Snug hamlets nestled by sapphire fjords—wouldn’t you battle for a homeland this beautiful?
Some five years back, I winged o’er the Pond to Norway and swan-dove into research for a new novel, “Splinter.” Yet that span of years now seems nearly non-existent.
I feel my visit ended almost yesterday. I grew enraptured by Norway’s scenic beauty, and my memories of that astonishing landscape have kept green, pristine and fresh.
This new book, “Splinter,” is a World War II adventure/romance, set in Norway during the bleak dawn of the Nazi occupation.
And so, ditto for my vivid visions of Norway’s hair-raising war history. My findings of fact there have also stayed indelibly bright. That trip familiarized me with some major sites and scenarios of the nation’s potent wartime resistance movement. Deeds performed by average citizens, young and old, from all walks of life, were so widespread, so epic, and so consequential, they continue to stagger my imagination. How ordinary people found the degree of resolve and daring required to achieve all they did is a phenom I still labor to grasp.
Though I must admit that observing what the Ukrainians are up to nowadays does provide a few insights.
Anyway, through my deep explorations of recent Norse history, as well as that nation’s long-term culture, I hope to uncover a key to the various ways our human spirit can manage to perform at its finest amid bizarre periods of maximal distress.
WELL, IT WASN’T ALL DONE ON-SITE
I’m pleased that I traveled far and long to get so much of my research done. That I didn’t lazily “work remotely”—and conduct all my research from an armchair in California, via hours of book reading or multiple sessions of scorching my eyeballs online.
Okay, I did in fact achieve a few findings by such remote methods. And I must confess, those bits proved helpful!
For example, the first copy editor to work over my “Splinter” manuscript complained, politely, that its prelude seemed unusual. As in, unusually lame. Because it merely described a scene that would be repeated later on in the book.
After her feedback, I took a deep breath, scratched my head, sharpened a pencil, then went for a stroll outdoors… whereupon, a tiny bubble of inspiration bobbed up into my brain. I’d read someplace that one German involved in the Norwegian invasion had sought out an ordinary Baedeker travel guidebook to help him to plan it—since he’d not been given any maps, or indeed many other intel particulars, along with his order to invade!
Heigh-ho, I went back to my book stacks and the digital trenches to try to track this anecdote down to its lair. Thus, I found: at the post-war Nuremburg trials, General Paul Nikolaus von Falkenhorst made an offhand remark to the judge: after Hitler ordered him to plan an invasion of Denmark and Norway, he had to go out to a stationary store and buy a Baedeker to enable him to grasp essentials of the assignment before he returned to Hitler that afternoon to offer some initial thoughts.
Absurd. And fabulous! The episode soon turned into my brand-new prelude. The scene was easy to visualize: a supremely grumpy German general and his long-suffering aide wander about gloppy, sleety Berlin in February, trying to find a Baedeker that covers Scandinavia. After buying one, the general warms up in his hotel room and studies it for a while. Then, he goes to make a lot of fateful decisions with his Führer.
THE BETTER MAGIC OF BEING THERE
Right. So, that bit worked. Jolly good. However, there’s no substitute for putting your actual boots on the bloody ground—a maxim I think holds true for writers almost as much as for soldiers.
That’s why, soon after touching down in Oslo, I headed like a shot for Norway’s Resistance Museum at the old Akershus Fortress on the city’s waterfront. Due to prior communications, I was expected. Frode Færøy, an associate professor on staff and then an acting director, greeted me kindly, served me coffee, heard me explain my mission, then turned me loose among the exhibits. I took notes and photographs of every one.
Among them, I found an old image of the Storting—Norway’s parliament building—defaced by a huge Nazi banner that proclaimed, “Deutschland siegt an allen fronten.” Which means, “Germany wins on all fronts.” It was surmounted by a giant “V,” which exemplified the Nazi yen to steal an Allied symbol for victory and render it theirs.
This banner was literally, and literarily, a cover-up for a defeat. Early in the war, Nazis planned to kidnap Norway’s king and members of parliament, while also thieving the country’s gold reserves. The whole scheme came to nothing after the ship that held the commando and Gestapo squads assigned to that mission got sunk in the Oslo Fjord.
Nowadays the Storting—a magnificent edifice of tawny brick—is right back in business. However, during the war, observing the eminent building shrouded in a gross banner must’ve made it a source of shame and anger for many of Oslo’s citizens. And I decided to use it that way in my book.
On a walk through her home city, one of Splinter’s main characters, young Helene Berg, sees that banner and her total disgust becomes a force that pushes her toward joining the Resistance.
THE WRITING ON THE WALL
Another find was a historic photo of a Resistance symbol being painted by a kid on a building’s wall. This graffito is presented in a kind of code, and here’s its explication. As I mentioned, the Germans intended to capture Norway’s king, and turn him into the puppet head of a vassal state. But he escaped from Oslo, survived a few other attempts to catch or kill him, then made it over to Britain. Once there, King Haakon VII set up a government-in-exile with his son Crown Prince Olav. They not only sent inspirational messages back to Norway, but also helped send practical military aids that included teams of patriotic commandos, weaponry, radios and explosives.
That gleeful kid in the photo was one of many youths making their own contribution at home, fighting the Germans with a mere brush and a can of paint. The “H” with a “7” drawn through it stands for the king, and “leve” is shorthand for “long live!” In essence, the graffito is a rallying cry for the Resistance and the nation.
In “Splinter,” I deploy a scene that’s very similar to the one in that photograph. When a boy paints the symbol on a wall, it ignites a street fight between young, patriotic Resistance men versus a gang of uniformed quislings (traitors who support the German occupation). Helene Berg observes this fracas, and it provides her with yet another shove toward fighting the occupation.
