The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Tag Archives: Writing Tips

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Rachel Abbott, proof positive it’s never too late to become a best-selling novelist—and expat

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

My guest this month, Rachel Abbott, did not start out as a writer, though she claims she always had a novel in her head. Born in Manchester, she trained as a systems analyst but then ended up founding her own interactive media company, where, as managing director, she wrote everyday but mostly board reports, user manuals, and creative treatments for clients.

Around 15 years ago, she sold the company and moved with her husband to Le Marche, in central Italy. The pair set to work on renovating a ruined small monastery, where they lived for several years.

When six-foot snowdrifts prevented her from leaving the house for a couple of weeks, Rachel started writing and found she couldn’t stop. She self-published her first novel just over four years ago, a psychological thriller called Only the Innocent, which is set very briefly in Italy but mostly takes place in rural Oxfordshire.

Only the Innocent reached the number 1 spot in the Kindle store just over three months later and went on to become the second highest selling self-published title in 2012. It was subsequently published by Thomas and Mercer in the USA, where in just a few months it achieved number 1 in the US charts, making Rachel’s debut a number one bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Guardian newspaper dubbed Rachel “the e-publishing sensation of 2012” while The Observer stated “self-published authors such as Rachel Abbott are the trade’s hottest property.”

That’s how this Mancunian fell into a brilliant new career. Two years after her break-out success, Rachel released her long-awaited second novel, The Back Road—which quickly reached number 2 on the UK Kindle chart and has over 450 five-star reviews. (The back road of the title is in a made-up village called Little Melham, in the heart of the English countryside.)

Rachel's first two psychological thrillers, both international bestsellers.

Rachel’s first two psychological thrillers, both of which rapidly became international bestsellers.

Her latest works, Sleep Tight (partially set in Anglesey, one of the Channel Islands, which Rachel visited as a child), Stranger Child and Nowhere Child have followed the same pattern of success. All of them take place mainly within Rachel’s hometown of Manchester.

Rachel's latest three books. Stranger Child, a stand-alone novella but featuring the same characters as Stranger Child, came out in October.

Rachel’s latest three books. The very latest, Nowhere Child, came out in October. It’s a stand-alone novella but features the same characters as Stranger Child.

As far as the expat life goes, Rachel now divides her time between Italy (where she lives in her second property, an apartment in an old fort, which overlooks the sea) and Alderney, in the Channel Islands, which is just off the coast of France. She explains her decision to spend time on this beautiful island as follows:

“There are so many wonderful aspects of living in another country—not least getting to understand their culture. Italians are extreme in their emotions, and that—for me—was a joy to watch, even when they are shouting at each other (because it usually doesn’t last). I did, however, struggle with the language. I can now speak reasonable Italian, but as a writer I found it difficult not to be speaking English all the time! I discovered that from time to time I struggled to remember the correct English words, and I felt it was time to move back to an English-speaking country if I was to continue to write. So I moved to Alderney. Not quite the UK, but close. It’s a wonderful island, and life here is as perfect as it gets.”

Despite her new-found worldliness, Rachel insists she remains a Lancastrian at heart.

Photo credits: Rachel Abbott (inset); Whitworth Street, Manchester, by Mikey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) ; Montalto delle Marche, by Sgobbone via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Braye Beach (Alderney, Channel Islands), by TheOnlyMoxey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits: Rachel Abbott (inset, supplied); Whitworth Street, Manchester, by Mikey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Montalto delle Marche, by Sgobbone via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Braye Beach (Alderney, Channel Islands), by TheOnlyMoxey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

* * *

Welcome, Rachel, to Location, Locution. It seems your writing career and your expat life developed in tandem, but which comes first when you are writing, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

In all cases, my story has come first. My most recent books are set in Manchester, but the locations within Manchester are determined by the story. My concern is that I am going to run out of spooky places for the strange goings on that I need in my stories!

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I have a very visual imagination, and in every major location in any of my books, I know exactly what it looks like. That’s my starting point. I can wander the halls of houses, or creep along canal banks at night. So I know what I can see. I then start to think about what it might smell like—and much of that is determined by what is happening. A house can smell of baking cakes, or of rotting food—so I imagine myself there, and think how it might smell. Finally, I listen. What will the sounds be like? Where is the location—outdoors or indoors? What are the surroundings like—are there trains nearby, or a distant motorway? I close my eyes, and I am there—feeling what my characters are feeling.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

It depends on the stage in the story. The character might be walking along a country lane, but if she is scared, the overhanging trees, dripping with rain from the recent storm would be the features to focus on. If it’s a happy day, it might be the cows munching contentedly on the grass in the fields. With this in mind, any feature can help to create that sense of the location.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

Here’s a passage from my latest, Nowhere Child:

The freezing November wind is bouncing off the damp walls, hitting us in icy blasts as if someone keeps opening and closing a door. But there isn’t any door—just a gaping black hole. There are four or five groups of us down here, sitting in twos and threes huddled around our feeble fires. We keep to ourselves mostly. I can see the odd face, lit from below by the weak yellow flames, features hovering, disembodied, against the black walls, the eyes hollow pits. I can hear the occasional murmur of conversation but mostly I listen to the steady drip from the roof. It is relentless, and I’m not surprised when Andy says that dripping water is used as a form of torture. Another drop joins in, this time with a slightly different tone. There is a pause, and for a second I wonder if it’s stopped. But of course it hasn’t. Drip-drop. Drip-drop.

Nowhere_child_quote

How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Some settings exist in my imagination. Others have to be realistic. I am currently writing a story about an area of Manchester that I didn’t know existed—even though I lived there for a large proportion of my life. I have been unable to visit it myself in time to write the first draft of the book, but my sister lives nearby. So she has been out on research trips for me, taking photos and videos. I have used to map to pinpoint the places that I want her to take pictures of, and I’ve also used Google Maps—in walkabout mode—to get me close enough. I have studied this place in as much detail as possible without an actual visit, and I will visit it myself before the final version is written.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

I love the sense of location in Daphne Du Maurier’s books—in particular, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. One is set in a magnificent, if malevolent old property, the other a run down and gloomy inn, which is never open to the public. The locations are so vivid in these books that a mental image is formed even before seeing them on the big screen!

The locations of these two Daphne du Maurier classics are so vivid, you don't even need to see Hitchcock's films!

The locations of these two Daphne du Maurier classics are so vivid, you don’t even need to see Hitchcock’s films!

Thanks so much, Rachel!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Rachel Abbott? Please leave them in the comments below before she jets off to one of her exotic locales…

And if you’d like to discover more about Rachel, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter at @RachelAbbott.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

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 weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

Advertisements

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Trish Nicholson, a writer whose talents have blossomed in unusual places

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

My guest this month, Trish Nicholson, is something of an exotic plant—the kind one discovers flowering profusely in a far-flung part of the world.

