad thoughts was a sin. Everybody was a sinner. Strictness and intolerance was the norm. More things were banned than not. Iceland was one of the earliest alcohol prohibition nations and one of the latest to lift it. In one word: puritanical.
Of course, María didn’t help matters by having two children with two different men and never showing any interest in marrying them or regret about them not marrying her.
The farm is in an unusual location. The only way to reach it is to walk, during low tide, along the beach, with the roaring ocean on the left and sheer cliffs on the right. It’s a bit of a trek to reach the actual farmhouse from the nearest road and you have to time it so that you get to the farm before the tide comes in. Otherwise you’d be washed out into the sea.
Of course, nowadays you can also use an SUV or a proper off-road vehicle to reach the farm, but back in my great-grand-mother’s day they didn’t have that luxury.
Most Icelandic beaches are black; the sand is made out of volcanic rock ground down by the elements.
Unusually for Iceland, the beach leading to the farm is white, like one of those white sand beaches you see in the Mediterranean.
It wouldn’t look odd to a foreigner, but to me, an Icelandic college student, this was one of the few times in my life that I had actually seen a white beach and seeing one in Iceland was an alien, somewhat weird, feeling.
Seeing the famous Snæfellsjökull just ahead, hovering almost mystically over the countryside, only made the experience weirder.
Snæfellsjökull is Iceland’s most famous mountain, volcano, and glacier. Or it used to be before Eyjafjallajökull erupted. It was the opening to the underworld in Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth. In Icelandic folklore it is Iceland’s point of greatest magical power, affecting all those who live around it in weird ways. Those born “undir jökli” (by the glacier) are said to be different from the rest of us.
Others say that it’s like a magnet for Iceland’s hidden people.
One group of cranks has congregated there on a regular basis because they believe it will be the landing site for a visiting species of benevolent aliens.
Dividing an estate caused friction. It always does. There’s something about inheritances that drives siblings to argue about things that ultimately don’t matter.
When her parents died, my great-grandmother was the cause of a schism in her family. She argued with her siblings about what should be done about the farm.
They wanted to continue to run and keep the farm. She didn’t.
Her logic was impeccable. If they kept the farm, she’d be doomed to live and work there, raising her daughters there, for the rest of her life. If they sold the farm, she could buy a flat in the capital—have a room of her own, so to speak.
In the end, she forced a sale, took the money, and moved to Reykjavík with her daughters, buying a tiny flat by Hringbraut in Reykjavík’s Vesturbær. Many years later, the descendants of her siblings bought the farm back, sans most of the land, which now belonged to a neighbouring farmer, and have been using it as a summer house since. They let the rest of us visit the place occasionally, if we ask really nicely.
María Ásmundsdóttir lived in that flat for most of the rest of her life, only moving into a home during the absolute last years of her life.
That small flat at one point housed six people when my grandmother moved back in with her mother with her four children after she left her husband. The flat was a life saver.
My great-grandmother spent the rest of her life sewing, painting, and photographing. She held her first gallery show of her paintings when she was eighty. Her daughters only found that she had suffered from glaucoma when she told them about the operation that fixed it, after the fact. She, a half-blind octogenarian, had managed to conceal her half-blindness, organise the operation and doctor’s appointments, and make her way to the operation all without any help from anybody.
Then she went back to painting, sewing, and taking photographs.
She was an awesome woman whose frequent criticisms of people were both brutal and especially stinging because she invariably had a solid point. There were times when she was absolutely terrifying. I miss having her around as she was one of the few people who had a tendency to be even blunter than I am.
The small town of Galti in “Knights and Necromancers 2: Loot, kill, obey” is inspired by my great-grandmother’s farm. The beach-side walk that is only passable during low tide, the horizon lined with mountains, the small dock and simple buildings are all drawn from my memories of that place.
And, although none of them are based on, María, my great-grandmother, the memory of her and the other awe-inspiring women in my family are the motivation for the creation of the female characters in all of my stories.
In Loot, Kill, Obey, four of the five main characters are women, as are two main ‘bad guys’. The sorcerer Cadence, a character in Knights and Necromancers 1 (and in stories five and six), was created because I wanted a character who was, frankly, as intimidating as some of these women were in real life.
You don’t see truly intimidating women that often in fiction even though they are all over the place in real life.
I hope I can change that a little bit.
You can buy “Knights and Necromancers 2: Loot, kill, obey” on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, on the iBookstore, and from Kobo.
Or, possibly for a limited time, you can read it for free online.