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: 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.)

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

Recharge Your Writing with Travel

Wizard Island in the middle of Crater Lake, Oregon. There was snow by the lake in the middle of June. That’s a real treat for a Southern California girl.

Our recent driving trip to Oregon to see Crater Lake National Park reminded me of the many ways that travel benefits an author. Visiting new locations can inspire scenes in books or even the plot for an entire novel. A chance encounter on the road or an unexpected sight may spark the imagination. Different types of food, plants, architecture, and weather provide a writer with a fresh perspective on the world.

Every town, no matter how small, has a unique story of its own. I’m an introvert, so I don’t mingle with strangers very well, but I love listening to tales told by the curator of a tiny, local museum. The historical events become far more interesting when described by a person who knows and loves the area.

Each region also has its own scenic beauty to share, from the magnificence of national parks to the charm of a city picnic area by the water.

In addition to inspiration, travel can also provide another important benefit for a writer. It helps you take a break from the routines of your life. Visiting a distant place, even for a few days, relieves the stresses and tension of everyday work. You return home with renewed energy and eagerness to write.

Our recent vacation really brought home that second type of benefit to me. After enduring the travel restrictions of the past two years, it was wonderful to be on the road again. As I watched the reflections of the mountains on the lake, I could feel myself relaxing. When we returned home, I felt invigorated, refreshed, and enthusiastic about writing.

-Susan 7/1/2022

When Real World Places Remind You of Fantasy Novels

The Tower of the Winds in the old Roman Agora in Athens, Greece.

On a Sunday afternoon in 1992, I set out on foot from our hotel in Athens with only a paper map for my guide. I wandered through the winding lanes of the Plaka neighborhood around the base of the Acropolis and eventually reached the ruins of the Roman Agora. Those ruins were closed on Sunday, but I went there anyway to glimpse a structure that I had read about in a guidebook — the Tower of the Winds.

Why did I go to all that trouble to find it? Because there was a Wind Tower in a fantasy novel written by Patricia McKillip, one of my favorite authors. I have no idea whether that Roman structure actually influenced her writing in any way, but that wasn’t the point of my trek. The building caught my imagination because it reminded me of a story that I loved. It was worth a long walk from my hotel to view it.

In my mind, the Rivendell Valley has always looked like Yosemite. Yes, I admit that I am a California girl, and I love that particular national park. But even beyond any home-state biases, Yosemite is truly a beautiful place and worthy of an Elven refuge.

That was not the first time a real-world location reminded me of a fantasy novel. I visited sites in Wales because I loved Mary Stewart’s Merlin books. When I saw the statue of Lord Byron in Athens, I immediately thought of a Tim Powers story.

I can’t even count the number of times that real world locations have reminded me of places and scenes in the Lord of The Rings. When I was in college, I assembled an entire photo album of pictures from our family trip to Europe, with appropriate quotes from Tolkien’s writing beside each of them.

These days, my mental images of the Lord of the Rings have been influenced by both movies and video games. (Some day, I hope to see all those filming sites in New Zealand!) But locations will still remind me of Tolkien’s books even if they have nothing to do with visual media.

At times, the places don’t even need to look like what was portrayed in the novel to remind me of the story. When I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in New Hampshire, the owner invited me down to the common room for tea and snacks with the other guests. The pretty parlor looked nothing like the common room in the Prancing Pony, but I made the connection nonetheless. In case you are wondering, I did NOT dance on the table or meet a mysterious stranger sitting in the corner. But I did have an enjoyable conversation with some folks visiting from Europe.

Because Robert Jordan’s books have been so popular lately, it seems only fair to end this post with a picture of Whitebridge, Scotland. While I admit that the old stone bridge may not be the wondrous span described in Jordan’s story, it was still fun to visit.

Talk to you on the first Friday of June!

-Susan 5/6/2022

Writing Inspiration Destination: Deserts of the Southwest

Monument Valley at sunrise. (Photo by Susan Ruff 2016.)

In honor of April Fool’s Day, I had considered writing a humorous post about the ten places least likely to inspire writing. When I mentioned the idea to my beloved co-author, however, he quickly and correctly pointed out that any place can be an inspiration for writing, even the local landfill.

So, when in doubt, fall back on a serious topic. In this case, I chose a topic near and dear to my heart — the deserts of the southwestern United States.

The southwest has some spectacular deserts, from iconic locations such as Death Valley and Monument Valley to one-of-a-kind gems like Joshua Tree National Park and the Valley of Fire State Park. When I was a child, my family spent many weekends and school holidays camping in the various deserts in and around California, Arizona, and Nevada. I have some wonderful memories of hiking early in the morning when the world was quiet or sitting around a campfire in the evening. I’ll never forget the night long ago when we stopped by the roadside to watch the Milky Way high in the sky. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life.

My parents were both born and raised in Rhode Island, so the desert was an exotic and unfamiliar place for them. I remember a day when my family was driving through Arizona while my mom read a travel guidebook aloud to us. The book talked about the abundant plant and animal life of the surrounding area and pointed out that many people mistakenly thought of the desert as a barren, lifeless place. My parents admitted that they had always believed deserts contained little more than rocks and sand dunes. There were both surprised when they saw the variety of flora and fauna that flourished within the arid environment.

This brings me to the point in the blog where I would normally describe scenes in our fantasy novels that have been inspired by all those wonderful desert landscapes. That is, after all, why this post contains the title “writing inspiration.”

Unfortunately, when I sat down to type this blog post, I could not recall a single scene in any of our books that takes place in a desert. Certainly, small parts of our desert trips have inspired scenes, such as sitting around a campfire or watching the rising sun peek over the distant mountaintops.

