A Perfect Day on Vacation

Looking across at the Pyramid of the Sun from the top of the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, Mexico. All photos in this blog were taken by Susan Ruff in March 1996.

What makes a perfect vacation day? I suspect every person has a different answer to that question.

My years of travel have provided many great experiences. Because today is Cinco de Mayo, it seems like a good day to write about my perfect day during a trip to Mexico.

I’m a big fan of organized tours. Letting the tour company do all the work makes traveling easy. Meeting other travelers is fun, and local guides can give you fascinating insights about a region that you might not find in a travel book or website.

But there is one drawback to organized trips. You seldom get enough time to visit museums and historical sites. (Or, at least, not enough time for me — I could spend hours wandering through a museum or archaeological site.)

So in 1996, when I read about a hotel located within an easy walk of the main archaeological zone in Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, I planned a different kind of trip. At the time, my job gave me more vacation days than John’s did, so I would spend the extra week each year traveling with my mother.

Mom and I flew into Mexico City in March 1996, spent a few days visiting different attractions in the city itself, and then headed down to Teotihuacan.

The archaeoloigcal zone at Teotihuacan is huge. The main avenue is more than a mile long. The site includes pyramids, murals, and stone decorations on the outsides of the buildings. Archaeologists have been making discoveries over the years, so there are probably even more things to see now than there were when I was there 17 years ago.

On the first day, we took a group tour of the site, which gave me a good overview of the complex. We went through the museum, bought souvenirs at the gift shop, and got a chance to climb the Pyramid of the Sun.

By the next day, my mom was tired and was happy to spend the day relaxing at the hotel, while I walked the short distance back to the archaeological zone.

The March weather was perfect, without a cloud in the sky. For the first time in my life, I had an entire day to explore a huge archaeological site with no time limits or interruptions. I had my camera with me (in those days, it was a 35-mm film camera). I spent the day walking, snapping pictures, and taking time to view the individual sights within the zone. At one point, I climbed to the top of the Pyramid of the Moon (the one I had not climbed the day before) and took pictures from the top. There was plenty of time for me to examine each of the stone carvings and murals in detail.

For lunch, I ate at a delightful cafe that was either contained within the complex or right next to it. Then I set out to explore again.

By late afternoon, the westering sun lit up the stone ruins with a golden light. All the other tourists had departed. It was just me, my camera, and a vast archaeological preserve. It was the perfect day.

-Susan 5/5/2023

p.s. Would you believe that, as of May 1, I have now been writing this blog for three years? WooHoo! When I first started, I wasn’t sure I would be able to think of enough topics to keep it going for sixth months.

Today’s post is a little more about travel and a little less about writing than usual. If you want to hear more about our writing each month, click here to sign up for our free author newsletter.

Writing Inspiration Destination: Delphi, Greece

All photographs in this blog post were taken by Susan Ruff in June 1992. (My apologies for the poor photo quality; they were scanned from old 35 mm prints in my photo album.)

Greece is a wonderful place to visit and provides a constant source of writing inspiration for me (as you can tell by the number of times my blog posts have included locations from that country). In a land full of amazing things to see, Delphi still stands out as one of the best.

My beloved co-author and I visited Delphi on a beautiful June day in 1992. The weather was perfect, and the archaeological complex was fascinating. After 30 years, my memory of our visit has faded a bit, but I recall that much of the site was situated along a slope and that we climbed up an ancient road as we passed the remains of structures and monuments.

Delphi also hosts a great museum. Based on the photos I saw on line recently while I was writing this blog, I suspect the museum has been improved and modernized since I was there, but even 30 years ago it contained an excellent collection of artifacts, including the famous bronze statue of a charioteer.

My writing inspiration story for today’s blog post comes from that museum. A few months ago, Emerald Cove announced plans for its newest themed anthology. The collection of short stories will focus on mythical creatures in an urban fantasy setting.

While my fellow Emerald Cove authors immediately got to work on some excellent stories, I was, as usual, completely at a loss for what to write. John and I discussed the project, and he came up with a fun plot idea that sent me searching through my photo albums to find the sphinx we had seen in the museum at Delphi.

I don’t want to say too much about a work in progress, but if all goes well, you can expect to see a humorous story involving a sphinx at some point in the future. I’ll provide a further update when I know more.

I’ll talk to you again on the first Friday of May!

-Susan 4/7/2023

p.s. Don’t forget that John and I have an author newsletter now, which goes out by email. Our subscribers can read amusing anecdotes from our lives, learn interesting bits of trivia about our books, and be the first to get updates on our writing projects. The newsletter is free, and you even get a free short story as a thank you gift when you subscribe.

