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Category Archives: Here Be Dragons

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

http://www.flickr.com/photos/taymtaym/15520387690/

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:

SteampunkParade

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:

FreibergMinster

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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HERE BE DRAGONS: A pox on your expat life! How suffering an illness abroad can inspire fantasy writing

Here Be Dragons Pox

(Clockwise from top) Detail of the medieval map Carta marina; one-day old chicken pox blister, by Evanherk at Dutch Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0); neem leaves, by Miansari66 (CC BY-SA 3.0); Freiberg, by kaffeeeinstein (CC BY-SA 2.0).

HERE BE DRAGONS is back, a column produced by fantasy writer Andrew Couch, an American expat in Germany. We at the Displaced Nation have long been aware of the strong connection between fantasy (think Alice in Wonderland) and a life of international travel and residency. And now Andrew has got us pondering the idea of turning our (mis)adventures into fantasy stories!

—ML Awanohara

A few weeks ago I came down with an adult case of the chicken pox. Seriously, I am in my mid-thirties and never had chicken pox as a kid.

The experience got me thinking about the oddities of dealing with a disease as an expat living abroadand then about how this could become a source of material for a writer like myself, who enjoys leading characters around fantasy realms.

Getting sick in Germany is not the same as getting sick in the United States. To begin with, we don’t have a car, so my wife took me on the tram to see the doctor. He subsequently told me that I shouldn’t really have left the house; my local health service would call me.

In the U.S., we would be driving everywhere and the local health service (do we have one?) couldn’t care less about a case of the chickenpox.

In the end I didn’t get a call from the local health service, nor did my Twitter friends’ predictions I would end up being quarantined come true. And yet I can’t stop thinking about the exposure to disease that comes from riding the trams. Did I get sick because someone else had to ride the trams? Public transport is a glorious thing, but it definitely carries health risks.

Another thing that was strange: the German doctor told me to pretty much suck it up and try not to scratch. Germany, in my experience, is not the super-medicated world we commonly find in the United States.

In the end, despite the fear-inducing comments from friends about how horrible the chicken pox can be as an adult, I had only one day of itchiness amidst a week of hideous red bumps.

Okay, you might be saying, that was really awful, but what does it have to do with fantasy writing? Well, as I mentioned in my first post of the series, the expat experience is a wonderful metaphor for encountering a fantasy world. Why not use the episodes and observations from your life overseas to conjure up fantastical tales?

Here are three ways I can envision using my illness in future stories:

1) Add a plot twist about the threat of sickness and disease and search for a cure. Perhaps I’ll given one of my characters a fever and have a foreign medicine woman tell him to rub certain leaves all over his body. How does he respond? Ohand if you think this is just the realm of fantasy, I did have a friend recommend some Indian neem leaves as a powerful agent for curing skin conditions. I even would have tried them had we been able to figure out how to import them into Germany.

This device could cut another way as well. Perhaps my characters are living in the depths of a jungle, with medicine oozing from every berry, leaf and root. They would likely feel creeped out if required to pay a visit to a city doctor, whose remedy consists of handing out bottles of nondescript white tablets.

2) Use sickness to explore my characters at their worst. In my case, for instance, all I want to do when ill is snuggle under a blanket, drink massive amounts of orange juice, eat grilled cheese sandwiches and watch movies until it goes away. I also want someone to bring me these things. I really would be in trouble if I was not supposed to leave home and didn’t have a wonderful wife (or even friends) to bring me food.

Would my fantasy characters become similarly dependent? How would they cope if deprived of their favorite comfort foods and activities?

3) Explore the fear that comes from a disfiguring illness. You may have had chicken pox when you were small and can no longer remember how you felt. But I tell you this, as an adult with an active imagination, chicken pox are frightening. Bubbly boils cover the body and itch like crazy. Without a ton of stretching (oh, and the fever helped this, too), my imagination could easily have convinced me I had the plague. I refrained from looking in the mirror much, but my wife tells me that I looked as awful as I felt.

And now let’s transfer this physical aspect of disease to fantasy culture. What if my characters didn’t know the long-term impact of the pox? What kind of panic would this induce? Or maybe they know the pox to be non-fatal, but how do they deal with having something that makes them look hideous? Another possibility is that an alien character gets the pox but doesn’t understand when the natives don’t react: is this because they expect that person to die, or because they know the disease will run its course? Terror prevails until that question is answered…

* * *

A few weeks later, I am recovered mostly. I am left with stories to tell.

