Feeling Foreign

I’m currently reading the Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being the first book in the series), which is set in Sweden. I have never been there, nor to any Scandinavian country. I don’t have friends or relatives from the area, and I have only ever met a handful of people of Swedish descent. I have no helpful background for Stieg Larsson to use when trying to evoke the sense of place in Stockholm. However, Larsson is successful in giving me a feeling of place when reading his novels. He combines tactile sensations of food and drink along with a deep immersion in Swedish locations and names to create a strong sense of place.


The food and drink of a place is an easy way to describe a place to someone who has not been there. In the Millennium trilogy, everyone is drinking coffee. All the time. Drinking coffee is not an exclusively Swedish activity, but the frequency of the act of drinking it strikes me as something foreign. I take coffee in the morning and afternoon, but Larsson presents it as a cornerstone of life. Important characters are eating dinner? Have a coffee. The sneaky antagonist is plotting his revenge? Over coffee. A protagonist can’t sleep? Put on the coffee! The story of the Millennium trilogy is rooted in Sweden, and Larsson ties something I have experienced to a sense of place I haven’t yet developed. He’s bridging the gap for me.


As a side note, Larsson’s use of coffee would not be as effective if he repeated ‘they drank coffee’ hundreds of times. He describes the type of coffee (black vs espresso, instant vs cafe). He tells the reader if the coffee warms the character’s hands or if the mug at the crime scene is cold. He shows us swirls of milk and cream and foam. As a writer it is important to provide these sensory details to the reader. Without them your world can come across as flat or lifeless.


Another way Larsson makes the trilogy feel authentically Swedish is the sheer volume of characters with Swedish names. It might seem trivial, but think of it as immersing the reader in the people of the area. If there were three or five or ten characters in The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (the third book in the trilogy), the names would evident but not pervasive. I don’t have exact figures, but you would need multiple sets of hands to keep track of all the Swedish names of people and places. What that means for a writer wanting to immerse their reader in a new place is that you should consider naming locations or minor characters you might normally give no more than a pronoun. Say they drove through Sandwich on their way to Chicago, or that the mailman’s name is Kristov. The added detail will help your reader feel a sense of place.