Trish’s birthplace, the Isle of Man, sounds remote to many of us—but not so for Trish, who, despite being half Manx (a mix of Celtic and Nordic), wasn’t able to bloom where she was planted. Following in the footsteps of some of her intrepid ancestors, she left her birthplace and hasn’t looked back.

Her first destination was the UK, in pursuit of higher education and a career. Trish is also half-Scottish, but, though she lived in Scotland for 12 years, her roots did not prove deep enough and she moved on to Europe and much further afield…transplanting herself to Papua New Guinea!

Yes, Trish was stationed in the West Sepik (Sandaun) Province of Papua New Guinea for five years working on aid and development projects while also serving as Honorary Consul for the British High Commission. Rest assured, conditions here were exotic enough for Trish not only to put down roots but to blossom and thrive. As she attests in the travel memoir she published last month, PNG contains the wildest places in the tropics. Among other challenges, she had to contend with crocodiles (the book is titled Inside the Crocodile), sorcery and near-fatal malaria.

Photo credits (clockwise from upper left): Mooragh Park Lake, Ramsey (Isle of Man), by Tony Hisgett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Trisha Nicholson (supplied); Explosions (in PNG), by Taro Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits (clockwise from upper left): Mooragh Park Lake, Ramsey (Isle of Man), by Tony Hisgett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Trisha Nicholson (supplied); Explosions (in PNG), by Taro Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

The so-called Land of Surprises must have been a hard act to follow, but Asia Pacific being Trish’s most nurturant habitat, she soon found other challenges—the next one being to direct the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) operations in the Philippines while completing her doctorate in social anthropology. After the Philippines, she obtained a research grant to study indigenous tourism in Vietnam and Australia.

And I mustn’t forget to mention that along the way there have also been frequent trips to South America and Africa, along with treks in Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal.

Trish did return to England eventually—only to decide the time had come to try transplanting herself to the “winterless” far north of New Zealand, where, as she says in her blog:

native trees grow even more in winter than summer because they have more moisture.

Hmmm… sounds a little like Trish?

And now let’s talk about Trish’s body of works. A compulsive scribbler, she has produced plenty of what she calls “creative nonfiction”—from articles for mainstream media to a book on responsible travel tourism—as well as short stories during her twenty years of wandering the globe.

More recently, since moving to New Zealand, she has published a series of e-books on her travels—one of the most popular of which is the illustrated travelogue Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. And now there is the aforementioned Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals.

Trish’s nonfiction output also includes a volume on creative reading/writing as well as a guide to becoming a non-fiction author. And let’s not forget the historical anthology of storytelling, which she intends to sit down and write now that she’s settled on a quiet New Zealand hillside. That’s when she’s not hiding in her tree house or blogging. Her blog is called, appropriately enough, “Words in the Treehouse.”

* * *

Welcome, Trish, to Location, Locution. I know that your travels have led to much of your writing, but which tends to come first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

It depends on what kind of writing I’m doing, of course. For short stories it’s usually character that comes first for me, but it’s close because characters are an integral part of their setting. In building up the story, character and setting feed upon each other. Location can affect a character’s mood, sometimes their whole outlook on life, and a change of location can be a turning point. But, as I said, it’s a two-way influence; people can also have an impact on their surroundings.

For my travelogues, experience of location came first, but the same principle applies: people feed off setting and vice versa. In this case, of course, the “characters” are actual people I met along the way.

Notably, you were right in saying that my travels led to my writing. I did not set out to write a book at the beginning of either of the two travelogues I have produced. I was inspired to visit Bhutan by an article in a 1914 National Geographic magazine my aunt had left me in a box of dusty old books. It was full of the most amazing photographs of mist threaded mountains, exotic architecture, and distinguished looking men wearing what appeared to be navy blue dressing gowns with broad white cuffs… Papua New Guinea, as you explained in your introduction, was a five-year work assignment, fulfilling a teenage dream to work overseas. Only afterwards did these locations compel me to write about them.

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of a place? After all, you’ve faced the challenge of describing places very few of the rest of us have visited.

I’m not sure if it’s a technique because it’s not something I do consciously as I write, but your question made me think about it. It’s not so easy to explain, but I seem to identify a feature that is characteristic of a particular place and use my senses to link to it emotionally—trying to recreate in words what I felt when I was there. It’s not simply “place” though, but more a series of “moments-in-place.” The atmosphere of a place changes depending on time of day, seasons and events. It’s possible to keep track of these changes if you maintain a detailed journal as I always do—scraps of information about everything I see, hear, smell and feel. With buildings and landscapes, for example, I record how light and weather affect them. A grey stone wall, for instance, may look hard and forbidding in Scotland, but under a tropical sun it feels surprisingly soft and warm. I note sounds and snippets of overheard conversation, clothes, colours, rhythms of people’s movements—all of which suggest place. Scribbling is a bit of an obsession with me, perhaps a way of hanging on to something I don’t want to end. My other obsession is photography, probably for the same reason. In my early travelling days I used Kodachrome but film was expensive; now you can take large memory cards and click away without a thought. When I’m writing, I scroll through my images and they recall whole scenes for me. The jottings and photographs aid my memory for those sensuous details that I believe evoke atmosphere.

Two of Trish's tools for capturing the details of places. Photo credits: (top) Notebook collection, by Dvortygirl via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kodachrome, by Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Two of Trish’s tools for capturing the details of place. Photo credits: (top) Notebook collection, by Dvortygirl via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kodachrome, by
Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

They all can, of course, depending on the story and a writer’s personal interests. I’m certainly no foodie, but even I can feel the tropical heat of Papua New Guinea when recalling drinking kulau (Tok Pisin for “juice from a young green coconut”) straight from a young coconut—the rough, dry shell on my lips, the smooth sweet coolness dribbling down my chin. Language, too, has always been a significant feature for me. Many writers avoid using dialect or foreign words in dialogue so as not to stress the reader, but there are ways of making it easier, and readers enjoy a little challenge. I write dialect or local language in short stories and in travelogues because it draws readers closer to people. And if I want to create the sense of a very specific location, I focus on whatever features are found only in that one place—for example, in Bhutan, the painted red bands around a building that tells you there are sacred relics inside, or in Australia, the surreal landforms of the Bungle Bungles that seem to stride across the landscape enacting their own primordial drama.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

From Inside the Crocodile, a jungle moment on the hair-raising trek from Oksapmin to Lake Kopiago:

The heavy shower was reduced to drizzle under the canopy and it invigorated the forest; every shade of green was intensified, glistening and vivid. Lazy drops of water glided along leaves, dripping silently onto moss beneath. Fine hairs on the ribs of fern fronds, usually invisible, were lit-up by tiny twinkling water droplets like miniature fairy lights. And the air was filled with the fecund mustiness of moist earth seasoned with the tang of wet foliage … the forest stood in strange, expectant silence, muffled by the press of growing, spreading vegetation all around us. Yet every surface, especially the dark underside, was teeming with life we could not see, or would not recognise if we did, and we couldn’t see beyond the next tree trunk or veil of hanging moss. The sense of being enclosed, entrapped within an unknowable multitude, was overpowering.