I also have a mind full of diseases to inflict on future characters in fantasy stories. As the Germans say:

Auf jeden Regen folgt auch Sonnenschein

“After every rain, there will be sunshine.” Similar to “every cloud has a silver lining” but not quite the same as it speaks more to the inevitability of change. “This, too, will pass” would be a closer translation.

For expats, the risk of getting seriously ill while abroad is greater than it is for occasional travelers. Try to recall your first time being sick and dealing with the local culture. Was it more frightening than at home? What about trying to communicate with doctors in another language while suffering from fever? What if your favorite remedy or comfort food just didn’t exist? All of these are situations you can include in your fantasy stories.

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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HERE BE DRAGONS: All those cities you’ve visited on your travels? They’re the lego bricks for cityscapes in fantasy writing

Citiscapes Collage

(Clockwise from top) Detail of the medieval map Carta marina; the Speicherstadt (warehouse district) in Hamburg, Germany (photo credit: Andrew Couch); tram in Naples (photo credit: Andrew Couch); legos (photo credit: Morguefiles).

HERE BE DRAGONS is back, a column produced by fantasy writer Andrew Couch, an American expat in Germany. We at the Displaced Nation have long been aware of the strong connection between fantasy (think Alice in Wonderland) and a life of international travel and residency. And now Andrew has got us pondering the idea of turning our adventures into fantasy stories!

—ML Awanohara

Last month on HERE BE DRAGONS, we talked about landscapes: the soaring mountains, unusual geographical formations, torrential storms, and other distinctive natural phenomena that can be used to build a whole new world for a fantasy story.

This month we move to cityscapes: the landscape’s urban counterpart, which has been largely shaped by the hands of man (or beast, depending on your story).

One thing I am learning while writing fantasy novellaswhich has only been reinforced by the posts for this columnis how much I’ve been influenced by my expat life and international travels when attempting to construct my own worlds.

When the bricks stick together, great things can be accomplished…

After living in Europe for several years, I now have a catalog of cityscapes to draw on, from grungy parts of London to quiet Parisian parks to industrialized Hamburg. What’s more, each area of every city has its own distinct sights, sounds and smells. And I’ve come to think of these various parts as my lego bricks for assembling the fantasy cityscape that features in my novellas.

I have heard that the second book is often harder for writers than the first. I am definitely finding this to be the case, but mostly due to character and plot, not setting. The setting of my next few novellas is the city of Resholm, which is perched on the line of cliffs called the Dropline. In creating Resholm I was heavily influenced by my impressions of Hamburg, a city in northern Germany that has a long history of being a free port. Resholm, too, is a port:

QueenOfCloudPirates_cover

A skyline of towers along the ridge watched over the cargo and warehouse districts which dripped down the side of the steep slope, nearly to the edge of the cliffs themselves. Soaring arches piled on soaring arches cut the area in various places to hold up the docking piers. A handful of ships were moored across the area.

Hamburg also has the Speicherstadt, an area where goods could come and go without having to pay customs. I got to thinking, what would a city feel like if it had been created solely for the purpose of moving goods and not for the people in it? Resholm grew from this contemplation. In the stories, the police force exists primarily to safeguard the movement of goods in and out of the port, not to protect residents from harm:

“I don’t know,” Arnhelm said. An hour had passed since the officers of the Teeth had shuffled Jason and him into separate rooms. “Why don’t you ask her? Why are you even hounding my uncle and me? One of her goons nearly killed us and blew up a building in the docks.”

“Listen here, sonny,” the man said. “First off, neither the town nor its populace is in our jurisdiction. Resholm survives on its free port and our duty is to keep it safe. Safe for goods, safe for money and safe for free trade. In my experience, people take care of themselves. If they are smart.”

He leaned forward, picked up a piece of paper from the table between them and began to read. “Endangering goods in the warehouses. Bypassing a checkpoint. Reckless endangerment of transport. And that is before we even talk about the destroyed building in the docklands.”

Could I have created Resholm by studying photos of cityscapes found on the Internet? Probably, but I don’t think the result would have been as rich. Walking around a city is the best way to pick up its sounds, smells and sensations. Building a fantasy city from such memories, you become aware of the details that need to be included. For instance, I decided to include Hamburg’s tall, red-brick warehouses in the Speicherstadt, complete with their cranes and rails to move goods, in Resholm as well. The architecture so happens to date back to the late 1800s, which is the time period I am aiming to replicate in my story.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you are building…as long as you’re enjoying the fantasy!