Here is the link: Newsletter signup

Some Irish Castles for the Month of March

If you are a fantasy author, castles are always a wonderful source of writing inspiration. They are fun to visit, great to explore, and marvelously photogenic. I love them all — from the oldest ruins in faraway lands to that delightful edifice in nearby Anaheim. March is the month of St. Patrick’s Day and I have Irish ancestry, so it seems only fitting to write about some of the Irish castles I have visited.

Blarney Castle as seen through the trees. (Photo by S. Ruff 1995).

My beloved co-author and I first traveled to Ireland during our honeymoon in 1995. We had rented a car to drive around the British Isles, so we took a car ferry across from Wales to Ireland. We started our exploration in Dublin, and then drove south, visiting sites mostly in the eastern half of the county, before taking another ferry across to Cardiff.

During the trip, we toured Blarney Castle and I kissed the stone. So I now have the gift of eloquence…or blarney…or both. (This month’s newsletter talks a little bit more about my adventures with that particular rock.)

Looking out from the battlements of Bunratty Castle. (Photo by S. Ruff 2000.)

In the summer of 2000, my brother and I took our mother on a bus tour of Ireland. It started near Shannon, went up the western side of the country, around the top of Northern Ireland, and ended up in Dublin. During the trip we got to drive through the area where my great-grandfather was born.

Our first stop on the trip was at Bunratty Castle and folk park. The castle is impressive — tall and imposing, visible from a long distance, and very well preserved. From the top, there was a great view of the surroundings. Looking out over the lands below, I could almost imagine what the countryside looked like hundreds of years before.

One of my favorite castles in Ireland was not built as an ancient fortification. Instead, Kylemore Abbey was constructed in the 19th century as a private residence. When I first read about it in the tour brochure, I was confused — with so many ancient castles in Ireland, why visit one that was less than 200 years old?

Beautiful Kylemore Abbey. (Photo by S. Ruff 2000.)

Then I found out why. Kylemore Abbey is beautiful. It sits amid greenery beside a lake. Even on the rainy day when we visited, I could catch glimmers of the building’s reflection in the water. My photo included in this blog post does not even begin to capture the full beauty of the building and the lake beside it. It is well worth a visit.

Talk to you in April!

-Susan 3/3/2003

Writing Inspiration Destination: Catalina Island, California

Catalina Island on a cloudy day in February 1992. (Photo by Susan Ruff. Sorry for the poor photo quality. The picture was scanned from an old photo album.)

On Valentine’s Day weekend in 1992, John and I went on our very first cruise together. It was a little 3-day jaunt. It sailed from Long Beach, California, to Catalina Island, to Ensenada, Mexico, and back to Long Beach.

At the time, I considered it a test. Neither of us had cruised before, and I wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy it. Would I get seasick? Would I be bored during all those hours on the water?

It turned out to be a wonderful experience. We’ve gone cruisng many times since then to all kinds of interesting places in the world. But there’s something about your very first port-of-call that makes it special forever.

In our case, it was particularly memorable, because we almost didn’t get on shore. January and February tend to be California’s rainy season, and that year was no exception. Our cruise ship anchored near the harbor at Avalon, and the ship’s tender boats were supposed to carry us on shore. Because of the rain, the water was so rough that the captain decided not to lower the tender boats.

I was very disappointed! Our first port on our first cruise, and we couldn’t go ashore. We went up to get breakfast and stared out the window. We were on one of those huge cruise ships with multiple levels, so looking down from the dining room to the water was probably like looking down from a ten-story building.

From up there, the sea looked a little active, but nothing too bad. About an hour later, when the captain decided that the weather had eased enough to allow safe passage on the tender boats, John and I ruished downstairs to get aboard one.

Suddenly the words “rough seas” had new meaning for me. Waves crashed around and rocked our little tender boat back and forth as we made our way to land. It was definitely a roller-coaster ride. (At the time, we called it an “E-ticket” ride. How many of you out there still remember that reference?) When we looked back at the cruise ship, it was as solid as a skyscraper — those big ships are amazingly stable.

Once we got on land, rain continued to pour down and water filled the sides of the streets, but we didn’t mind. We were on vacation and having fun and it was a grand adventure. The rains kept the crowds away, and we felt like we had the whole town of Avalon to ourselves. We avoided the downpour by ducking into shops, and we toured the Casino, a beautiful dance hall that was famous during my mother’s generation. In all, it was an extraordinary day and a great place to visit.

Inside the Casino, Catalina’s historic dance hall and museum. (Photo by Susan Ruff 1992.)