Photo credits: (top) A frog inside the papaya tree, one of many critters found in PNG; one of many disintegrating bamboo bridges in PNG (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

Photo credits: (top) A frog inside the papaya tree, one of many critters found in PNG; one of many disintegrating bamboo bridges in PNG (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

And if I’m allowed another little one, from Journey in Bhutan, my journal entry the evening after we visited the ancient temple of Kyichu Lhakhang:

… I want to remember how it felt when I first entered the lhakhang – the dark wooden floor, polished and worn into grooves by centuries of calloused feet; distant chanting heard through a haze of incense; Buddhas lustrous in the flickering light of butter lamps – thirteen centuries of reverence are distilled in that room creating an almost palpable sanctity. I feel the balm of its atmosphere as I write – it’s almost like a presence.

Photo credits: (clockwise from top left) Rinpung Dzong, a large dzong (Buddhist monastery and fortress) found in Paro District, Bhutan; book cover art; ancient religious relics inside the lhakhang (all photos supplied by Trish Nicholson).

Photo credits: (top) Rinpung Dzong, a large dzong (Buddhist monastery and fortress) found in Paro District, Bhutan; book cover art; ancient religious relics inside the lhakhang (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

This is a particularly interesting question because I believe one can be in a location too long. The point is not how much time is spent in a place, but how well we “see” it. In an urban setting, I can spend an hour leaning against a wall on a street corner, or a day walking the streets at random, and gather a huge number of impressions and factual details. In remote areas it takes longer because the changing elements have a greater affect on atmosphere. But this may be enough for the setting of a single story. Obviously, for a travelogue, longer immersion is necessary to reach a depth of understanding across time and seasons. But it depends also on how one writes about a place, the scope of the account. I was in Bhutan for a month, much of that time trekking, so although I included monasteries and temples, and carried out a lot of research on cultural and historical background, Journey in Bhutan focuses on the trek rather than trying to cover the whole country superficially. So, how long is too long? After a few years in Papua New Guinea I noted in my journal:

I’m losing all sense of “normal”.

I began taking for granted what seemed extraordinary to a visitor. Fortunately, I had recorded early events that revealed my astonishment and joy and alienation as a greenhorn during those first months. Without the journals, Inside the Crocodile would have lacked that perspective on the location because, after a while, we cease to “see” so clearly.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Hard to pick a few from so many: Vikram Seth for his depiction of India—but his first book, From Heaven Lake, was a vivid travelogue of Sinkiang and Tibet; he was still a student but the novelist is already burgeoning in those pages. Khaled Hosseini, who so cleverly weaves his characters into the texture of place in The Kite Runner, and Nikolai Gogol, especially in Dead Souls, where his detailing of personal possessions in a room reveals not only a distinctly Russian steppes atmosphere, but also a character’s past and present. And one more: Ruth Rendell appears to break all the “rules” in The Keys to the Street by opening with almost two pages describing London’s ornamental iron railings—but in such a way that with the first paragraph we are already anxious about those spikes.

Trish's picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place.

Trish’s picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place.

Thanks so much, Trish! I can easily see why one reviewer described you as “full of humour, adventure, and iron determination…”

* * *

Readers, any questions for Trish Nicholson? Please leave them in the comments below before she disappears back into her treehouse.

And if you’d like to discover more about Trish, why not visit her author site. She also chirps on twitter at @TrishaNicholson.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

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 weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: The Way of expat author Joan Fallon lies in writing about the Camino and other Spain-related themes

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

The theologian Richard Niebuhr once wrote:

Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys.

In that sense, today’s author, Joan Fallon, can be considered a modern-day pilgrim, of the kind often encountered within the Displaced Nation. She may not have walked the Camino de Santiago—but the path she took in her life led her to a place where she could write a novel about someone who did.

Joan was born with a foot in two cultural camps: her father was Irish and her mother, Scottish. Her first journey into a brand new culture was made as a child, when her family moved from Dumfries, Scotland, to the south of England, which many Celts consider to be a foreign country.

Joan went on to spend her formative years in England. She married, had a family (a son and a daughter), and worked as a teacher while also earning a BA from the Open University in History and Literature.

But in England, Joan was still a pilgrim; she hadn’t yet found the Way. In fact, she lost her way for some time after her son dropped dead unexpectedly when he was only 17. She abandoned her career in teaching (she couldn’t bear being around kids his age) to become a management trainer.

Soon, though, it was time to don her pilgrim’s boots again, this time for a journey into southern Spain. When her husband took early retirement, the couple set off just before the start of the new millennium for their new home in Benajarafe, a coastal village that is a few miles east of Málaga, in Andalusia.

This journey, which brings us to where we find Joan now, led her to the goal she was seeking all along: an opportunity to try out the life of full-time writer. As she put it in a recent interview:

It is something that I had been waiting all my life to do.

Joan completed an Open University course in creative writing, but it wasn’t until she’d spent six years taking journeys within Spain, learning the language and talking to people, that she would embrace her destiny fully. (She was also settling in, finding out how to cope with Spanish bureaucracy and generally dealing with the numerous everyday things that we take for granted in our home country or don’t need: obtaining an identity card, a social security card, becoming a tax resident, registering at the town hall, changing to Spanish number plates, making friends, finding a hairdresser that you like, a new dentist, a new doctor, a vet, a plumber…)

Eventually, her immersion in the Spanish language and local culture paid off. Always interested in social history, Joan decided to interview a number of older Spanish women about how their lives had changed since Franco had died in 1975. She translated the interviews into English, which led to her first published book, Daughters of Spain.

The research for this book also produced two novels:

Joan Fallon's writing career has flowered in Benajarafe, initially with books set in the Franco era

Joan Fallon’s writing career has flowered in Benajarafe, initially with books set in the Franco era. Photo credits: Joan Fallon’s author photo and book covers (supplied); Benajarafe, by Tony Bowden (CC BY-SA 2.0).

One of Joan’s subsequent novels grew out of her experiences of mixing with both Spanish and foreign nationals: Loving Harry, a story about two women in love with the same man, set in expat Spain.

Joan’s frequent visits to other parts of Spain have also inspired books. It was a trip to Galicia that gave her the idea of writing Santiago Talesabout a woman whose life is in tatters and who decides to walk the Camino de Santiago seeking solutions.

