Creating the “Nora’s Journey” Photo Essay

Norwegian-Americans, Immigrants, Norwegian crafts, pioneer life

While I was writing Searching for Nora, I often ran the story through my head like a movie, tinkering with scenes and enjoying the extended dream of the novel. When my husband and I talked about the book, he liked to imagine which actress would play Nora in the movie version, or where it might be shot. The entire time I worked on the book, Nora’s and Solvi’s worlds lived in my head, images at every turn.

Norwegian-Americans, Immigrants, Norwegian crafts, pioneer life

A rosemaled chest, typical of those brought to America by Norwegian immigrants.

But when you write, you have to rely on words to convey the rich texture of the world you see in your mind’s eye, and that can be a challenge. My sister Anne, an artist, read an early version and said she wanted more description of places and scenes, even of some of the characters. “What does Jens look like?” she said, asking about a ten-year-old boy in the story who immigrates to America. “I can’t see him.” How I longed to find a kid I could dress up in scruffy pants and little Norwegian boots so I could take his picture for the book. Instead I had to write passages that would bring him to life.

As I prepared to publish Searching to Nora, however, I realized I needed images if I was going to make a splash on social media. And so I conceived of a photo essay called “Nora’s Journey.” Every week for the next year, I will post a photograph of an object or landscape from the book, along with a quote from the text. The photos, which illustrate Nora’s part of the story, will live as a slideshow on my website, Here, for example, is a rosemaled chest — wooden chests decorated with a Norwegian style of painting flowers and roses known as “rosemaling.” Most Norwegians immigrating to America brought chests decorated with the rosemaling of their native regions in Norway. Several rosemaled chests show up in my novelHere is the quote from the text I will pair with this photo: “There was little furniture beyond the rusted stove and a rosemaled wedding chest, which stood beneath the window. An open Bible lay on top, face down.” The photo and quote are designed to work together as a mysterious glimpse of the story unfolding in the book, designed to pique a potential reader’s interest.

Once I came up with this, I went into a creative frenzy trying to find items mentioned in the book that I could stage to look 19th-century, as well as places to photograph them. I had to be careful – no dry wall in the background, no modern conveniences to the side. I scoured second-hand shops for old items and fabrics, and pawed through my own collection of inherited pieces to find silver pickle forks and crumbling early editions of Chopin. My niece Mary, an inspired high school English teacher, came to visit and helped imagine photo after photo. We bought a couple of macaroons and shot them in afternoon light; we stacked old clothing on a wooden table and draped a string of pearls on top; we baked two little cakes and dabbed them with a bit of glaze to represent the cakes sold by the America Widow on the wharf in Kristiania. We had a blast, and along the way unlocked a whole new way of “seeing” the book.

You can find “Nora’s Journey” on Instagram, or on the website on the Blog page. If you would like to receive the latest Nora’s Journey photo (and blog), just sign up for my newsletter, The Weekly Nora, which can be found on the website’s home page.

Wendy Swallow, Sept. 18, 2019

About Wendy Swallow

Wendy Swallow writes about women’s challenges, now and in the tender past. She is the author of Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce and The Triumph of Love over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage. Swallow became fascinated with Henrik Ibsen’s iconic character Nora Helmer after she left her first husband. Searching for Nora is her first historical novel.

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