Of course, Hamburg is on water and isn’t dripping down the side of a cliff with airships docked at each level, but hey, it’s fantasy, which means I have the freedom to do what I want:

Only one bulb remained lit and he and Lucia left the tram car. They walked up a set of steps to the road which ran along the level five terrace. The smell of engine exhaust, unwashed humanity and a hint of damp stone assaulted Lors’ nose. The constant wind he had gotten used to didn’t seem to penetrate the row of buildings enough to clear the miasma. Despite the lack of wind, the street was cold. The docklands were in perpetual shadow on the northern slope. He could see the sky between the airships docked at the level above, but its light was so weak that lamps on poles shed he needed the scattered poles with their glowing globes to see anything in the eternal twilight.

A pair of tracks ran down the center of the road. Men stood on carts which ran back and forth controlling them with long handles. Sidings led off to both sides at each building. There was plenty of space to walk on either side, but they had to dodge carts and step carefully to make much headway. This was a place built for shipping goods. People served the crates they carried, not the other way around.

By no means does a fantasy city have to be built from a single real world city. The town square of Resholm is based on my memories of Poznań, Poland. The funiculars that service the docklands are from a day I spent wandering in Naples, Italy, and became fascinated with its tramway network. There are also some pieces of the city that owe to my meanderings in New York. But again, these are my lego bricks that I used to construct a stage for my characters to act upon and interact with each other.

Although my books fall more into the adventure—the characters must traverse a wide terrain—there is an entire genre of urban fantasy set solely in cities. If this kind of thing intrigues you, check out the following works:

* * *

Wannabe fantasy writers who are also travel buffs, how about you? Have you collected some cityscapes on your wanderings you think will affect your writing one day, or perhaps already has? Let me know in the comments. Also, if you’ve been fantasizing about particular topics, let me know, and I’ll attempt to stretch my imagination to discuss in a future post.

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 next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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HERE BE DRAGONS: Dreaming up a landscape from your world travels for a work of fantasy

HBD Landscape CollageWelcome to the second post in our new series, HERE BE DRAGONS, in which fantasy writer Andrew Couch, an American expat in Germany, brings our attention to the connection between fantasy writing and a life of international travel and residency. In the series opener, he pointed out how expat life in all of its glorious strangeness can be a feed for the fantasy writer’s imagination. And today? He talks about how one’s travels can inspire other-worldly landscapes.

—ML Awanohara

Many people think that fantasy is a genre set apart, but fantasy stories, like those in any other genre, center on compelling characters and the struggles they face. As epic fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss once said:

If you want to write a fantasy story with Norse gods, sentient robots, and telepathic dinosaurs, you can do just that. Want to throw in a vampire and a lesbian unicorn while you’re at it? Go ahead. Nothing’s off limits. But the endless possibility of the genre is a trap. It’s easy to get distracted by the glittering props available to you and forget what you’re supposed to be doing: telling a good story.

Yet clearly there are some elements that set fantasy writing apart, and today I want to talk about one of them: landscapes. By “landscapes” I of course refer to the great swaths of nature not created by man. Often in fantasy writing, they are more than just a backdrop—they represent the force of primal nature that must be appeased or overcome. A landscape can also inform how a society is built and what drives it. (I will devote some time to urban-scapes and architecture in future posts.)

Obviously, setting plays a major part in other genres—see the works featured by JJ Marsh in her Location, Locution column—but I would argue that in fantasy writing, a great deal of time should be devoted to conjuring up a physical landscape for your make-believe world. Tolkien understood this very well. The Lord of the Rings would not have the same impact without those soaring mountain ranges.

“What are men to rocks and mountains?” —Jane Austen

Speaking of Lord of the Rings: After joining my wife in New Zealand during her round-the-world trip some years ago, I suddenly understood why Peter Jackson filmed his Lord of the Rings series in his native land. (Older TV series such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Disney’s Hercules were likewise filmed in New Zealand.) The landscape is so varied, so grand and… well…conducive to fantasy! I don’t know which portions of the Rings movies were filmed where, but I certainly had some ideas on our day through Fiordland National Park, which occupies the South Island’s southwest corner. This is the park surrounding Milford Sound, considered to be one of the world’s top travel destinations.

Due to my fear of flying, I never imagined I would make it as far as New Zealand (literally, half a world away)—but I’m so glad I did. After stopping in Queenstown, we took an overnight bus trip out to Milford Sound. Our bus was glass topped—our first hint of the wonders to come. Between Queenstown and the park entrance are lakes and rolling hills—pretty enough; but once you hit the edge of the park, the scenery becomes much more fantastic. We entered a dense beech forest that evoked visions of natural spirits. Then, after traversing the three valleys toward Milford, we caught sight of the mountains.