Likewise a visit to the Moorish ruins at Madinat al Zahra near Córdoba inspired her to research and write The Shining City, a novel set in Moorish Spain during 10th century.

All of Joan’s novels feature strong women as their heroineswomen who face some kind of difficulty and have to overcome it.

* * *

Welcome, Joan, to Location, Locution. Spain clearly has had a powerful effect on your writing, but which comes first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine. It depends on the book I am writing whether location or story is the most important. Santiago Tales, as you’ve explained, was set on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain—location was essential to the story. Spanish Lavender is a love story set in the Spanish Civil War, but it takes place specifically in Málaga, a city I know very well—and therefore I started with the location. In another of my books, The Only Blue Door, which you didn’t mention, I wrote about three children sent to Australia during wartime. Never having been to Australia, I found it hard to write about a place I did not know personally so had to rely on my research. In this case, it was the story that was predominant, not the location.

It sounds as though you like to know the place very well before using it as a setting?

Yes, I prefer to write about places I know. If I don’t know the location well, then I will visit it a number of times noting the layout, the atmosphere and anything else I can put into my writing. Sometimes I will interview someone about a place when I know that they have a greater knowledge of the location than I do. This is what I did with Santiago Tales. I knew the area well but not from the point of view of a pilgrim, so I interviewed a woman who had walked the 800 km of the Camino and was delighted to tell me of her exploits. This gave me the little details that I needed to make my story credible.

Photo credits: Puente rústico, by José Antonio Gil Martínez via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits: Puente rústico, by José Antonio Gil Martínez via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); book cover art (supplied).

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I try to remember as many details as I can, imagining that I am there again and then imagining the character in the location as I knew it. If my story is set somewhere that I have only visited on a few occasions, then it needs more effort to conjure up the required atmosphere, and I will read about the location and look at photographs. Sometimes it is something as simple as knowing if there are hills in the area that the character has to climb or rivers that he has to cross or when he sits down what he can see. All this helps to transport the reader to the location that you have chosen. For me it is a mixture of combining what I know the place is like with the atmosphere I am trying to convey for the story.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

Place is an especially important factor in The Shining City, which I wrote after visiting the ruins of a city near Córdoba called Madinat al Zahra. I was fascinated by the place and the fact that, although it was once a very prosperous and cultured city, it was abandoned and fell into complete disrepair after only 70 years. It seemed the ideal place to set a historical novel about the Moors in Spain.

Here is a passage from my book, depicting a character from England’s West Country who is following the French Way of the Way of St. James:

The Galician countryside is distinctive. It reminds her a little of her own West Country, with its small fields and dry-stone walls. The change was obvious as soon as she reached O’Cebreiro, set in the green, rolling hills across the border from León, and saw the round stone houses of the area, with their straw roofs and Iron Age design. She has even passed Celtic crosses at the roadside, so like the ones in Cornwall, and fields of fat, contented brown and white cattle. Just like the west coast of Britain and Ireland, Galicia receives its fair share of Atlantic wind and rain and this is evident in the verdure of its countryside. No, she is no longer walking through the dry Meseta; this part of Spain is very different and, to her, feels more like home.

Photo credits: Book cover art (supplied); Medina Azahara - Cordoba, by Roberto Venturini via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Photo credits: Book cover art (supplied); Medina Azahara – Cordoba, by Roberto Venturini via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Is landscape the only feature you look at to create a sense of location? What about culture, or even food?

All of those and more, depending on the location. Returning to the example of The Shining City, about a place that I had visited when it was a ruin, I had to do a lot of research into what it would have been like when it was a thriving city. I needed to know what food was available at the time, what they grew and what they imported, what type of housing people lived in, how they dressed and what the climate was like. Although this is a historical novel, set in 10th-century Spain, the fact that I live in Spain and know the area well made it so much easier to create the right atmosphere; I knew from experience what the weather was like at different times of the year, which flowers were in bloom and when; and I could imagine easily what the roads to the city were like then from what I could see today.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

I read a book by John Lanchester called Capital, which was the story of a street in London told through the lives of the people who lived there. He used location very well and made it the central pivot for his novel. Donna Tartt also uses location very well and creates a rich and detailed background to her novels. Another writer that gives great importance to location in her novels is Barbara Kingsolver, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels about two girls growing up in Naples recreate the atmosphere of that wild-child city beautifully.

Fallon Faves

Joan’s picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Joan!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Spain-obsessed Joan Fallon? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Joan, why not visit her author site +/or her site dedicated to her books that are set in Spain, A Spanish Notebook. You can also follow her on twitter at @joan_fallon and @notesonspain +/or like her Facebook page.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

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 weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: For Stephanie Patterson, the role of expat historical novelist seems to have been predestined

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

Hello again, readers. Last month I introduced you to expat writer Oliver Tidy, who found his calling in writing crime novels set in the UK once he became an expat in Turkey. For my guest this month, Stephanie Patterson, it was the other way around. Stephanie developed an early passion for places other than her home country of Germany, and for the English and Scottish medieval periods. In other words, it seemed almost predestined that she would move to the UK and write historical novels set in these places and times.

Although Stephanie first lived in Kent when she arrived in the UK 18 years ago, she relocated to Aberdeen and then, after a stint in Wales (Cardiff), where she met her British husband, Laurence, has lived in Edinburgh for the past 10 years.

Stephanie Patteson destiny

Photo credits (left): Stephanie Patterson in her beloved Scottish Highlands (supplied); Map of Germany, by Central Intelligence Agency; The main geographical divisions of Scotland, by SFC9394—both images via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Not surprising, given her proclivities, Stephanie believes the key to settling into a new country is total immersion. In her case this technique greatly improved her grasp of the language (she is a certified translator of English to German). It has also enabled her to write romantic suspense and adventure set in Scotland, England and Normandy under the pen name of Cathie Dunn.

In 2011, Stephanie and Laurence set up Crooked Cat Publishing on the model of an independent US publisher. To date, Crooked Cat has published over eighty paperbacks and e-books with authors across the world, several of which have won (or been shortlisted for) prizes. It has quickly developed a reputation for producing quality fiction.

As Cathie Dunn, Stephanie has two historical novels published with Crooked Cat:

  • Highland Arms, a romantic Scottish adventure (originally released through Wild Rose Press), set in Stephanie’s favourite area of the Scottish Highands: Lochaber. It’s the first in her Highland Chronicles series.
  • Dark Deceit, the action of which takes place in 1140s England and Normandy, when a brutal civil war is taking place. It’s the first in her Anarchy Trilogy, set mainly in medieval Normandy.

She has also self-published Silent Deception, a romantic paranormal novella set in Victorian Cornwall.

When she isn’t writing, editing or publishing, Stephanie is visiting castles, towns and cathedrals throughout the UK. A hobby historian, she has taken university modules in Tudor Studies and Scottish Studies. While in Wales, she took part in medieval re-enactment (the medieval and Jacobite eras being her favorites).