So what is the writing inspiration in Catalina? Obviously, for a fantasy author, there is something mythic about going west over the water to a place called Avalon. But since John and I don’t write Arthurian fantasy, that was not a direct inspiration for our novels. Instead, I think the whole atmosphere of the day was the real inspiration — the rain, the rocking boat ride, the beautiful seaside community, and the grand adventure of it all.

And, by the way, if you are a fan of fantasy novels, the ebook version of our novel The Keyhole Wizard, is on sale today and throughout this weekend (February 3 – 5, 2023) for 99 cents on Amazon.com. Click here to find out more: The Keyhole Wizard.

If you like clean fantasy, there is also a group promotion going on right now for Noblebright and Clean Fantasy stories:

One of our short stories Reflections of Disdain is included in the promo.

Have a wonderful February! Talk to you in March!

-Susan 2/3/2023

Writing Inspiration Destination: Bergen, Norway

Looking across the water toward the Bryggen area of the city. (Photo by S. Ruff, 2022. All other photos in this blog taken by S. Ruff in 2013.)

Bergen, Norway is a wonderful city. A beautiful waterfront, fascinating historical sites, and so many other things make it a great destination. John and I had the privilege of exploring the city during two different trips, the first time in 2013, and more recently during a cruise last summer.

As an author of medieval-type fantasy, I particularly enjoyed visiting the old harbor district, known as Bryggen. Narrow alleys lead between wooden buildings, with rooftops so close together that they almost seem to touch. Some of the structures lean at interesting angles, and one shop even had a staircase with treads that slanted to the side.

We also had fun exploring Rosenkrantz Tower, a centuries-old stone structure, complete with narrow doorways, winding stairs, arched alcoves, a rooftop overlook, a museum, and even a 16th-century dungeon room.

The writing inspirations in Bergen are almost too numerous to mention. For example, the narrow alleys in Bryggen undoubtedly influenced some of the scenes in the city of Cravanse in The Keyhole Wizard.

I highly recommend that all would-be fantasy authors take some time to travel. It’s fine to read about a darkened walkway with tall buildings close together and overhanging roofs above, but it’s a far differerent experience to walk through that alley in real life. Those real-life experiences have made a huge difference in my writing.

Talk to you next month!

-Susan 1/6/2023

P.S. Don’t forget that John and I have a monthly email newsletter now! In addition to updates and trivia about our writing, articles can include amusing anecdotes from our lives and stories about our travels. For example, in today’s issue, I admit to one of my guilty little travel pleasures. Anyone who signs up gets a free copy of a fantasy short story that my beloved co-author and I wrote exclusively for the newsletter. Click this link to sign up and get your free short story.

View from the top of Rosenkrantz Tower. (Photo by S. Ruff, 2013.)

Announcing Our Free Newsletter and Short Story!

It’s official! John and I now have our own author newsletter/email list. Anyone who signs up will receive a free copy of our short story Reflections of Disdain, a fun little prequel to our full-length fantasy novel The Keyhole Wizard.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while and wondered what our writing is like, here is your chance to get a free sample. To sign up and receive your copy of the short story, click this link.

Story description:

Does she know the secret to lure the hymarinx, a rare and dangerous magical creature?

Nineteen-year-old Daraline Graciel lives with the sting of failure, ever since a foolish mistake forever robbed her of magic. When a hymarinx appears on her family lands, she sees a chance to redeem herself. If she can capture the prized animal before anyone else, she can finally prove her worth to her mother and the world.

But the hymarinx is an elusive, magical beast with sharp claws and teeth. If Daraline fails, it could cost more than her reputation.

(This prequel short story takes place about two years before the opening of The Keyhole Wizard.)

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season! I’ll talk to you in January 2023.

-Susan 12/2/2022

Writing Inspiration Destination: Iceland

With the world opening up once more, John and I finally got a chance to do some foreign travel this past summer. We took a cruise which included several stops in Iceland. We had never visited Iceland before, so I was excited to go there.

The ruggedly beautiful countryside impressed me right away. Iceland contains fascinating geological features — boiling mudpots, steamvents between the rocks, and unusual, lunar-like landscapes. No volcanoes were erupting while we were there, but I got to climb up the side of an old volcanic crater. I also went underground to explore a lava tube.

Shopping in Reykjavik was a lot of fun. We enjoyed both the regular stores and the little market stalls that lined pedestrian shopping streets.

My attempt at baking Viking bread. I guess I am not giving up my day job to become a baker. (But it tasted good!)

John was impressed by the close connection between modern Iceland and the country’s Viking roots. The language, governmental structure, and culture all reflect its early settlers. During one of the cruise’s shore excursions, we went to a place where we learned about the Vikings and got a chance to bake bread according to the old traditions. We also visited some of Iceland’s excellent museums.

