Writing Inspiration Destination: Salisbury, England

(This is part 9 of the series describing places that have influenced my writing.)

If you’ve been following my blog for a while. I can guess what you are already thinking: she co-authors fantasy novels and she loves archaeology. Guess what her writing inspiration from the area around Salisbury, England must have been?

Sorry to disappoint you, but no, it wasn’t Stonehenge.

Don’t get me wrong – Stonehenge is great, and my beloved co-author and I visited there during one of our trips to England. (I’ve actually been to Stonehenge multiple times, including twice back in the 1970’s, when they still let you walk among the stones.)

Sheep grazing beside one of the stones of Avebury Circle.

I also enjoyed visiting nearby Avebury circle. While it is not as compact or as iconic as Stonehenge, it has the advantage of being much less crowded. Standing stones have a far more mystical quality when there aren’t a bunch of other tourists around you.

I’m sure that all those mysterious and marvelous menhirs have helped to spark my imagination in subtle ways. Some of my favorite authors have used them in their novels. There is no question that they can be inspiring. They are, however, not the inspiration I am specifically writing about today.

The tops of archways within the Salisbury Cathedral complex.

My inspiration from Salisbury was not the cathedral, although it was lovely and well worth the visit.

By the way, you may be wondering why this blog post did not open with a pretty picture of Salisbury Cathedral.

Well, a funny thing used to happen when you took pictures back in the mid-1990’s. You did not have digital cameras to let you know instantly how your picture came out. Instead, you had to wait until you developed the film after you got home to realize that the sun was in exactly the wrong place and sent a terrible glare across your cathedral photos. Sadly, even color restoration cannot cure that problem. So, I’ve included a far-less-pretty picture of the top of some of the cathedral’s archways instead.

All three of those sights — Stonehenge, Avebury Circle, and Salisbury Cathedral — as well as the city of Salisbury itself, are worthy of inspiring any novelist, particularly one who writes fantasy. I’m sure they have and will continue to inspire me in subtle ways.

But the most immediate inspiration came from the delightful, little boutique hotel where John and I stayed when we visited the city. I think the building was actually very old, though it may have been a modern building made to look old. (After more than 25 years, I can’t remember.) It had a four-posted bed and windows with leaded glass.

If you’ve read Prophecy’s Malignant Son, you may remember the scene in Chapter 2 where Daraline looks out the window of her second story room at the inn and sees Fabren approaching through the rain. When I wrote that scene, the boutique hotel room in Salisbury was definitely one of the images I had in my mind.

Do I have a photo of that room? Well yes, but the picture has things like luggage and soda cans in it, so it is definitely not worthy of a blog post. I invite you to use your imagination to picture the room instead. After all, that’s what readers and authors are best at.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 10/22/2021

Writing Inspiration Destination: Hawaii’s Big Island

(This is part 8 of the series describing places that have influenced my writing.)

A storm approaches the beautiful Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge) National Historical Park.

Where does an author of medieval-ish (emphasis on the “ish”) high fantasy novels find inspiration in a tropical paradise like Hawaii? Not necessarily where you would expect.

Yes, Hawaii is everything it promises in all those travel brochures. It has amazing beaches, beautiful scenery, great food, gorgeous flowers, and wonderful Aloha friendliness. Beyond all those good reasons to visit, the Big Island (Hawai’i) also has one more special attraction for me: volcanoes!

A pathway winding through Lava Tree State Monument.

When I was a child, volcanoes terrified me. Once, when I was little, our family’s camper-van broke down near Lassen Volcanic National Park in California. We had to wait several days for the parts to arrive so the local mechanic could fix the engine. During those days, I was constantly worried that the volcano would suddenly erupt. (Obviously, the concept of “active” volcano was not entirely clear to me at the time.)

A walkway near the Thurston Lava Tube.