Stephanie’s love for medieval Norman history saw her back in Normandy for a holiday in July. Ultimately, she (and her husband) would not rule out moving to France one day, and, yes, she is currently studying French to improve her knowledge of language and culture.

* * *

Welcome, Stephanie, to the Displaced Nation. I think I can guess the answer but I’ll ask you anyway: which comes first, story or location?

Yes, as you probably guessed, I’m usually inspired by location and/or architecture first, which I then combine with potential plot ideas. My Scottish romance, Highland Arms, was born when I travelled through Glencoe and along the dramatic Loch Linnhe in the Scottish Highlands. The forbidding scenery (helped by the adverse weather of sleet, rain and fog) was the perfect setting for an adventure set in the 1720, featuring a smuggler. I always carry a notepad, and on that occasion I found it very useful for jotting down ideas.

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Highland Arms cover art; A view of Glencoe, by Ronhjones via Wikimedia Commons[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gleann_comhainn.jpg] (CC BY-SA 3.0) [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/]. Loch Linnhe, by Moralist via Wikimedia Commons[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vy_i_skottland.JPG](CC BY-SA 3.0) [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/].

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Highland Arms cover art; A view of Glencoe, by Ronhjones; Loch Linnhe, by Moralist. Both images via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

For Highland Arms, I was fortunate enough to find booklets by local historians about the era, which allowed me to paint a more realistic picture. This, in combination with a number of visits during different seasons, allowed me to set the scene quite realistically. I did the same for Dark Deceit, which is partly set in Gloucestershire and partly in Normandy. I took hundreds of photos during a holiday in Normandy and kept going back to my travel diary for pointers. I prefer to write about areas I’ve visited. If I can convey my own feelings and impressions, it helps create the atmosphere.

Is landscape the only feature you look at to create a sense of location? What about culture, or even food?

As I write historical adventures, I tend to focus on history and landscape. I found Normandy hugely inspiring for its medieval history and the buildings that have survived from that era. The castles and cathedrals paint a vivid picture of 12th-century life, and I try my best to capture it and convey it into my stories. As you mentioned, I consider myself a hobby historian and have bookshelves full of history tomes, in English and French. It helps that I love the culture.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?

Here is a passage from Highland Arms:

Catriona nodded. “Thank you, Mr MacKinnon. I wasn’t looking forward to scaling those peaks.” Her gaze scanned the shimmering surface high up, so glaringly white against the deep blue morning sky. Hidden under layers of cloud the day before, the steep hillsides now presented themselves in all their dangerous glory. Stunned by the beauty yet relieved she did not have to cross them, Catriona smiled as she gazed across crags as sharp as a dagger’s edge.

Relaxing in the stillness of her surroundings, she was surprised at her own reaction. Instead of the misery that held her in its grasp for the last few weeks, a new sense flowed through her.

A feeling of…belonging?

She shook her head in disbelief. What brought this on? The eerie stillness should unnerve her, but instead it calmed and steadied her. Taking a deep breath, she gave her mare a nudge with her heel. Perhaps this journey was going to be good for her after all. No longer banishment, but rather an escape. Perhaps even a fortunate escape.

By the time they reached a small settlement by the shore of Loch Linnhe, the sun had crossed its zenith. Melted snow, and the footfalls of men and horses, turned the ground into a muddy slush. A handful of cottages stood scattered along the path, their walls covered in a thick layer of mud to repel the winds. Smoke swirled through holes in the roofs, filling the air with the smell of peat.

Catriona took a deep breath, enjoying the dusky scent. While she waited for MacKinnon to return from a cottage he’d entered on their arrival, she nudged her mare to the water’s edge to let her drink. Her gaze roamed over the large loch, to the far shore and back to where a narrow arm of water branched off into Loch Leven, disappearing from sight between high peaks behind her. The rugged beauty pulled her in.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?

Though not always possible, I find it easier to describe a setting once I’ve visited it for long enough to develop a “feel” for the location. For Dark Deceit, I developed an impression of what life was like in that region during medieval times by exploring the abbeys in Caen and Falaise Castle, among other monuments from that era. The book’s hero is originally from a town called Mortagne, in today’s southern Normandy. During our holiday, we drove down to the town and had a wander through it. I took in the surrounding forests (which haven’t changed too much since the 1100s) and ignored the more modern aspects. I try my best to picture the landscapes as they might have been.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

One of my favourite novels is Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. The way she describes the desolate landscape, the remoteness of the location, is compelling. You have a real sense of being there. I also enjoy reading MM Kaye’s novels, mostly set in India and Africa. A Third Culture Kid (she was born in Simla and lived all over the world as an adult), Kaye evoked a sense of place that many other authors writing about those areas don’t manage in quite the same way.

Patterson faves

Photo credits: Cover art; insets: Young Daphne du Maurier (about 1930), by The Chichester Partnership via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); M.M. Kaye via goodreads.

Thanks so much, Stephanie!

* * *

Readers, any questions for the intrepid Stephanie Patterson? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Stephanie, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter at @cathiedunn.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

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 weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

 

 

LOCATION, LOCUTION: An expat life in Istanbul frees Oliver Tidy to write crime novels set in places he knows well (and Turkey, too!)

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her second interview guest: fellow crime writer Oliver Tidy.

Hello, readers. My guest this month is Oliver Tidy, who on his author site refers to himself as a “semi-professional fantasist” and an “attention seeking vanity publisher” who is “living in exile.”

He also says he has a “yearning for yarning”—so how much of this is true and how much an exaggeration?

Well, it’s patently true he is a self-published author, currently with nine books available for download through Amazon:

  • four in his Romney and Marsh Files British police procedural series. Newly promoted Detective Sergeant Joy Marsh is shipped out to Dover on the Kent coast to work under Detective Inspector Romney, a cantankerous copper who nevertheless is good at his job…
  • three in his Acer Sansom thriller series. British soldier Acer Sansom resurfaces a year after the world thought he was dead, possessed with a single-minded need for vengeance…
  • two in his Booker & Cash mystery story series. An unlikely detective team, David Booker and Jo Cash, solve mysteries in Romney Marsh, a wetland area in southeast England…

As for the “exile” part, Oliver tells me he left the UK in 2009 looking for change and ended up in Istanbul, where he “got change in spades.”

He is currently working in a Turkish school teaching English as a foreign language to young learners. It’s a job that affords him enough time for writing, something he deeply appreciates:

When I lived in the UK, I tried a couple of times to write, but with the responsibility of property and family and work, and the distractions of television and radio and newspapers and people I never got anywhere with it. One of the many things that I have learned about writing is that you have to sit down and write—often.

