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A Walk into the Unknown: Abi Elphinstone's Top 5 Inspirational Research Adventures Behind Sky Song

Posted on 12th January 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Abi Elphinstone, the author of our Children’s Book of the Month, Sky Song, gives us a flavour of the top 5 research adventures that have inspired her novels, from hiking the Arctic mountains of the Lofoten archipelago to watching the northern lights flicker over the fjords and meeting Kazakh Eagle Huntress, Aisholpan Nurgaiv in Mongolia. We defy you not to be tempted to take off on an adventure of your own. 

I’ve always been enthralled by snowy stories and many of my favourite childhood books featured icy realms: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. So, perhaps it was inevitable that one day I would write my own wintry adventure. But it was only when I travelled up to the Arctic, northern Norway, that I started taking notes about the landscape, wildlife and people and a plot for Sky Song began to take shape.

1. The Lofoten Islands

I first came across Norway when reading about Roald Dahl’s childhood adventures there in Boy and then, years later, I married a man whose ancestors were from Norway (true fact: my husband’s great grandfather INVENTED the fish finger there!) Every summer I travelled to the fjords on the south coast to go fishing, kayaking and sailing, adventures that inspired much of the action in my second book, The Shadow Keeper. In 2016 I made my first trip to the Arctic, to the Lofoten Islands off the north-west coast of Norway.

Hamnoy hutte with mountains

I flew from London to Oslo then on to Bodo and finally to Leknes, on the Lofoten archipelago itself, before hiring a car and setting my bags down in a little wooden hut in Hamnøy. I arrived at 3pm and it was dark already because that far north, in January, you hit the polar night. The sun doesn’t rise all winter but despite its absence, you encounter a blue half-light from 10am until about 2pm and during that time, I went exploring: hiking dramatic mountains, walking on deserted beaches with driftwood swings and boat trips to watch orcas dive for herring. 

Light on snow

Kvalvika beach with swing

This was a land shrouded in silence and, for the most part, locked in darkness but if I really listened, I could hear the place whispering: the crack and pop of ice, the underwater clicks of the whales, the whir of ptarmigan wings over mountain peaks, the faintest hum of the northern lights as they rippled green and blue across the sky at night. And eventually, the idea of a kingdom ruled by an Ice Queen’s enchanted anthem wandered into my head and I knew had the very beginnings of my fourth book.

2. Tromsø

There is something mesmeric about the northern lights and last year I returned to the Arctic, to Tromsø this time, to see them again. After sheltering from a blizzard in a small wooden hut, I crept out to see that the storm had passed, the clouds had cleared and great ribbons of green were flickering across the fjords at Sommarøy. The scientific explanation for the northern lights – that they are the result of the solar wind interacting with the earth's magnetic field – is all well and good but I like the magical beliefs behind their existence more: the Dakota people from North America believe the lights come from the fires heating enormous cauldrons in which the gods roast their enemies; the Finns believe the lights are caused by an Arctic fox’s tail touching the peak of a mountain and sending sparks up into the sky; the Danes believe the lights are swans flying so far north their wings are tapped in ice and when they flap the sparks ripple into the sky; Inuits believe the lights are the souls of stillborn children playing football with a walrus-hide ball. And, naturally, I leant towards the magical in Sky Song – I have my characters believing the northern lights are in fact the sky gods roaming their celestial world.

I watched both orcas and humpback whales diving for herring off the coast of Tromsø and although it was too cold, and bumpy, to take notes on the RIB boat I was on I watched these animals fiercely: the almost luminous glow of orcas beneath the surface of the sea, the slow menace of their dorsal fins breaking the water and then sliding into the deeps, the graceful bow of a humpback carving into the sea. And all the while, further scenes for Sky Song began to play out in my head. 

But what really stood out on my second trip to the Arctic was the kindness of the people there. This is a land locked in the harsh white glitter of snow for much of the year and yet there is an enormous sense of togetherness that far north and I felt this perhaps most acutely when I spent time with the Sami Reindeer Herders (a trip organised by Lyngsfjord Adventure.  Tucked inside a fire-lit lavvu (a circular framework of poles leaning inward like a teepee or wigwam, and a floor of birch twigs covered with layers of reindeer fur) I spoke to the Sami Reindeer Herders about their nomadic way of life. They roam across north Norway with herds of up to 5,000 reindeer, they have hundreds of different words to describe snow and they believe they can determine the weather from the behaviour of their reindeer. Despite the remote location and the bitterly cold air whipping round their lavvu, these people radiated warmth and as I rode through the mountains that night on a sled pulled by a reindeer (the only sound to break the silence was the clink of the bell around the animal’s neck), I thought about the idea of belonging, even at the very edges of the world. I wrote Sky Song at the peak of the Refugee Crisis, and as the photos of capsized boats and ostracised families flooded new channels, I began to see my fictional world – a kingdom torn apart by an evil Ice Queen where tribes turn inwards and are prejudiced against outsiders – as a stage to challenge the idea of what it really means to belong. Acceptance shouldn't hinge on principles such as background, race, religion or birthplace - it should be forged from open mindedness, understanding and an unerring sense of compassion. 

reindeer sled with Sami reindeer herds

Lavvu

My last stop on this Arctic trip was Camp Tamok, just over an hour's drive from Tromsø. Thanks to Lyngsfjord Adventure, I stayed in a wooden hut with a glass roof so that I could fall asleep watching the northern lights and during the day I went dog-sledding over frozen lakes and through icicled forests. 

I feel enormously lucky to have visited the Arctic, a formidable landscape under constant threat from oil drilling, destructive fishing and global warming. And while Sky Song is an imagined tale – complete with Erkenbears, snargoyles and giants – I hope that through it my readers will glimpse some of the beauty of the frozen north and understand how important it is we protect this precious place.

Eindaudi

Renowned pianist and composer, Ludovico Einaudi, playing ‘Elegy to the Arctic’ on a melting glacier on Svalbard.

3. Mongolia

After seeing Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky's photograph of Kazakh Eagle Huntress, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, I decided to travel to Mongolia to meet her. In the Mongolian mountains, Aisholpan taught me how to hunt with a golden eagle, an ancient tradition upheld almost exclusively by men - until Aisholpan came along. The heroine of Sky Song, a twelve-year-old girl called Eska, learns to hunt with a golden eagle but at the beginning of the story she is trapped inside a cursed music box without the use of her limbs or indeed her voice. This idea of a powerless, voiceless girl fighting free was inspired by my meeting Aisholpan and hearing about how she broke into a centuries-old male-dominated tradition. For my full blog post on this adventure, click here.

Abi with Aisholpan

4. Iceland

Again, not technically the Arctic, but still a land of glaciers and thundering waterfalls and much of the setting in Sky Song comes from this ruggedly beautiful country: The Giant's Beard waterfall came from seeing, and then hailing, the almighty Skogafoss waterfall and The Groaning Splinters came from climbing Solheimajokull glacier.

Iceland waterfall Skogafoss

5. Oman

A warmer adventure this time and one that inspired the closing scenes of Sky Song: microlighting over sun-streaked mountains in Oman...

Oman

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