As I grew older, fear turned to fascination. Over the years, I’ve visited other volcanic sites during my travels, including Santorini in Greece, Pompeii in Italy, and Mt. St. Helens in Washington. I even went back to Mt. Lassen a few years ago with my beloved co-author.

When John and I visited the island in 1998, there was a place where the road ended abruptly at a hardened lava flow.

Our visit to the Big Island (Hawai’i) in the late 1990’s, in addition to making me fall in love with the place, offered one unique experience that was unavailable at the other locations we visited – a helicopter flyover of an active lava flow.

Looking down at the flowing lava from the air.

I remember being surprised at the time, because the lava looked a lot different from the air than I had expected. For one thing, it was daytime, so there were no spectacular colors to light up the night sky. Instead of rivers of fire, the flow looked more like mercury. Only a few spots showed the characteristic fiery red-orange that you always see in the media.

Apparently, this flat field was an active lava lake at the time Mark Twain was on the island in the 1800’s. I’ve read that there is currently a lava lake on the island, but it was not present when we visited in 1998.

This is the part of the blog where I usually explain how a visit to a particular location influenced my writing. As you know, all those volcanoes in 60th Hour and Prophecy’s Malignant Son… oh, wait…there are none. There are also no volcanoes in our short stories in the Emerald Cove anthologies. So, you might ask, where is the influence?

The beach at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Park.

The most direct influence occurred in one of our earlier, unpublished novels. The story opens in a lava field near a volcano.

Will that book ever see publication? I’m not sure. It would need a ton of work to make it readable. It is far too long and much of it probably needs to be rewritten from the ground up. Ever since John and I started self-publishing, I have debated whether to go back and rewrite the old books or concentrate on new ones instead. So far, the new ones are winning, but who knows in the future?

Even without that unpublished book, I still suspect that the raw power of volcanoes and the colossal forces they exhibit, have influenced my writing in more subtle ways. Like earthquakes, they are forces of nature we cannot control. They remind us that, no matter how technologically advanced we may become, there are things out there far bigger and more dangerous than we are. That’s always a good reminder for a fantasy author.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan

p.s. According to some sources on the internet, the punctuation mark (okina?) is used in the spelling of the Big Island (Hawai’i), but not the name of the state (Hawaii). I hope I have used them correctly here. If not, feel free to chastise me in the comments.

What’s New at Emerald Cove in Fall 2021?

St. George and the Dragon on display in the dining room of the Hotel Ritter in Heidelberg, Germany. (Photo by Susan Ruff 1991.)

It’s been a while since I provided an update about our Emerald Cove Press projects, so this seems like a good time.

The Emerald Cove writer’s group met at our favorite Denny’s last Friday. It’s great to be back to live meetings again. We had a long discussion about the upcoming shared-world anthology. The cover art is finished and looks great. (Thank you, Sue Dawe!) We considered possible type fonts for the lettering on the cover and talked about the order of the short stories within the anthology. I distributed review copies of the new short story that John and I had written. (So far, we’ve contributed two stories for the upcoming book, both very short and humorous.) While Emerald Cove doesn’t have a specific publication date for the anthology yet, I am anticipating it will be out by the end of the year.

In other news, the second edition of the paperback version of 60th Hour is live and available on Amazon. It corrects a lot of the formatting glitches of the original paperback version and has a new cover. So far, the ebook version has not changed (though I may update it to add the new cover).

My beloved co-author and I are currently on chapter eight of our new novel, a sequel to Prophecy’s Malignant Son. We had originally anticipated publication some time next fall. However, that time table may move up because of my other news:

I think we are going to try the NaNoWriMo challenge in November this year. (National Novel Writing Month.) The idea, as I understand it, is to produce 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days, which comes out to roughly 1,667 words per day. As some of you know, in our husband-and-wife writing team, John helps with plotting and ideas, while I do the actual typing and word composition. I know I can write at least 500 words per day, and when I am really inspired, I can sometimes produce up to 2,000 words with no problem. To do that consistently, every day, for an entire month, however, is both a daunting and exciting prospect. If we succeed in reaching 50,000 words in November, it probably won’t be enough to finish the new novel, but it will definitely move up our publication date.