Now that he lives in Istanbul, Turkey, Oliver Tidy is able to write stories set in his homeland, the most recent one being He Made Me. Photo credits: (clockwise) Oliver Tidy (supplied) and book cover art; St Thomas Becket, Fairfield, Kent, by Amanda Slater via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Living in Istanbul, Turkey, Oliver Tidy has been able to write books set in the place where he was born and bred, the most recent one being He Made Me, which takes place in Romney Marsh, UK. Photo credits: (clockwise) Oliver Tidy (supplied) and book cover art; St Thomas Becket, Fairfield, Kent, by Amanda Slater via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

As for the vanity publishing, Oliver also confesses he initially tried to get a literary agent because he never wanted to self-publish, believing that self-publishing was tainted with shades of ego-tripping.

“How wrong I was,” he said. “How wonderful and liberating self-publishing truly is. If I had not taken the step to self-publish, my readership would still be limited to my mum and me—and I’m sure that mum skim-reads most of my stuff.”

Judging by the Amazon reviews he receives, his audience extends far beyond his mum—and what his fans seem to love the most about his writing is its “local colour,” “sense of place,” and “wonderful descriptions of settings.”

Let’s find out how he does it, shall we?

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?

Why does this make me think of chickens and eggs? Such a hard opening question. I hope they’re not all going to be like this. I much prefer questions about my favourite things: raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, that sort of thing.

Anyway, here goes. As you mentioned in you kind introduction, I write three different series of books: one is set in Dover, Kent—The Romney and Marsh Files; one is set on Romney Marsh—Booker & Cash Stories; and one where, in three books so far, my central protagonist has shot up several different countries on a variety of continents—the Acer Sansom novels. (Acer is a great advert for Brits abroad. Bit of a one-man stag party.)

With the Romney and Marsh Files, story and location had an equal weighting in development. With the Booker and Cash stories it was certainly location first—I am Romney Marsh born and bred. As for the Acer Sansom novels, the first, Dirty Business, involved him visiting Istanbul, a city that I’d been living in for about a year. Acer went from Istanbul to Bodrum, a seaside resort town in Turkey that I’d spent the summer in. That book was definitely heavily influenced by my geographical experiences. The subsequent two books were predominantly plot led.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

Tumble weed moment. In six years of writing I’m yet to experience writer’s block…until now. Give me a minute. I’ll come back to this one at the end. (I came back to it at the end and I still couldn’t answer it. Sorry.)

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

These questions are providing an opportunity to really reflect on my writing—something I’m feeling I don’t do enough of.

I don’t write much about what my characters eat. I write a little more than nothing on the cultures of my settings. Physical geography features more than either of the other two in all of my series. As far as my globe-trotting Acer Sansom novels go, after the first book—where I did have experience of the locations involved—I have to say a massive thank you to the Internet, especially Google maps, Google earth, Google street view. Maybe I should just say thanks Google. I’ve also obtained good insight from some travel blogs. Some of those are a wonderful resource for armchair writers.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?

I’ll use a short passage from the first Acer Sansom novel. One of my characters has driven from Istanbul to Bodrum.

Oliver Tidy’s first Acer Sansom thriller, Dirty Business, is set partly in Bodrum, Turkey, where he lived for a year. Photo credit: Cover art; The best place to live! by Tuncay Coşkun via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Before long the vista opened up before her. As she sometimes had in the years that she had driven to Bodrum, she pulled into a loose gravel pocket at the side of the road and got out of the car.

From her lofty vantage point high up in the hills that embraced the area, she was able to look down at the sprawling panorama of the holiday capital of Turkey. Little enclaves of white boxes, taking advantage of the best geography, were packed so tightly together in places that they might have been one huge solid mass of concrete.

The steep hills that backed these separate little communities demonstrated both the developers’ greed and the sun-seekers’ need for yet more building as newer communities sprang up, patching the arid landscape white like some poorly-designed chess board.

At this time of year Bodrum would be heaving not just with the Turks who could afford to escape the suffocating heat and humidity of the bigger cities but also thousands of holidaymakers of all ages and nationalities.

Once, she thought, the place must have looked like paradise from where she stood—before Man’s concrete assault paradoxically began the ruination of the very environment that made him invest in the area. Would it always be only a matter of time and money before the need to develop areas of outstanding natural beauty outstripped Man’s admiration for them? Thank goodness there were still some idyllic pockets of the area where the authorities had elected to cease development. She felt grateful, if a little hypocritical, that her family owned a villa in one of them.

Her gaze took in the superb sweep of the Aegean, glistening in the early morning light, stretching out towards Greek territory; the differing hues of green and blue combined to create the most inviting scene. She tried to make out details of the ships anchored across the bay but was too far away.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?

Having lived on Romney Marsh for over forty years has made the two stories—the third is under construction—in my Booker & Cash series much easier in the penning-the-setting stakes. My memories of the place are vivid and unshakeable and I return there for a few weeks each year in the summer which allows me to top them up.

I know Dover fairly well, having spent a lot of time there a few years ago. When I return to the UK I like to jump on the bus from my home on Romney Marsh to Dover for the day just to refresh my memory and see what’s new.

Cover art of Rope Enough, first in police procedural series set in Dover; Dover Castle, by Andrew and Annemarie (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Cover art for Rope Enough, first in Tidy’s “Romney and Marsh File” police procedural series set in Dover; Dover Castle, by Andrew and Annemarie (CC BY-SA 2.0).

As I mentioned, in the first Acer Sansom book I used Istanbul and Bodrum for my exotic locations—two places that I felt I had enough experience of to write convincingly about them. Most of Acer’s locations in the subsequent two books I have never visited. I’m always waiting to be taken to task by readers who have personal and insightful experiences of the places I’ve depicted. What can you do sometimes? You need to write about somewhere you’ve never been. You log on, do some research and then your best.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

CJ Sansom for the way he portrays London in Tudor times; Michael Dibdin and Andrea Camilleri for their descriptions of Italy, and the unbeatable Patrick O’Brian for his depictions of any location, be it land or sea, that he touches upon in any of his Aubrey/Maturin novels. What a writer.

A few of Tidy's favorite authors, who know how to handle "location, locution."

A few of Tidy’s favorite authors, who have demonstrated a mastery of “location, locution.”

Thanks so much, Oliver!

* * *

Readers, any questions for the jolly Oliver Tidy? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Oliver Tidy, why not pay a visit to his author site. You can also follow him on twitter at @olivertidy.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

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 weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

 

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Nik Morton draws from his nomadic expat life to author genre fiction

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her very first interview guest, the extraordinary Nik Morton. (Nik, thank you for giving the Displaced Nation a shout-out in one of your recent posts!)

Hello, readers. This month we have the delight of discovering how Nik Morton, a British-born resident of Spain who is also a prolific author, handles location, locution.