Maybe the desert is too familiar for me. It doesn’t seem exotic enough to put into a fantasy novel. Forests, swamps, and medieval villages are the strange, larger-than-life places that inspire fantasy for me. Deserts, on other hand, carry the comfortable familiarity of home.

San Diego County is considered “chaparral” country, not desert. So technically, the desert is not “home,” but it is definitely part of the neighborhood. I will always love the desert, and some day John and I really should include a desert scene in one of our fantasy novels.

Susan 4/1/2022

p.s. By the way, I have some exciting news: John and I may be trying our first book promotion with a special price this month, probably around April 23 and 24. I’ll send out a special blog post to discuss the details once I know more. In the meantime, I wish you all a fun-filled April Fool’s Day!

Writing Inspiration in Two Very Different Rivers

Part of the Dunn’s River Falls hike in Jamaica.

In May 1999, John and I hiked up a waterfall.

We were touring Jamaica with friends during a stop on a Caribbean cruise. The group of us hired a local guide to drive us around the island. We enjoyed a day of shopping, viewing the tropical scenery, and visiting the sights.

As part of the tour, we hiked the Dunn’s River Falls. Led by a tour guide, we waded through the waist-high water of the river and climbed up a series of gradual waterfalls. I’m not usually a water-loving person, so I must confess that I felt a little nervous before we started. As it turned out, the warm air, gentle current, and good company made the excursion both fun and memorable. Everyone in our group climbed safely to the top, with no unexpected tumbles into the river. The guide even helped to keep my camera dry and safe. A couple of people (including my beloved co-author) stood under the waterfall to get soaked, but that was deliberate, not a mishap.

Any waterfall hike can provide inspiration for an author. I’ve walked beside many beautiful falls over the years. But to climb up the middle of the waterfall itself was a whole new experience. When John and I discussed possible locations for an outdoor scene in the manuscript we are currently writing, the Jamaica hike came to mind immediately. It was interesting, different, and had a touch of fantasy in it.

There was just one problem — the scene in our novel takes place in the mountainous interior of the country, not on a tropical island. The Dunn’s River hike alone would not be sufficient to set the scene properly. But what could we do to remedy that situation? We added a second river.

Mist from the rushing water slicks the wooden walkways of the Flume in New Hampshire.

Far away from the tropical beaches of Jamaica, up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, lies a spectacular feat of nature known as the Flume. The river rushes down a narrow gorge carved out of steep, rock walls.

Paths, wooden walkways, and bridges form the trail that crisscrosses the gorge, providing views of the amazing scenery. At no point on the Flume hike do you actually walk within the waterfall itself, but the paths take you close enough to feel the spray from the river.

Somewhere in the midst of those two very different rivers, a scene in a fantasy novel took shape. The imaginary body of water in the book does not directly copy either of the two real life places but was inspired by both. With luck, that fantasy river and waterfall will appear in our upcoming book release in March 2022.

However, I should warn all potential readers out there — that waterfall scene was written during the hectic scramble of November’s NaNoWriMo, so it remains uncertain how much of it will actually survive into the book’s second draft. We shall see!

In the meantime, happy holidays, everyone. Talk to you next Friday.

-Susan 12/24/2021

A small, covered bridge shelters part of the pathway in the area around the Flume.

Writing Inspiration Destination: New Hampshire’s White Mountain Region

Mt. Chocorua rises above the lake of the same name.

New Hampshire will always have a special place in my heart. When I was a girl, my grandfather owned a cabin near Lake Chocorua, and we usually spent a few days there each time our family traveled to New England to visit our relatives. I even hiked to the top of Mt. Washington back in the 1970’s.

The old Swift River Covered Bridge near Conway, New Hampshire. Cars can no longer drive through it, but I was able to walk across it during our visit.

During an October in the early 1990’s, I took my mother back there to see the “fall colors” and visit familiar sights. Driving through the region as an adult was a very different experience than seeing it as a child. When you’re a kid, you just want to play with your cousins and splash around in the lake; as an adult you can actually enjoy and appreciate the remarkable scenery.

According to the man who ran the B&B where we stayed, this beautiful tree was a swamp maple.

Not surprisingly, the trees were the “stars of the show” during the trip. The fall countryside was as beautiful as all those guidebooks claim. (One of my favorite tree pictures is included on the “fun photos” page of our website. It was taken in Maine, not New Hampshire, so I did not use it in this post.)

The trees were also my writing inspiration for today’s blog. When you grow up in Southern California, there are not a lot of forests, except in the mountains. As a general rule, if you climb a hilltop, you can see for miles. Even when you are driving out in the backcountry, you can easily tell when you approach a town.

New Hampshire was an entirely different experience. You could be driving through what appeared to be a thick forest and then suddenly, like magic, a town would appear. After going through the town, the road would head back into the woods. Then a few miles later, the trees would give way to another town. It felt as if I was driving through an enchanted forest where things kept materializing out of nowhere.

While I can’t pinpoint a specific scene in a book based on that “enchanted forest” experience, it has undoubtedly influenced some of the forest scene in my writing. As a fantasy novelist, I always appreciate the places where one can find “magic” in the real world.

As I started scanning pictures from my photo album for today’s blog post, I recalled another thing in New Hampshire’s White Mountain region that inspired my writing. In fact, it directly influenced a scene in the current manuscript that John and I are writing. That location, however, is a story best left for another day. Several different places influenced that scene, most of which had nothing to do with New Hampshire, so it deserves its own blog post. (For now, I’ll just leave the location a mystery — consider it a preview of coming attractions.)

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 12/17/2021

Fortunately, I got to see the old guy before he fell.