John and I have also started advertising our books Amazon. I took a basic class to learn about AMS (Amazon Marketing Services) a few weeks ago, and I will taking a more advanced class starting about two weeks from now. If it works out well, I’ll let you know.

That’s about all for now. Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 10/1/2021

p.s. You may be asking why there a picture of St. George and the Dragon at the start of today’s blog post? Stay tuned for Emerald Cove’s upcoming shared-world anthology to find out!

Writing Inspiration Destination: Venice, Italy

(This is part 6 of the series describing places that have influenced my writing.)

In June, I wrote a blog post entitled “Five Places to Inspire Writing.” In that post, I briefly mentioned Venice as an inspirational city. After I gave the matter more thought, I decided that Venice really deserves it’s own post. It is one of my favorite places to visit, and its unique sights are wonderful for a writer seeking inspiration.

When I first visited Venice as a teenager, my biggest surprise was that there was no surprise — Venice was exactly as I had always imagined it. It had canals and gondolas, spacious plazas and narrow alleys, historic statues, and restaurants next to the water. When my parents paid for a gondola ride, the gondolier even sang to us. Other places in the world might be disappointing when actually visited, but not Venice. It was every bit as amazing as it advertised.

Everything in Venice is interesting,
even the upper parts of the buildings.

One of my most vivid memories of that first trip to Venice involves the hunt for the statue of Colleoni. On our last day in Venice, my dad and I went wandering through the city, trying to find the famous equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni. I think my dad had a guidebook, but not a map, so we made a lot of wrong turns before we finally found it. I remember searching narrow streets, sometimes going down an alley that ended abruptly at a canal. We crossed tiny bridges and seemed to travel through a maze of buildings on our quest to find it. To my teenage mind, it was a grand adventure.

Andre del Verrocchio’s statue of Colleoni.

Many years later, I returned to Venice, this time with my beloved co-author. To my delight, I found that wandering through the city still sparked my sense of adventure, just as it had in my teen years. There is something positively magical about a place full of canals and Renaissance architecture. A few things had changed — as an adult with a map, I found it much easier to locate the Colleoni statue again, and I enjoyed the restaurants far more than I did in my youth. But, despite my age, the city still kept its charm and captured my imagination once more.

While I can’t point to an exact passage in any of our books that was based on Venice, I’m sure my time in the city has provided more subtle inspiration. There’s probably a little bit of Venice in the seaside city portrayed in Lord Larrin’s Trophy (the short story in Emerald Cove’s Stolen! anthology). In addition, the hunt for the Colleoni statue has no doubt helped to inspire scenes in my writing where a character is lost in an unfamiliar, maze-like city.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 9/17/2021

How Did You Discover Your Favorite Genre?

If you’re an author or a reader of fiction (or both), I’d love to hear the story of how you discovered your favorite literary genre. Feel free to leave a comment after this post or write a comment on Facebook to let me know.

My favorite genre is fantasy. (Yeah, I know…duh! If you’ve been reading my blog posts for more than two minutes you already know that.) My introduction to the genre came through a grammar lesson.

I was in a seventh grade English class learning to diagram sentences. Not exactly the world’s most exciting activity. Although the concept of diagramming sentences was new for most of us in class, it made sense almost instantly to me. While that may be nice in terms of grades, anyone who has mastered a class activity too quickly knows the problem. Once you do, you then must endure hours of the same information being explained in different ways by a dedicated teacher trying to instill understanding in the rest of the class.

Which is to say: I was bored.

Part of the class lesson included a little workbook with sample paragraphs intended to be used for practice in diagramming. As I flipped through the work book in an effort to find something interesting to read, I discovered that each page of sample paragraphs contained a mini book review.

