Whenever I travel overseas, I try to read novels ahead of time, usually mysteries, which take place in the countries I am visiting.
It wasn’t always that way. I didn’t read Icelandic mysteries until after my husband and I visited that country. We’d heard that there were a lot of authors in Iceland who loved to write, especially during the long dark cold winters, probably one in three of the 375,000 residents. Perhaps that writing bug had been sparked by the Edda but it was something with which I, as a writer myself, could identify. Yet I discovered when reading the books, one set on an island off Iceland where a lava flow had obliterated a town not all that long ago, that I wished I had read the book first so I could have had a sense of place and known to ask more questions while I was there. I can’t beat myself up too much about that though, since the book was not available in the U.S. It was just something my husband picked up (along with a copy of the Edda he still hasn’t read but does double duty as a doorstop) on our way home.
We both enjoyed the Icelandic books and for a while bought as many as we could find online. Many were written by Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Arnaldur Indridason. The descriptions of the land, weather, and amount of daylight, which was either too much (no such thing in my opinion) or too little, fascinated me, as did their children naming conventions.
Taking our past experience into consideration, I read a few mystery novels written on the Emerald Isle to get a sense of what we might expect on our trip to Ireland. I found that while the language is the same, (at least the English, not the Gaelic) there were several words that I didn’t know. More words unknown to me were explained by our tour guide when he mentioned “gob,” which is mouth, “bog,” a word used in many places but in Ireland refers to where peat comes from, and “craic” which somehow meant good, or news or gossip or conversation, I think. I’ve been taking a refresher course by reading a book by Patricia Gibney and watching Derry Girls, with the helpful subtitles.
I tried to find Scottish writers’ books before our trip. I had read Outlander many years ago, but I still wanted to see some modern-day people and activities, so found one mystery by Pete Brassett. It put me on the lookout for Scottish food, such as sticky toffee pudding, black pudding, haggis, and the ever-present shortbread which was as common as fish and chips. I also read about the extremely changeable weather which was totally integral to Scotland.
I looked forward to learning some Scottish words and I was not disappointed. I heard terms like “hoolies” (big windy storms, not to be confused with a hooley, a traditional dance and music party,) which tap into my inner linguistic interests. I’d learned long ago about all the words for snow the Inuit have, depending on the conditions, and I was fascinated that the Scots have “dreich,” “snell,” “fret,” “drookit,” “stoating” and many more for rain. They expect the weather to change frequently, and I found myself layering up, but always leaving the umbrella on the bus when the sun was shining, only to be caught in rain on the way back to it.
Shortly after returning home, I picked up a book by Jenny Colgan about a fictional island off the northern coast of Scotland. I had almost forgotten about the unpleasantly sweet drink called Irn-Bru, which our tour guide offered us, when I saw it mentioned in Jenny’s book. She reminded me of many other things we had learned about during our trip, such as Cranachan, a delicious whipped cream raspberry dessert never prepared the same way twice. The book also referred to the coos, which is what they call cows, especially the adorable Highland ones wearing bangs. Reading it was almost like extending our trip.
Don’t get me wrong. I like books written in this country too, and many of them remind me of places I have visited. But if I go somewhere new, there is a very good chance I’m going to try to find a book written by a local author.