How to describe those mountains, which the early Queenstown settlers nicknamed The Remarkables? The human mind tries to makes sense of new experiences based on information it has already collected. For instance, we compare a new food to something we’ve already eaten or a a new piece of technology to X on steroids. But the mountains in Fiordland did not really compare to anything I’d seen before. Those I’d seen before were big, but somehow these were even bigger, and more awe-inspiring.

Sitting at the top of the Homer Tunnel gazing down into the valley, I could readily imagine ten thousand orcs (mythical humanoid creatures, the idea for which was developed by Tolkien) rushing up to besiege our bus of a dozen tourists.

We were surrounded on three sides by enormous sheer rock faces with what looked like trickles of water flowing down them, about a handspan wide. But then our guide informed us that these streams were a meter wide, which meant the mountains were not as close as I’d thought: they were a couple of miles away. So much bigger than I’d imagined! Um…my vision of ten thousand orcs began to seem rather pitiful.

Steam-powered dreams

Queenstown is in Otago, a region that opened up after gold was struck in the 1860s. This led to an influx of foreign miners, many of whom were goldrush veterans.

So while the landscape before me conjured up the feeling of Middle-earth, the setting for most of Tolkien’s fantasy writings, in reality most of the region’s early settlers were part of the Steam Age.

QueenOfCloudPirates_coverI didn’t consciously think about it during our tour, but now that I’m writing a series of fantasy novellas, Crossing the Dropline, I can see that my impressions of the mountains, along with my thoughts about the steam era, have fed into my imaginative process. For instance, Cloud Rock is a precious resource in the story. It powers flight and comes from only one region, called Beyond the Dropline, a harsh landscape that is both protected and contested by different groups. So the challenge becomes: can the power of Cloud Rock be harnessed outside of the Dropline?

South of the Dropline, raw ore [Cloud Rock] no longer had as much power. The real breakthrough of rotor technology was how to use it outside of the ranges. Natives had been floating with ore for centuries before the league explorers brought a sample back and engineers developed a way of refining and attuning it to the energy of Air in the rest of the world. That was only thirty years ago and hailed as the advent of powered flight. From that point on the Iron League had controlled the skies and had grown in influence. They had shifted from sea vessels to airships and proceeded to grow their trade empire around the Circle Sea and over the mountains into the west. Lors had heard on the news that the other nations were growing uncomfortable, but the news man had reassured them that the League diplomacy corps had everything under control.

At the mercy of nature

Nature is sometimes a primal force that characters in a fantasy story must overcome. My wife and I had perfect weather on our trip through Fiordland, but it was not hard to imagine a torrential storm ricocheting off the mountains and threatening to wash us over a steep cliff. In my novella series, the characters have to contend with not only human antagonists but with mountains that float in the sky:

He could see the front of the dark clouds out beyond the floating mountain peaks. An ever churning mass of dark clouds stacked into a formidable wall moving slowly away from them. Then another flash lit the sky and Lors saw what Arnhelm had been watching.

On top of the massive wall of clouds strode the figure of a bearded man. He loomed the size of one of the tall steel buildings in downtown Ironholme and was wrapped in a robe made of the clouds. He shone with a pale white light. Every step he took on the clouds caused sparks to ripple out and illuminate the sky.

“Storm giant,” Jason said from next to Lors. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

The first book only hints at it, but soon the spirits of the howling North will try to tempt the characters. They will become more present as the series develops.

* * *

I made the trip to Fjordland years before I started writing novellas, but the memory of those mountains continues to haunt—and inspire—me.

How about you? Do you have a landscape in mind you think will affect your writing one day, or perhaps already has? Let me know in the comments. Also, if you’ve been fantasizing about particular topics, let me know, and I’ll attempt to stretch my imagination to discuss in a future post.

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 the next fab post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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HERE BE DRAGONS: The expat life as fuel for fantasy writing

Serpent Map Collage Drop Shadow

(Clockwise from top): Detail of the medieval map Carta marina; the Speicherstadt (warehouse district) in Hamburg, Germany; Andrew Couch (photo credit: Andrew Couch).

Welcome to the Displaced Nation’s very own Game of Thrones. To be eligible, you simply have to be, or have been, an expat or world traveler of some kind, and open to seeing the connection between the international life and fantasy fiction. Andrew Couch, an American expat in Germany, will be our coach (no pun intended!). Though he has not been playing the game for long, having published his first fantasy novella only last month, he is already dancing with dragons, and thinks that you should be, too…

—ML Awanohara

Living as an expat in another culture forces you to interact with the world in a different way. You cannot rely on the habits of your home and things around you are strange—sometimes really really strange.