One of the book reviews talked about a Hobbit who found a magic ring. The book sounded intriguing, so I checked it out of the library. After I finished reading it, I attempted to check out the trilogy written by the same author. One of the three books had already been checked out by another patron of the library, so I was forced to wait for the next visit. (The fact that I still remember that after over 50 years shows just how anxious I was to read them.) Eventually I got to read all three books of the Lord of the Rings. I was so young that I didn’t really understand a lot of the social structure portrayed among the “big folk” in Rohan and Gondor, but I dearly loved the Hobbits.

In high school and college, friends introduced me to a wide range of popular fantasy authors at the time: Burroughs, McCaffrey, McKillip, Kurtz, De Camp, etc. By then, I was completely hooked.

Fantasy is now a major genre with its own sub-genres (high fantasy, humorous fantasy, sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, etc.) I recently learned about a relatively new subgenre called “litrpg” (or something similar to that). I’m really not sure which fantasy subgenre I like the best.

So, you all have now heard my story. What’s yours? What is your favorite literary genre and how did you discover it? If you’re a fantasy fan, do you prefer one subgenre over the others?

I look forward to hearing from you.

-Susan 10/2/20

One Hundred Words to Defeat Writer’s Block

As authors, we all know that our craft is part inspiration and part discipline. Inspiration is the fun part — those wonderful ideas and words that flow into our heads when we are writing, daydreaming, walking, or doing absolutely nothing. We all love it when just the right phrasing or fragment of dialogue strikes us. (How many times have I rushed out of the shower to write down the perfectly crafted sentence before I forgot it?)

But what about those days when words are not flowing and inspiration seems distant? What happens when you don’t even want to sit down at the keyboard because you know you will stare at a blank screen without typing a word?

That’s when the discipline of writing takes over. Many authors have written about overcoming writer’s block. My favorite method is the “100 Words a Day” plan. (I think I developed it on my own, but if I subconsciously took all or part of the idea from someone else, then I sincerely apologize for not giving the author credit. Please feel free to leave a comment or send me an email and correct my ignorance! No matter who came up with the plan, it works for me.)

The plan is pretty simple. Each day, I make a commitment to sit down and write 100 words of fiction. I can write more than that, of course (and I usually do), but the important thing is to write at least 100 words. It doesn’t have to be great writing or even mediocre writing, but the 100 words must be part of an original work of fiction. If I miss a day because of circumstances beyond my control (like family emergencies), then I have to write at least 200 words the next day. (It doesn’t work the other way, in case you are wondering — I can’t write 500 words one day and then skip the next four days. The point is to discipline myself to write each day.)

It’s very easy to write 100 words — I had already written 100 words in this blog post before I finished the first two paragraphs. Word processing programs usually give a word count, so on those days when writing is particularly difficult, I know when I am nearing the finish line.

Once you have established that discipline, you can even try gradually increasing the daily word count. I currently write at least 500 words a day. However, increasing the minimum number of words is not critical. The most important part is to discipline yourself to write each day. Don’t worry about how good or bad those 100 words might be. If they are garbage, you can always rewrite them later.

That’s all for this blog today. I still have 500 words of fiction to write!

-Susan 9/25/20

What’s New at the Cove?

Somehow, despite pandemic malaise and wildfires’ haze, the authors at Emerald Cove Press are making steady progress on the next two anthologies. (And, all joking aside, I think I can speak for all of us at Emerald Cove when I say our hearts go out to those affected by the pandemic and the recent fires.)

Of the two upcoming projects, the one most likely to see publication first is the next themed anthology: Haunted! John and I have finished our contribution: The Ghost in the Mines and are eagerly awaiting feedback from the critique group. Like our short stories in the previous themed anthologies, The Ghost in the Mines is a light-hearted fantasy tale set in the Five Lands of Arbel. It takes place concurrently with the events in Lord Larrin’s Trophy, but in a different land, so there won’t be any cross-over characters. The story chronicles the adventures of a Junior Inspector of Structural Supports, Department of Walls and Columns, Division of Mine Safety, Royal Bureau of Mining (try repeating that fast three times) and what that unsuspecting inspector discovers deep below the ground.

