The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

HERE BE DRAGONS: And much else besides! A fantasy-laden Halloween paves way for NaNoWriMo

Left: Lucca comics & games 2014, by taymtaym via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); the “dragons” of Lucca, by Andrew Couch (October 2014).

For the past few months expat Andrew Couch has been helping us make the connection between a life of international travel and fantasy writing. This month he reports on how he spent Halloween. After you read it, I have only one question: train trip or mind trip or both?

—ML Awanohara

While my compatriots were out trick or treating, I was having my own kind of Halloween adventure over here in Europe, one that took me beyond my wildest imaginingssaying a lot for a fantasy writer!

Naturally, it had people in all manner of costumes wandering about. But it also presented opportunities to hear from a grown man about why he loves writing stories from the point of view of talking mice, and to explore a medieval walled city.

By now fellow geeks should be able to guess that I was attending a comic and games convention: the one that took place in Lucca, Italy, over Halloween weekend. Lucca, a city in Tuscany, is an hour from Florence and half an hour from Pisa.

Now, Lucca may not be able to boast of having a Uffizi Gallery or a leaning tower, but it does have church towers, clock towers, winding streets and odd-shaped plazas, all within a set of Renaissance-era city walls. So many fantasy stories feature towns inside of walls, and there are not many cities that still have them. I had a blast walking around on top of them. Here’s the view it yielded:

Photo credit: Andrew Couch (October 2014).

Aerial view of Lucca. Photo credit: Andrew Couch (October 2014).

You know, being an expat in Europe does have its advantages besides being able to spend Halloween in Tuscany. When in the United States, I never lived in a place big enough to have a decent Con, but in Europe, size doesn’t matter so much, and good train connections make it less of a hassle to attend (no parking woes, and maybe no need for overnight accommodations). This was my first time in Lucca, but for a few years in row now, I’ve been attending the Essen games in Germany, where I live. My first year I took a four-hour train to and from the convention on the same day. At Lucca I noticed someone buying a train ticket home to Turin, which isn’t so close either.

The costumes were a treat

It’s been seven years since I’ve seen any trick-or-treaters as Halloween isn’t widely indulged in Germany (as in other European countries, November 1, All Saint’s Day, is the holiday). But this year it didn’t matter as I had plenty of cosplayers to distract me. Cosplay, short for costume play, is a kind of performance art where we geeks dress up as our favorite characters or ideas.

Similar to Halloween, there are those who create their own original costumes around themes and those who don meticulous real-life facsimiles of 2-D drawings in a comic, game or movie.

I had fun watching both groups.

Since so much of what I like to read and write is steam punk (my fantasy world employs steam power), I enjoyed running into a troop of steam punk people:


Steampunk parade. Photo credit: Andrew Couch (October 2014).

Articulated metal hands and fancy goggles blending with romantic ideas of Victorian clothing—it’s definitely fantasy but not as over-the-top as anime and game characters. The mix of reality and fantasy is different, too. For many of the steam punk designs, you could imagine the mechanisms actually working, whereas the fellow on the other side of the street encased in red leather from head to foot? He can barely walk, let alone swing one of his many swords.

A real-life fantasy simulation

Perhaps even more helpful from my writer’s perspective was the chance to observe all of these characters circulating in the convention crowds. Writers, particularly fantasy writers, are free to create all manner of craziness—physics be damned. But seeing some of these ideas in the flesh wandering around was a reality check. The character who carries his signature 7-foot sword around on his back everywhere he goes really sticks out—even in a crowd full of people sporting wings and carrying all kinds of swords and staffs.

Wings, too, are interesting. Out of necessity they create a wider concept of personal space in a society, and potentially the need for wider doors…

So even my crowd watching was a source of reflection. Whether I want to write an over-the-top action story or a more realistic fantasy, I have an idea of what it looks like for various characters to wander around in a city. Because I’ve seen it.

Of Mice and Comics

I chose to attend this year’s Lucca Comics and Games primarily because of an American, the comic book creator David Petersen. He is the author and artist of Mouse Guard, an awesome set of comics (and a role-playing game) about talking mice in a medieval world. I waited in line for an hour to get my book signed (totally worth it!). I also sat in a old Italian church and watched him draw and listen to him talk about his creative process.

Asked about what inspires his drawings, Petersen told a story of being a young boy going with his family to a church in the States with rich wood carvings and decorative elements. He talked about how craftsmanship affected him. He liked the idea that functional items could still be beautiful and wanted his mice characters to have that.

He went on to say that he developed his storyteller muscles as a teen, when engaging in a lot of role-playing games. And he talked about the physical format of the comic book, allowing for dramatic shots and pacing. He said that the British film maker David Lean had inspired him to conceive of the comic book in these terms.

So Petersen takes part of his inspiration from movies. Who knew? And one day my written-word fantasy stories may take inspiration from comic books like his. Why not?

There was something rather stunning about Petersen talking about all this in the setting of a church, with stained glass behind him and a carved wooden ceiling above. My thoughts wandered briefly to the cathedral in Freiburg:


Inside the Freiburg Minster II, by orestART via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The original Freiburg Minster was built in the Middle Ages, before people believed the world wasn’t round. That is still mind boggling to me as an American.

* * *

In the end I found the Lucca event so stimulating I only went two of the four days. After being in such enormous crowds, I was happy to be quiet and retreat into the introverted part of my self.

And yet those two days got me thinking more about my own stories, a good thing. I definitely felt ready to write when I got back on the train. I started NaNoWriMo (see my profile) last week along with many others and am already 10K words into the new story (with my second novella nearing completion as well). This is partly due to having a plot pre-planned and partly due to the rich stew of images generated by my time in Lucca, more nourishing for geeks like me than your average Halloween witch’s broth.

Andrew Couch has been a fantasy book nut since childhood; he really has not grown up much since then. After struggling to write his own games for years, he is now creating fantastical worlds in a series of novellas that echo the TV shows, anime and role-playing games of his youth. Beyond fantasy he is an avid blogger and a world traveler who resides in Germany. To learn more about Andrew, check out his blog, Grounded Traveler, and follow him on Twitter: @groundedtravelr.

STAY TUNED for our next fab post!

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