Yet they are perfectly normal to the locals.

This echoes my experience of reading (and now writing) fantasy fiction. I didn’t really think about it that way until I started writing this post, but I guess it should have been obvious all along.

Trip the “expat life” fantastic

I’ve always loved the fantasy genre, ever since I could read. The first book I remember was Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis, although I certainly delved into Tolkien’s The Hobbit very early on as well. Both are fantasy but also involve travel. As a child, I was drawn to the imagery of the strange places depicted in these books.

Maybe that feeling of diving into fantastical worlds is what led me to a life of travel as an adult, and ultimately to the life I now have in Germany as an expat.

The characters in fantasy novels accept their world as it is. They might accept that magic exists in a specific form—or that elves, trolls and ogres wander the street selling sausages.

Is this really so much of a stretch from what we accept as expats sometimes?

After living for six years in Germany, I almost take for granted how orderly everything is: I like knowing that the tram will come at an exact time. I’ve also come to appreciate being able to sit in a restaurant all evening without anyone shoving the bill at me to pay and leave.

I do notice, though, that the more I integrate with the local life, the more I crave a creative outlet. Several years ago, when I’d been living in Freiburg for a couple of years, my apartment lease was running out and I had to decide: should I find a new place to live, or was it time to move on? In the end, I decided to buy my own apartment, which tied me still more closely to the wonderful town of Freiburg. I was happy but also felt that doors were closing, and I needed to seek other outlets. I ended up starting a blog, Grounded Traveler: Expat life in Germany and still seeing the world. I tried writing fiction, too, but must not have been ready.

Just last year I made a career shift. For 13 years I had worked as a Web developer for an employer, but I decided to leave and start my own freelancing business. Being my own boss has given me the freedom to do what I want when I want, but there are limits on that freedom as I must constantly be on the lookout for projects.

QueenOfCloudPirates_coverCraving the fantastic once again, I started writing a series of fantasy novellas. I self-published the first episode, Queen of the Cloud Pirates, in March and am working on the next one now, based on the inspiration of living and traveling abroad.

Thinking of blue almonds (Polish for “daydreaming”)

Much of my inspiration for writing fantasy comes from the places my wife and I visit on our travels. My follow-on novella to Queen of the Cloud Pirates (I’ve just finished the first draft) is set in a fantasy port city.

Not long ago, my wife and I traveled to Hamburg for a few days and spent time in Speicherstadt, an area of the city full of canals and towering brick warehouses with elevators and cranes around them. On that occasion I let my imagination go, wondering what a sword fight among the ropes and narrow stairs would be like. This has driven a fair amount of the book’s setting.

Of course inspiration can come from anywhere, not just from a city’s wonderfully distinct architecture but also from more mundane settings. For instance, here is a snippet I wrote after glimpsing an unusual face on the subway in Berlin:

A man sat hunched over in the subway seat, his chin piled on top of both hands steadying himself on his cane. A white fluffy mustache flowed over the side of his hands like a cascade of falling clouds. His oh-so-attentive eyes, in contrast to his nearly decrepit body, watched from beneath equally fluffy eyebrows that flowed up in the same way the mustache floated down. Was this a visitor from the realm of clouds come to watch us on earth? I pondered the significance of seeing this man underground as I got off at my stop and watched him through the window as the train sped away.

I am constantly collecting such snippets and images on my travels. In fact, I’m now half-way through another story based on a mis-heard subway announcement about the train ending and needing to transfer to the “elephants”—well, that’s not what the conductor said but it’s how I heard it. I have been thinking about the story so much I can’t really remember the original line, but I expect I heard something about transferring to bus line 11 (elf in German) and, despite being fluent in German, thought of elephants.

Here Be Dragons (in Latin, Hic Sunt Dracones)

Readers, do you collect thoughts and ideas when traveling to, or living in, strange surroundings? And if so, are you inclined to turn these snippets into stories?

While I have a fantasy-oriented imagination, and tend to see dragons or other fantastical beasts when venturing into new territory, I imagine that such snippets could support any genre of writing.

I look forward to seeing you next month, when I will continue exploring how encounters with different landscapes, cultures, cities, architecture, and people can stimulate the imagination in some strange and wonderful directions. Let me know in the comments if you’re fantasizing about any particular topics, and I’ll see if my imagination can stretch to accommodate.

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 next week’s fab posts!

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