The anthology probably won’t be ready for publication by Halloween (which is too bad, given the theme), but there’s a good possibility it will be out in time for Christmas.

The second upcoming anthology is a bit different from the themed books. For the first time, Emerald Cove is assembling a “shared universe” anthology, in which all the authors’ short stories take place in the same fantasy setting with many overlapping characters.

The fantasy setting is modern day San Diego County. While I freely admit that America’s Finest City has a magical, fantasy quality even on the most mundane days, the Emerald Cove anthology will add an interesting fantasy twist to our beloved urban setting. The book will also feature beautiful Sue Dawe artwork — I may post some of Sue’s preliminary sketches (with her permission) closer to the publication date.

As I mentioned in a prior post, I am still mulling over what to do with my twenty-five year old novel Feast of Five Crowns. I am currently reviewing the manuscript to see what can be savaged and how much will need total rewriting.

In the meantime, John and I have started work on a new fantasy novel. It is based on a premise that I have been playing with for a while, and is set in a universe unrelated to the fantasy settings of our prior stories. We’re still in “world-building” stage at the moment, so I can’t give too many details, but I’ve had fun working on it so far. We’ll see where it goes.

I hope you all have a great week!

Susan 9/18/20

Travel and Fantasy World Building

Like all works of fiction, fantasy stories revolve around characters and plot. However, in a fantasy novel, the world itself can also be a major part of the story. A good fantasy book sweeps the reader into another realm, perhaps a place of enchantment or magic, maybe a land of fear or terror, but always somewhere different.

For that reason, foreign travel and fantasy have always been linked in my mind. Stepping into a country where people speak in an unfamiliar language is magical. (And if they write their words without using the familiar alphabet, so much the better!) Castles, pyramids, dungeons, ancient glyphs, statues, temples, cathedrals, and walled cities are the stuff of legends. Merely to walk within sight of them stirs the imagination.

While travel is certainly not a prerequisite for fantasy world building, I have always found it helpful. I do some of my best writing while traveling. The novel (no pun intended) sights, sounds, and smells carry the seeds of a larger-then-life realm. There is no substitute for standing beside the parapet of an actual castle and looking down at the countryside. Other tourists may be taking pictures of the hotel below (and so am I), but part of me is seeing knights and besieging armies instead of parking lots and cars.

Even relatively mundane things can kindle (ok, this pun was intentional) the imagination. I remember walking through an outdoor “wet” market in Singapore and seeing exotic fruits and vegetables which I couldn’t even name. I suddenly felt as if I had stepped into a fantasy kingdom.

Part of fantasy world building is creating a sense of otherness. To travel is to experience that otherness first hand. It can be a marvelous inspiration. I highly recommend it for all budding fantasy authors.

Of course, I also recommend that you wait until after the pandemic to start your exploring. At the moment, it is best to confine your travel to the written worlds of our fellow authors.

-Susan 8/28/20

Those Little Formatting Oddities

I love books. I love libraries. I love bookstores. That beautiful paper fragrance in a second-hand bookstore is a wonderful thing. When I was a kid, in addition to visiting our local library, my family would occasionally drive to downtown San Diego to visit the huge public library. It was (and still is) an amazing place.

Emerald Cove released its first two anthologies (Kidnapped! and Stolen!) solely as ebooks. They were never intended to be paperbacks. The text size and other formatting in an ebook can change depending on the preference of the reader and the type of e-reader used. As an ebook author, you can’t stress too much about formatting, because you really don’t control it.

However, when John and I published 60th Hour, in addition to ebook format, we decided to publish a paperback version as well. (Did I mention that I love books?) The ebook came out first, and then I spent time formatting the paperback. Despite my appalling lack of technical competency, it was fun to play with the text and try different formats: “Oh look, John! You can make the first letter of the first paragraph of each chapter large and bold, like they do in real books!”

