Research Notes · 12/30/2011

The Empty City

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Berit Ellingsen shares some background on her philosophical novel The Empty City.


Philosophies and spiritual traditions from all over the world, mention a silence or an emptiness. Through a direct experience with and recognition of this silence there is a relaxation of the worries and fears in life.

Many people, from various religions and nationalities, age or gender, have encountered this silence, coincidentally or through paying close attention to the act of being attentive itself. Meeting this silence is basically what The Empty City is about.

Most of the books dealing with this subject are non-fiction books or poetry. I wanted to see if it was possible to write a story about this silence.


Books and people

The theme was a personal interest years before The Empty City. I read a variety of books and came into contact with many different people who had approached this knowledge in different ways.

Some of the books I read were the Tao Te Ching — the most central book in Taoism, the work of the Japanese haiku master Matsuo Bassho, the sufi poems by Rumi, the Yoga Sutra by Patanjali, Be As You Are, notes from the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi, and the book The Power of Now by contemporary speaker and writer Eckhart Tolle.

I also talked with people from all kinds of backgrounds, British, Indian, American, Eastern-European, Asian, about their stories and experiences and viewpoints. Information from all those sources made it into The Empty City in one way or the other.


Fact research

When I started writing The Empty City, I also needed to research additional material. That meant finding information about things I never would have thought I needed to know; from how sharpshooters control their breath, how animal swarms arise, how large the drops in the methane rain on Saturn’s moon Titan are compared to the raindrops on Earth, to the various surgical procedures for splinting the different small bones in the hand.

I found this information in scientific articles, wiki entries, blogs, forum discussions, all kinds of places online.

Most of the information was vaguely familiar, on the fringes of my general knowledge, but I needed more detailed information. Doing that research was a lot of fun and very interesting in and of itself. I was also lucky enough to know a medical student I could ask directly about surgical procedures. (Thank you so much, Michael B. Moore!)


Language research

The editing process was also a kind of research in itself, on the level of language instead of factual knowledge. I researched words, phrases, syntax, trying out what worked for me and what didn’t. It was a sort of linguistic research.

I think that in order to write in a second language, one needs to have a special interest and liking for that language. In linguistics at university they claimed that no language can express more than other languages, some languages just have a larger number of signifiers, words with specific meaning, than other languages. All languages are capable of expressing the same things by combining the words they do have.

I do however find that since English has such a large number of specific words, including those derived from Latin and Greek, it’s easier to express subtle and specific variations in meaning with English than in Norwegian, my first language.

I very much enjoyed writing and doing the research for The Empty City. It was a labor of love, as I find writing in general to be.