In addition to Viking bread, we also ate some of the Icelandic rye bread that gets baked underground. It was…well…an acquired taste, but I’m glad we got a chance to try it.

This hole in the ground led to a lava tube that ran beneath the surface.

Often, it can take years before a place we visited works its way into one of our books or short stories. In the case of Iceland, however, the inspiration was both direct and immediate. John and I needed a setting for a short story we were about to write. The underground lava tube, with its low, sloping passage, narrow places to climb through, and water dripping from the roof, provided just the location we sought.

Our soon-to-be-published short story, Reflections of Disdain, opens in a series of caverns. While they are not exactly the same as the lava tube in Iceland, my experience exploring the underground passage unquestionably helped to inspire the story.

I had hoped that Reflections of Disdain would be completed in time for today’s blog post, but we are still waiting for the book cover. John and I plan to give away an ebook version of the story for free as a thank you to people who sign up for our email newsletter.

What newsletter, you may ask? The brand new one that we hope to start within the next few weeks. I’ll send out a special blog post with an announcement once it is ready.

In the meantime, take care, everyone, and good luck to those of you participating in NaNoWriMo. (I’m not doing NaNo this year — I’ve already got too much on my plate trying to get the newsletter started.)

Talk to you on December 2 (or sooner, if we announce the newsletter)!

-Susan 11/4/2022

Our Venture into Writing for Radio

Every so often as a writer, you get to try something entirely new and fun. Recently, John and I had an opportunity to submit a script for a radio series. The series is called “Radio Story Hour” and our contribution is a one-hour fantasy episode called “Prince Kenneth in the Ill-Fated Forest.”

It’s been fascinating to watch the process of creating a radio drama. John has a theater background from school and knows a bit about the technical side of things, but this has been a new experience for me. (I was in a few plays in high school, but that was many years ago and our school drama department had no fancy theater or equipment at the time.)

Our first job as writers was to cut down our rough script so it would fit into an hour-long episode. John turned out to be an excellent editor in that process, figuring out what to cut and ways to combine dialogue to shorten the script without losing the story.

Next came the auditions for the voice actors. They were done through video conference. As the episode writers, John and I were permitted to attend. I was surprised to find I was nervous at first, even though I was not auditioning, but the sessions went very smoothly. The co-directors for the episode have been very patient with my questions and have really made me feel welcome during the process.

This week, the actors began recording the dialogue. Through the wonders of modern technology, everyone involved can be in different locations physcially, but still come together to create the production.

It is an amazing privilege for an author to hear written words brought to life by talented artists. At times during the recording this past week, I just sat in wonder as I heard the characters we had created “speak.” I am really looking forward to the finished version with all the sound effects and music.

The episode is set to be aired some time next year on KNVC 95.1 FM, Carson City’s community radio station. It should also be available for streaming at some point. I’ll keep you posted with details as the time for broadcast nears.

Talk to you on November 4!

-Susan 10/7/2022

Writing Inspiration While Walking

Along a walking trail in Ohio.

When you’re a writer, ideas can come to you at odd times.

Some authors get story ideas when they’re in the shower. In fact, you can buy a waterproof notepad to keep in the shower, so you don’t lose any precious words. Other writers get ideas at night. No doubt, they keep a paper and pen (or an electronic device) by their bedside to jot down any literary gems.

Part of the Tamborine Rainforest Skywalk in Australia.

For me, some of my best ideas come when I am walking. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I love to walk. The more exotic the locale, the more I enjoy the hike. But when it comes to writing inspiration, even the four mile walk around my neighborhood can help me break through a writing wall. The notepad app on my phone gets a lot of use.

Walking along the city walls of Derry.

For example, when John and I first started writing the book that eventually became The Keyhole Wizard, I wanted to create a new magic system for the story, different from anything else we had written. I knew I wanted magic to be a little dangerous for the caster, but I struggled to come up with an idea.

Then I went out for a walk. By the time I had completed four miles and arrived home, I had thought of a system in which a mage opened a door to draw out magical energy, but that door could slam with dangerous consequences.

About a year later, when the marketing specialists suggested that our book Prophecy’s Malignant Son might sell better with a different title, I was out walking when the title The Keyhole Wizard came to me.

Now that John and I have published the second book in the Doorway to Magic series, we are starting to talk about ideas for the third book. I guess I’m going to do a lot of walking over the next couple of months.

And yes, in case you are wondering, I got the idea for today’s blog post topic while I was out walking.

Talk to you on the first Friday of October!

-Susan 9/2/2022