Until the print version went live and I got my author’s copy in the mail, I did not realize two things. First: all the little formatting oddities that I saw on the screen would still be there in the paperback. For example, when I added those large first letters, the paragraph text around them condensed in a weird way compared to the other paragraphs. I naively thought that issue was just a problem with the computer screen and would correct itself in the print version. Likewise, I assumed the extra spaces that appeared between some of the paragraphs for no reason I could fathom would undoubtedly be gone later. (Haha! Silly me.)

Second: I didn’t realize that all those formatting oddities looked better on a large computer screen than they did in a printed book. That sentence hanging at the end of Chapter One seemed like no big deal when I was reviewing digital pages side-by-side. When I flipped through the paperback, however, the hanging sentence made me wince.

There are even a couple of typos in the text. *cringe* Question: How many proofreaders does it take to catch a typo? Answer: At least one more than you used to review your manuscript.

At some point in the near future, there will be a second edition paperback version of 60th Hour to correct those formatting errors and typos. I’m not exactly sure when that will happen, but it will certainly be before Emerald Cove publishes Haunted!

Hah! Maybe I should use the weird formatting as a marketing tool: Hey all you book collectors, buy your first edition paperback with all those formatting oddities now, before the corrected version is released!

Or maybe not.

-Susan 8/21/20

The Problem with Prologues

If you’ve read 60th Hour, you may wonder why the first chapter takes place twenty years before the rest of the story. In a book that focuses on time, why have that outlier right at the beginning of the book?

The astute among you (who read the title of this week’s blog post), probably already guessed the answer. The first chapter was originally the prologue. In the draft version of 60th Hour (back when the working title was still Final Night), the story opened with a prologue recounting events during the Siege of Lavay approximately twenty years before the start of chapter one.

I like prologues. Some of my favorite fantasy books over the years have opened with prologues. They remind me of the “teaser trailers” for movies. The author gets a chance to intrigue the reader about situations which will be explained in more detail in the rest of the narrative. So naturally, when John and I wrote 60th Hour, we included a prologue.

Then I attended a writer’s conference and met with an editor who had reviewed the first ten pages of the novel. The editor and I had a very productive discussion about the manuscript. He told me, among other things, that fantasy novels should not include prologues because a lot of readers skip them.

While I found much of his other advice to be useful, I scoffed at that particular statement. Of course, fantasy readers read prologues! I always read them. Who ever heard of such nonsense? All right, I’ll admit that maybe everyone doesn’t read “Concerning Hobbits” at the start of LOTR, but that’s not a typical fantasy novel prologue.

When our rpg group met that Friday night for gaming, I remarked to my friends about the ridiculous advice I received regarding prologues.

“I never read prologues,” one of my fellow gamers told me.

I thought he was kidding.

“What do you mean?” I said, once I realized he was serious. “Suppose they are part of the story?”

“I don’t care. I never read them.”

Then someone else pointed out to me (either that same night or later) that ebook software is sometimes designed to start the reader at chapter one of the story, skipping over all the material before. The reader may not even know there is a prologue.

Needless to say, John and I were then faced with a difficult choice about the prologue for the novel. If we kept it, readers might skip it and miss important plot and character exposition. If we deleted it, I would have to spend time incorporating all that plot and character exposition into the remaining book without disrupting the existing narrative.

Or I could simply change the name of the prologue to chapter one and renumber the other chapters. Guess what I chose?

Of course, even the third choice presented problems. Suddenly, the novel contained a twenty year gap between the events in chapter one and chapter two. Would readers find that confusing?

So, I added “parts” to the novel. Part One took place twenty years before the end of the calendar. Part Two started three weeks before the end, etc. It felt a little clunky, especially since Part One was only ten pages long, but it seemed the best way to overcome the problems.

I guess the moral of the story is: listen to your editor. Or your gaming buddies. Or both.

But I still like prologues!

Susan 8/7/20