Nancy: Copenhagen (and Denmark) Blues

Black Diamond on the Water. This extension of the Royal Danish Library opened in 1999. It plays a key role in Nick’s story.

As you no doubt gleaned from last week’s post, I’ve recently been an intrepid world traveler. Well, OK, I traveled to one other country, but I crossed six time zones and spent three days on each end of the trip battling severe jet lag, so it feels like it’s been quite a trek, and I’m happy to be home safe and sound and finally getting back on east coast time.

Because you can take the writer out of her cave but you can’t take the cave out of the writer, or something like that, I spent some of my three weeks in Denmark being a tall, dark, and handsome, thirty-year-old, half-American/half-Danish, mixed-race man. In my head, of course. (I might be able to pull off a lot of things, but tall and thirty are not on that list). I’m talking, of course, about my fictional character Nicholai* Jens Olesen, Nicky O to his American friends. This was my first trip to the country since I’d conceived of the Copenhagen-set mystery series, so I did my best to view it from Nick’s eyes. In addition to helping me solidify my vision of what Denmark means to this character, it also revealed important things about the character himself.

A Few Things About Nick

A Very Danish House with Thatched Roof. This is the kind of house where Nick probably spent some of his summers.

He’s much more American than Danish. Technically, as his (now deceased) father was a Danish citizen and his mother is American, I think he can still claim Danish citizenship (but it’s complicated, so more research required!). As a child, he spent a couple of months every summer and some additional weeks most Christmas vacations in DK, has visited frequently as an adult, and did some of his graduate work in the country, so he definitely has a foot securely planted in this culture. But the majority of his time has been spent in America, and when he’s placed in that character crucible and pressure is applied, his American mind-set and life approach is going to show, for better or for worse.

After his father’s death, his visits to the country will never be the same. Sadly, because of our age and the extent of my husband’s family that lives in Denmark (that’s everyone related to him except his parents, siblings, our daughter and I), every time we’ve traveled to Denmark, there are relatives we’ve lost since the previous trip. It’s especially noticeable when we cross off towns where we used to go from our must-visit list, because the loved ones we used to see there are gone. As Nick’s story begins with him being in Denmark for his father’s funeral, there are going to be lots of opportunities for him to be haunted and heartbroken by memories triggered from seeing old, familiar places. This is an important part of character development I have to keep in mind when I start the deep-dive into Nick’s soul.

A Few Things About Denmark That Impact Nick’s Story…

A Very Danish (and Dutch) Town. The town of Dragor (I can’t even begin to explain how to pronounce it), founded by the Dutch, is a short drive from downtown Copenhagen. It’s so adorable, I have to find a way to include it in Nick’s story.

It’s not that big a country. With a car, he can get from Copenhagen to pretty much anywhere in the country and back again in a day. This will come in handy when he’s hunting down clues far and wide (but not too far, because there’s only so much ground to cover before hitting a sea).

It’s not that big a population. Current estimates put Denmark’s population at 5.73 million people. Compare that to America’s 326 million people, and you realize that if a million Americans are aware of something in the news or in pop culture, it’s a pretty small phenomenon. If the same number of Danes know about something, it’s a BFD. Nick will feel this keenly when he’s trying to fly under the radar to find out who’s framing him for some notorious (in Denmark) crimes.

A Very Danish Meal. This is wienerschnitzel with lemon, horseradish, and capers, accompanied by potatoes and peas. This is a traditional meal you’ll find anywhere in the country.

It’s all very Danish. As different as things get in different parts of the country, and as much as Copenhageners will tell you it’s nearly impossible for them to understand some of the Jutland dialects, to American eyes, there’s so much more that’s the same than is different. From tile and thatch roofs, flower-filled gardens and green spaces, and cobblestone streets in every locale, to traditional meals, old buildings interspersed with cutting-edge architecture in the cities, and public busses available whether you’re in the densest part of the capital or on barely traveled back roads, there is much homogeneity in Denmark. This is especially striking to an American who’s traveled around his own country. I’m not sure yet what this will mean to Nick’s story, but I know it’s important, so am cogitating on it.

View From a Summer House. Makes you want to plunge right into the 50 degree F water, doesn’t it?

Summer houses are quite a thing. Sometimes they’re in an idyllic location in the countryside. Most of the time they’re set near the water – a sea or a lake (which is not mutually exclusive with a countryside setting – small country, LOTS of water). There’s also a cool phenomenon regarding some of the resort towns made up of mostly summer homes – they become deserted, because there are laws against living in summer houses year-round. This has a lot to do with preserving resources and maintaining limited infrastructure in these areas, and there are exceptions (for retirees and people with certain health conditions), but as the first Nicky O story is set during the Danish winter, a nearly-abandoned summer town has to figure into the setting somewhere.

That’s the end of my report on where I went and what I learned on my (very late) summer vacation. Have you traveled anywhere lately? Done any in-person, hands-on research for a project? Learned anything new and exciting about a character, setting, or story you’re writing? Please share in the comments, which I’ll read after my midday nap, because jet lag is the devil.

*This misspelling by Danish standards is intentional, for writerly reasons.

2 thoughts on “Nancy: Copenhagen (and Denmark) Blues

  1. Sounds like a fun and profitable vacation, Nancy! I haven’t traveled as far as you for location research, but years ago for the first book I wrote that I set in Las Vegas, I went there to take a look. I needed/wanted to set a farm with a water close source enough to Vegas that a person could drive to the city for work, and I wanted to see what middle-class city neighborhoods looked like. One of the things I learned was that a desert landscape, while majestic in many ways, is not for me on a personal level, but I did find a farm with a water source (a stream, which I identified by the line of trees and shrubs that snaked through the desert toward the mountains; I hope I was right about that!). The other thing: I followed a sign that said “[Something] Ranch” down a small road because I thought I’d get an overview of a cattle spread, but it turned out to be a brothel. So…yeah. Location research. It can surprise a person.

    Welcome back, and I hope you’re over your jet lag soon!

  2. Oh my goodness! Thank you for the lovely mini-trip to Denmark! I love reading about faraway and exotic places; I’m sure the average Dane would laugh to be thought exotic, but there it is. I love the bit about summer houses.

    Jetlag hits me hard, too. So far, I’ve found nothing good for it except to take a red-eye flight and sleep on the plane, then take the remaining legs of my journey slowly. Jetlag would be an interesting condition for a character; things can get so surreal when you are sleep-deprived and still processing all the info from the trip.

    (-: I hope to hear more about Nicky O!

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