Although Nik has fifty years of writing experience, having sold hundreds of articles and more than a hundred short stories, he came late to being a published author. His first novel, a western, came out in 2007. This year he will publish his twenty-second book—Catacomb, the second in his Avenging Cat crime series. (The first was Catalyst and the third will be Cataclysm. All are named for the series’ protagonist, the Avenging Catherine Vibrissae.)

In addition to this contemporary crime series, which he publishes with Crooked Cat (there’s that feline theme again!), Nik has written:

  • westerns (Black Horse series, under the pseudonym Ross Morton, published by Robert Hale)
  • fantasy (co-written with Gordon Faulkner under the pseudonym Morton Faulkner, published by Knox Robinson)
  • Cold War thrillers (the Tana Standish series, which Crooked Cat will reissue).

Nik has run writing workshops and chaired writers’ circles, and has been a magazine editor, a publisher’s editor, and even an illustrator. His writing guide, Write a Western in 30 Days: With Plenty of Bullet-Points!, is said to be useful for all genre writers, not only writers of westerns.

Spain, where he currently lives, was the inspiration for the stories collected in Spanish Eye.

Spain is one of several inspiration sources for the well-travelled writer Nik Morton.

Nik was displaced, incidentally, long before he and his wife retired to Alicante. He spent 23 years in the Royal Navy, during which he had the chance to visit many exotic places—among them Rawalpindi, the Khyber Pass, Sri Lanka, Tokyo, Zululand, Mombasa, Bahrain, Tangier, Turkey, Norway, Finland, South Georgia and the Falklands. He has also travelled widely in his private life, giving him a wealth of places to draw on in his works in addition to his current home of Spain.

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?

This is a tough question, and the answer is ‘it depends’. For my seven western novels, the character and the story came first; the location for each required research for the period and the State, usually Dakota Territory.

Yet location definitely comes first for my Cold War thrillers featuring psychic spy Tana Standish: The Prague Papers, The Tehran Text and the third, a work in progress, The Khyber Chronicle. Each adventure in the series is based around actual historic events, so the location is crucial.

I’ve always hankered after writing about exotic places, and as you mentioned in your introduction, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel widely, both privately and with the Royal Navy. My wife and I lived for 20 months in Malta and out of that location emerged a cross-genre novel, a modern-day vampire romantic thriller, now out of print.

We’ve visited Tenerife on five separate occasions and from that evolved my romantic thriller, Blood of the Dragon Trees.

Having lived in Spain for over 11 years, I’ve absorbed quite a bit about the politics and crime situation here and have had 22 short stories published set in Spain, collected in Spanish Eye—exploring the human condition as seen through the eyes of Leon Cazador, half-English, half-Spanish private eye, written ‘in his own words’.

For my latest crime series about ‘the avenging cat’, Catherine Vibrissae, the story definitely came first: but the exotic locations were a close second—Barcelona (Catalyst), Morocco (Catacomb) and Shanghai (Cataclysm).

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

Place is important in almost every scene; I want the reader to see the characters in the scene, so the place needs to be described in relation to them. Character point of view can provide an emotional appreciation of the scene too. The rugged, inhospitable High Atlas of Morocco, for example, can be strengthened by the character experiencing the intense heat and the almost preternatural silence of the place.

Technique: be there, in the scene. Of course you can’t overburden the story with too much description, but the weather, the flora and maybe even fauna, the landscape as character, all have their input at various times. If I can’t visualise the scene through my characters’ eyes, then there’s little chance that the reader will. I may not always succeed, but that’s what I strive towards—using all of the character’s senses.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

All of the above, depending on the dramatic content of the scene. People have to eat to live, so it’s natural that my characters eat from time to time. I don’t want to labour the point for the reader, but if I simply wrote ‘Corbin ate a meal at the hotel and then went out,’ then we’re in the realms of ‘tell’ not ‘show’; which has its place from time to time, but perhaps mentioning some particular food can make it more ‘real’ and show more of the character, such as:

Stomach full with Chili de Sangre Anaranjada, Corbin read the local newspaper in the hotel lounge, allowing the beef and pork to digest. He had complimented the chef, a Swede by the moniker of Iwan Morelius. Apparently, Morelius had been on the staff of Baron Ernst Mattais Peter von Vegesack, who had been given leave to fight for the Union. While the baron returned to Sweden after the war, Morelius stayed and Mr Canaan, the hotel manager, was vociferously proud of his culinary acquisition.

—From The $300 Man, by Ross Morton (p. 84)

Culture is definitely relevant if the story takes place abroad—whether that’s Prague or Shanghai. And we’ve already touched upon landscape, which can become a character that tests individuals to the limit.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?

This cafe in Tenerife will soon be populated by characters from Nik Morton's imagination. Photo credit: Tenerife, Canary Islands, by Carrie Finley-Bajak[https://www.flickr.com/photos/cruisebuzz/8158748971] via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This cafe in Tenerife will soon be populated by characters from Nik Morton’s imagination. Photo credit: Tenerife, Canary Islands, by Carrie Finley-Bajak via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In Blood of the Dragon Trees, Laura has come to Tenerife to teach a couple of Spanish children. I wanted to create an ambiance while moving her through the story. She is waiting for Andrew Kirby, a mystery man who attracts her:

Clutching her Corte Inglés shopping bag, Laura arrived at the square about fifteen minutes early and, as usual, the adjoining roads were jammed with delivery trucks and a variety of taxis: Mercedes, Toyota, Seat, Peugeot. She was lucky and grabbed a café’s outdoor table with two vacant chairs. She sat and politely fended off the attentive waiter, explaining in Spanish that she would order when her friend joined her. Friend?

In the meantime, she waited, idly studying the antics of the men at the taxi rank in front of a series of phone booths. One of them was pushing his car along the rank, rather than switch on the engine, as the row moved forward. The taxis sported a colorful and distinctive coat of arms.

Sitting on the corner of the street was a blind man selling lottery tickets. She doubted if that would be possible in any town or city in England; the poor man would be mugged in seconds.
Most of the people at the other tables appeared to be businessmen and women, though there were some exceptions. An overdressed elderly woman sat with her Pekinese dog on her lap, feeding it biscuits while sipping her Tío Pepe. At the table next to her, a large bull of a man was glancing through the newspaper, El Día; he possessed a Neanderthal jaw and crewcut dark brown hair. For a second she thought she’d seen him before, but shook off the idea. Andrew Kirby was making her unreasonably suspicious!

—from Blood of the Dragon Trees, by Nik Morton (p. 116)

So, besides the observation of little details going on around her—and the suspenseful hint for the reader that we’ve seen the man with the Neanderthal jaw before—there’s the compelling influence that Andrew is exerting on her.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?