THE MUSE OF SERENDIP
My best score of the trip was finding and touring the motor vessel Andholmen in the port of Stavanger. I’d heard of two fishing smacks that were still afloat, boats that had joined an undercover operation during wartime. They were on an op called the “Shetlands Bus”—a shuttle service across the North Sea that sailed between a secret base for the Norwegians in the Shetland Isles north of Scotland, and the coves and islands of Norway’s lengthy coast. Participating vessels would tote supplies over to the Resistance, and then sail downed Allied pilots and refugees fleeing the Gestapo back to the UK.
I didn’t have a great way of locating either vessel, not until I lucked into a chat with the owner/manager of the hostel where I lodged in Stavanger. Turned out, this man was a buddy of the retired naval officer who oversaw care of the Andholmen. The man kindly drove me over a few bridges, and voila! I spent the rest of my afternoon chatting with the officer and exploring that 80-year-old fishing boat from stem to stern, while photographing its every nook and cranny.
The Andholmen became my exact model for the Snekka, a traditional fishing boat captained by Ragnar Thorsen that makes its appearance in the opening chapters of “Splinter.” Not only that, Andholmen also served as the model for the boat that appears on the cover of “Splinter,” drawn as she flees from a scene of devastation in Oslo Fjord near the start of the war.
Were it not for the wondrous serendipity of discovering a man in Stavanger who could lead me straight to Andholmen, the opening of “Splinter” and the book’s subsequent plot development might’ve gone rather differently.
A TRAGIC DOWNSIZING
A further visit, this time to the North Sea Traffic Museum in Telavåg, gave me great grist for more visualizations. I knew that Ragnar Thorsen and his boat Snekka would vanish from my story, while his teenage son, Kristian, would sail unrelentingly onward. But how might Kristian be able to achieve that? I found my answer in Telavåg.
Telavåg is a picturesque coastal town near Bergen that bears tremendous resonance in Norway’s war history. It was the scene of a monstrous revenge by the Nazis against the village’s entire population—a tragedy that can only be compared to the levelling of Lidice in Czechoslovakia. (If such a comparison excites any interest, I invite you to look up and study both episodes. However, if you do so, prepare to be sobered by accounts of a massive degree of sadistic inhumanity.)
The museum in Telavåg also holds a pair of small rowboats, of a type used as working dinghies on fishing vessels such as Andholmen—and my fictional Snekka. In fact, the scale model of Andholmen at that museum itself holds a wee model of precisely such a rowboat.
The full-size rowboats in this museum were actual relics, used in attempts by fishermen to cross the North Sea.
And in “Splinter,” young Kristian Thorsen gets his chance to try that daring voyage as well. While he does row partway to Scotland, he only manages to arrive thanks to timely interventions by a pilot in the RAF, as well as a corvette named Bramble, serving in the Royal Navy, that has been separated from her North Sea convoy due to engine trouble.
A HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT
Another perfect piece for the book puzzle came to me on the day I left Norway. I boarded a ferry heading from Bergen to Denmark, and of course spent as much time as I could out on deck, studying my surroundings. On some rocky, uninhabited islands, I saw odd structures of stacked rock placed at the ends of narrow inlets or coves. They stood remarkably close to the high-tide line—which was a clue as to their use.
However, it was a clue I couldn’t immediately interpret.
These eentsy buildings bore no windows or chimneys. Besides those stone walls, the only other feature each had was a stout wooden door. How were these places used? Were they shoreline cells to confine Norway’s infamous trolls, perhaps?
Once I got back home and was sorting through my photos, I saw an image from the Telavåg museum that illustrated where weapons and explosives brought over from the UK were cached before they were distributed to the Resistance. That stone structure at the sea’s edge looked a lot like the ones I’d seen while sailing away from Bergen.
Then I realized: it’s a boathouse. Not one big enough to hold a boat, of course, but a lot of a fishing boat’s spare gear, perhaps even drums of fuel. Telavåg was one of the earliest ports used by the Shetlands Bus boat traffic; it was only natural that a village boathouse would be recruited to store some fresh Resistance contraband.
So, then I had my hiding place for young Kristian Thorsen, and the dangerous goods he brings back from Scotland to Norway. Due to other plot demands, though, I needed to put this boathouse on an island that doesn’t exist, off Sola Beach, just south of Stavanger. It was a fine time to deploy my poetic license and invent that necessary feature. I dubbed it Ukjent Øy, which means Unknown Island in Norwegian—since my creative marine outcrop is exactly that, in a nutshell.
PROOF THAT GROUNDPROOFING WORKS
This isn’t the first time I’ve championed the benefits of seeking out the real sites where events occurred before one sets about writing fiction. I brought it up a few years back in an earlier column. Strictly speaking, stalking the actual ground isn’t absolutely necessary. But artistically speaking, I’ve found it extremely valuable. You simply can discover pieces to your story-making puzzle that are hard to stumble across any other way.
Serendipity is like luck—to truly occur, the phenomenon must be coaxed, courted and cultivated. As that famed scientist Louis Pasteur once said, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.”
Now, I do not claim that if you perform ton after ton of research, both on-site and off, your tale can end up telling itself. You’ll still be the minimum-wage laborer who must fit those myriad puzzle-pieces against one another, like a mason who patiently lays tiny tiles to make up a mosaic. But I will say this: over the course of exhaustive research you’ll encounter many real stories, large and small, and all of them aim to relate their inner essence to somebody. Or indeed, anyone. So, when you encounter such prosaic critters, allow them to whisper in your ear.
That might be as close to a genuine conversation with the Muse as anyone ever gets.