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.

Writing Inspiration Destination: Colorado Springs

Rock formations in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Colorado abounds in wonderful places to visit — the Rocky Mountains, numerous parks and recreation areas, great cities like Denver, and plenty of historic sites. My beloved co-author and I were fortunate to visit the state during a driving vacation last June. As part of the trip, we spent a few days in Colorado Springs, a delightful city with plenty to see.

Manitou Cliff Dwellings

Today’s writing inspiration has a slightly different “origin story” than the others. Usually, a place I’ve visited in the past makes such a strong impression that years later it sparks my imagination to write a scene in a book. Today’s inspiration involved almost the opposite process — the proposed scene was already planned for the manuscript, but needed a good setting.

During NaNoWriMo last month, as John and I were rushing to plot out new chapters to keep ahead of my daily word count, we needed a setting for a major fight scene about two-thirds of the way through the manuscript. When we originally drafted the outline, I had imagined the scene taking place in a basement of a building, but by the time I started writing the actual chapter, the basement idea no longer fit within the larger context of the story. I was at a loss for an appropriate location.

Inside the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine in Cripple Creek, Colorado.

Fortunately, my beloved co-author had a great idea. (Most of our great story ideas come from him.) He reminded me about the historic Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine we had toured while we were staying in Colorado Springs. He suggested that we set the fight scene in a mine. The idea fit well with the story and provided an interesting setting at the same time, so we used it in the book.

The mine we visited, by the way, was not actually located in Colorado Springs, but it was an easy day-trip away. For that reason, I’ve included it in this blog post as a Colorado Springs destination. (If I have offended any Colorado folks by doing so, I apologize!)

Old mining equipment as seen during the mine tour.

Of course, a mine in a fantasy story is not the same as a historic mining operation of the American Old West. The mine that appears in our manuscript only vaguely resembles the one we saw during the trip, but it was a great inspiration nonetheless.

It was also a great tourist destination. If you travel to Colorado and enjoy visiting historic places, I would definitely recommend the mine tour. You take an elevator far below the ground to start the tour, and the guide explains the history of the mine as you walk through the tunnels. It was a fun adventure! (Though it was probably NOT a place for the claustrophobic — the elevator was small and crowded.)

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 12/10/2021

Another view of the rocks in the Garden of the Gods.
Inside the Money Museum in Colorado Springs.

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.