Ideally, travel to the place. But even then additional back-up research is necessary. Of course you can’t hope to travel to every exotic place you write about. I’ve been to many of the places in my novels and short stories, but not all—and I must then concentrate on research.

Sadly, non-fiction reference books can quickly become out-of-date—bus colours might change, customs may once have been quaint only to be replaced by adopted globalised traits. (Yes, it has happened to me!)

Any piece of fiction set in the past requires research; yes, you can travel the battlefields, visit the ancient cities; but you can’t experience that time, only imagine it.

Official map of the territory of Dakota[https://www.flickr.com/photos/normanbleventhalmapcenter/14009763855/], by http://maps.bpl.org via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]

Some places can’t be visited, only researched. Official map of the territory of Dakota, by http://maps.bpl.org via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Fiction requires a writer to be bold, to do research and then re-imagine the place, with its sights, smells and sounds. The bottom line is, it’s fiction, which means an approximation of the real world. If a critic blithely dismisses writers who make a few errors in their research because they haven’t travelled there, then that critic is misguided.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Some books could be set anywhere; location is not significant to the story. Others, the location is vital to the story. The old practitioners Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes, Nevil Shute, and Alistair Maclean described the location their main characters found themselves in, and you believed every word. Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels thrust you into a period and a place that seems real while you’re reading. Donna Leon’s Italy is real.

A few of the writers Nik Morton admires for their depiction of place in their novels.

A few of the novelists Nik Morton admires for their skill with depicting location.

Thanks so much, Nik!

* * *

Readers, any questions for my first guest? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Nik, why not pay a visit to his author site; his blog, called Writealot (no exaggeration in his case); and the archives of Auguries, a science fiction, fantasy and horror magazine Nik edited from 1983 to 1994. You can also follow Nik on twitter at @nik_morton.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

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 weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

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!

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!

Related posts:

THE LADY WHO WRITES: Get over yourself, and start promoting that novel!

LadyWhoWrites_brandThe Lady Who Writes, Meagan Adele Lopez, is back today: we’ve missed her! Once again, she’ll be doling out practical advice based on her own experience for expats and other international creatives who are engaged in writing novels using some of the material gathered from their novel, shall we say, life stories. Meagan is a repeat expat in the UK (last time Bristol, this time London). Besides writing, her talents include acting, blogging, and crafting ads for social media.

—ML Awanohara

So—you’ve written the book, you’ve got the editor, your friends and family love it, you’ve done the Kickstarter to raise the money and your blog has a steady readership.

(Even if you have just written the book and don’t have the rest in that list, you’re a million times ahead of anyone who has just spoken about writing a book. You’ve DONE something.)

Don’t you think you deserve—no, the WORLD deserves—to get a chance to know it exists?

The fact is, most of us writers are a little afraid of self-promotion. But by the time you finish reading today’s column, I hope you will have gotten over that fear and are full of determination to plug your Great Work like crazy.

Excuses, excuses

You don’t have a manager? You don’t have a PR team? You don’t know a graphic designer?

All good! Even if you had all those things, you’d still be expected to do as much, if not more than, the promotional team, who are working on other books as well as yours. Obviously, having a group of PR professionals around you wouldn’t hurt. But c’mon! You’ve been preparing for this your entire life. You got this!

To quote Eminem—just because the song Lose Yourself never fails to get me pumped up to do really GREAT things:

Look, if you had, one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted, one moment
Would you capture it?
Or just let it slip, yo

Facebook’s (literal) wall

Now I want to tell you about the time when I took a walk through Facebook headquarters to pitch to Walmart and Facebook about why my team was worth their investment of millions of dollars. I noticed many inspiring quotes on their (literal!) walls, one of which really lept out at me:

"Done is better then..." on Facebook's literal wall, by Meagan Adele Lopez

“Done is better then…” on Facebook’s literal wall. Photo credit: Meagan Adele Lopez

Notice the misspelling and the comma in a weird place? It certainly makes a statement, doesn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great idea to comb through the final manuscript, edit the spelling mistakes and make sure your character arcs are outlined appropriately.

But how long have you been working on this novel? One year? Two years? Ten?!

Get it out there. Done is better than perfect. Done is even better than good—or as Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame says:

I want to make as many things as I can, taking on as many projects as I can possibly tackle. Each one exciting. Each one good enough. Each one DONE, to make room for the next, and the next, and the next…

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to live?

Take me, for instance…

This article is a perfect example, actually. I have written and re-written it about five times. Twice because my computer crashed, and three times in my head because I didn’t feel like I had anything relevant to add to this topic.

Wait, did I just say I have nothing to add? I work in ADVERTISING and MARKETING for God’s sake. How could I not have something to say?

All of our heads get in the way sometimes, and that’s OK as long as you don’t let it run you. I know this article is supposed to be about promoting your novel, but I think the most useful thing I can tell you is to get over yourself and realize that you are damn good enough to have other people read your book, now that it’s finished.

Regardless of what other writers on writing would have you believe, there are no secret tips to marketing and promoting your novel. Yes, there are the basics—advertising campaigns, blogs, newsletters, etc. But the most important thing is to refuel that passion you had when you were dining with your characters, when you were rehearsing your book trailer and reading every other author’s done works, and use it to drive your promotional efforts.

Set some goals

Thus I’m not going to give you step-by-step instructions on how to promote your novel. There are plenty of other google-able articles out there—for example:

But I will tell you to have goals. Do you want to sell 50 copies or tens of thousands? Do you want to make the New York Times Bestseller list, or do you just want your entire family to read it? Do you want to write articles or be interviewed for great sites like The Displaced Nation?

Once you’ve set some goals, how you go about achieving them becomes a lot easier.

What I can also say is that everything you write after you finish your book will be a promotion for that book. For example, at the end of this article is a little blurb about who I am and what I’ve written. Same for this interview I did in 2011 about publishing on Kindle, this article I wrote about taking the time to make change happen, and this article I wrote just recently for BBC America about combining British and American weddings (a version of which appeared two years ago on the Displaced Nation).

And now, without further ado, here’s Novel Writing Tip No 6 for International Creatives:

Once you write a book—everything you do will help promote it. So finish with the finishing touches, get out there and start talking about it!

* * *

Readers, what do you make of this final piece of advice of Meagan’s, which I take to be a kind of a kick in the pants (or trousers, if you prefer)? And do you have any further questions for Meagan, THE LADY WHO WRITES, before she leaves us? Please share in the comments…

Meagan Adele Lopez grew up in the U.S. with a Cuban-born father and American mother, and at one time enjoyed an acting/casting career in Hollywood, something you can detect in the beautiful trailer for her novel, Three Questions. Her day job these days is in social media advertising. To learn more about Meagan, go to her Web site.

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!

Related posts:

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!

Related posts:

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!

Related posts:

%d bloggers like this: