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

Writing Inspiration Destination: Granada, Spain

(Note: as mentioned in an earlier blog post, one of my friends suggested that I write about some travel destinations that had a direct influence on my writing. This is part 5 of the series.)

Have you ever wanted to visit a place because of a song? Recuerdos de la Alhambra is one of my favorite pieces of classical music. While I admit that we did not travel to Spain solely because of music, I was delighted when our tour of Spain included the city of Granada and the magnificent Alhambra palace.

Granada is a charming city, with its mix of Spanish and Moorish architecture. The artwork inside the Royal Chapel (Capilla Real de Granada) is particularly beautiful.

Statuary near the tomb of Ferdinand and Isabella within the Royal Chapel.

The Alhambra palace is the crowning jewel of any visit to Granada. While the ornate columns and delicate latticework of the buildings could certainly inspire an author, the gardens really captured my imagination. I wandered in wonder amidst fountains, reflecting pools, and archways.

A lovely reflecting pool in the Alhambra gardens.
The archways formed of greenery were both fascinating and beautiful.

Those delightful gardens have not specifically appeared in any of the fantasy novels John and I have written, but they certainly helped inspire some of the outdoor scenes in 60th Hour, particularly the canopied trellises on the walkway leading up to the temple.

Those of you familiar with Granada, may be wondering why I did not include a photo of the iconic lion fountain in this post. To be honest, the pictures I took did not come out very well. I was using 35 mm film back in those days, so I could not check the photo quality until I returned home from the trip. (Digital photography makes everything so much easier!)

And, by the way, while I may not have visited Granada just because of a song, John and I have traveled to two other cities for that reason — Benson and Winslow, Arizona. Anyone around my age is probably familiar with the song reference for Winslow, but I wonder how many of you remember the song about Benson?

Talk to you next Friday!

Susan 9/3/2021

Writing Inspiration Destination: Balboa Park

Balboa Park’s Botanical Building and surroundings. (Apologies for the photo quality — it was scanned from a photo taken in the mid-1990’s.)

Sometimes, you don’t need to go any farther than your own hometown for writing inspiration. This becomes much easier, of course, when your hometown happens to be a major tourist destination with beaches, parks, culture, museums, and other fascinating places to visit.

Balboa Park’s iconic California Tower.
The Organ Pavilion, a beautiful location for outdoor concerts.

I grew up in San Diego County, and it is still one of my favorite places in the world. Balboa Park, in particular, has inspired my writing in the past, and continues to do so. Given its beautiful Spanish-style architecture, paths winding beneath the eucalyptus trees, lovely gardens, and wonderful museums, the park’s ability to inspire the written word is not surprising.

What did surprise me is how few pictures I have taken of the park. When I sat down to write this blog post this morning, I thought my task of finding park photos would be easy. Instead, I discovered that, despite hundreds of park visits over the years, I have taken fewer pictures of Balboa Park than I have of Disneyworld in Florida.

Walking near the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages. The last time I visited the park, it appeared that they were expanding this area to add more cottages.

Balboa Park is especially relevant to my writing at the moment, because of Emerald Cove’s upcoming shared-world anthology. Until we have an official publication date, I don’t want to say too much about the book, but Balboa Park definitely makes an appearance. The writer’s group is meeting tonight, so I should know more very soon.

In the meantime, I leave you with this silhouette of the park, taken on a December evening many years ago. I will never forget that night, with its clear skies and beautiful weather, because I flew out to visit relatives a few days later, and ended up in a snowstorm. (It was quite a contrast for a Southern California girl.)

Talk to you next Friday!

Susan 8/20/2021

Writing Inspiration Destination: Santorini, Greece

(Note: as mentioned in an earlier blog post, one of my friends suggested that I write about some travel destinations that had a direct influence on my writing. This is part 3 of the series.)

A writer of any genre could find inspiration on the Island of Santorini, with its beautiful villages scattered above the cliff sides. The whitewashed buildings, the stone walkways, and the magnificent ocean views all give Santorini a special charm. The island even has its own black sand beach.

As a fantasy author, I found my greatest source of inspiration while visiting the archaeological site at Akrotiri. At some point in antiquity, a volcanic eruption buried the region. Some scholars have speculated that a distant echo of the event might be the source of Plato’s Atlantis dialogue.

The remnants of the volcano rise within the midst of the watery caldera.

While I am not a historian and certainly not qualified to speak about any possible ties to the Atlantis legend, there is no doubt that Akrotiri is a fascinating and almost mythical place. Unlike the stark brightness of other ancient sites, Akrotiri sits in a warm twilight beneath the modern, roof-like coverings that protect it from the elements.

The ruins are amazingly well preserved. Pottery and colorful wall murals survived the volcanic cataclysm (and can be viewed in the nation’s museums). As you walk through the site, you can easily visualize the people who lived there in the past.

My imagination can run wild at times. (I guess that’s why I like to read and write fantasy.) The first time I saw this broken staircase, I was both fascinated and a little frightened by it. What titanic forces cracked those stones in two? If people were present to witness the event, what terror must they have felt?

That broken staircase appeared in one of the early drafts of 60th Hour, in a scene describing how Len Cranford found the book that Aubrey stole. The scene was cut out of later drafts, because it didn’t really add to the narrative and worked better as “backstory.”

Even if the cracked staircase itself did not end up in the novel, there is no question that Akrotiri was one of the inspirations for the chapter where Len makes his discoveries at the dig site in Renilee. The scene in the novel was a fantasy version of an archaeological dig, of course, with only the faintest reflection of genuine archaeological work. However, the mural in the story and some of the items the characters found were definitely influenced by what John and I saw during our visit to Santorini.

This photo was scanned using the “color restoration” setting on the scanner, which is why it does not have the orange tinge of the other photos. (I was shooting with high-speed film and available lighting on our fist visit to the island, back in the early 1990’s.)

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 8/13/2021

Writing Inspiration Destination: Heidelberg, Germany

(Note: as mentioned in an earlier blog post, one of my friends suggested that I write about some travel destinations that had a direct influence on my writing. This is part 2 of the series.)

The old section of Heidelberg, Germany is a fantasy author’s dream destination. Fairytale sights abound: a ruined castle, narrow streets, beautiful churches, orange-tiled roofs, and an idyllic riverfront complete with a stone bridge.

Photo taken inside the ruins of the castle. Do you ever get the uneasy feeling of being watched?
Doors within doors inside the ruins of the castle.

Heidelberg Castle is particularly intriguing, with its broken towers and grass-encroached grounds. I am sure that the memory of exploring that castle has influenced my fantasy writing over the years.

However, another building that John and I visited provided a far more direct influence on my writing.

The stone staircase leading up to the church tower.

On our first day in the city we crossed the plaza from our hotel (the Hotel Zum Ritter, which is itself a historic wonder) and explored an old stone church. I believe it was probably the Church of the Holy Spirit, but after 30 years, I no longer remember for certain.

Even though I can’t recall the church’s name, I will never forget the old, spiral staircase that led up to the church tower. The climb up that musty passage, so narrow that you could touch both the central pillar and the block wall as you ascended, has stayed in my memory and my imagination ever since that day. It became the “Platonic ideal” of a fantasy staircase for me — the image upon which so many staircases in my writing are based.

In the early drafts of 60th Hour, a spiral staircase led down from the Chamber of the Hours to the ancient vault beneath the mountain. Unfortunately, the spiral shape had to change in the later drafts of the novel, because it would not let Loria see the light vanishing in the final chapter. So, it was replaced with a straight staircase. (If you’ve read the book, but don’t remember the scene, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. I don’t want print any spoilers for the novel here.)

Looking out over rooftops in the old city.

Another feature of the city actually survived into the published version of 60th Hour. Remember those tiled rooftops that Loria sees as she peers down at the darkening city of Lavay? Although that description was a composite of numerous cities that John and I visited over years of travel, the old section of Heidelberg was unquestionably one of the places that influenced the scene.

My beloved co-author with the castle in the background. (Yes, we were both much younger then. Hard to believe it has been 30 years!)

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 7/30/21

When Travel Influences Fantasy Literature

The iconic Merlion statue in Singapore.

A friend (who also loves to travel) suggested that it might be fun for me to blog about how I draw inspiration for my fantasy stories from the real-world places that I visit and photograph. It was a great suggestion, and really got me thinking about the ways in which visiting new places inspires my writing. Overall, I’ve found that travel, and particularly foreign travel, excites my imagination with a sense of “other-worldliness.” Stepping off the plane in a different country can feel like entering a whole new universe with amazing and unexpected sights.

A street in Singapore. I wish I could say more about it, but I didn’t caption the photograph.
Note to self: Always caption your photos!!

In my experience as both a reader and author of fantasy novels, the art of writing fantasy involves a balance between the familiar and the unique. My favorite fantasy novels to read have been those that create original landscapes and cultures, very different from our mundane world. At the same time, the characters in the fantasy story must be familiar enough to allow the reader to empathize with them and care about their world. Travel can inspire fictional works that meet both of those elements.

A pathway in the Bukat Timah nature reserve.

In addition to the general concept of how travel influences writing, there is the more specific topic of which real-world places have influenced my fantasy writing and why.

When I first considered this question, Singapore came to mind immediately. A city with a merlion for its mascot has to be a great influence for a fantasy novelist. It was not that mythical beast, however, that truly caught my imagination during the week that John and I spent visiting the city.

Likewise, the beautiful Bukat Timah Nature Reserve (where I was warned to beware of monkeys accosting tourists to steal food) was not the place that inspired me the most. Both of those sights were very nice and certainly caught my imagination.

The greatest inspiration for me as a fantasy novelist came during a walking tour of the city. The guide took us to see the “wet” market, a collection of vendors selling fish, produce, and spices. As I walked among the stalls looking at the exotic wares, I was amazed. Not only had I never seen many of the food items for sale, I could not even put a name to them.

I am far from a culinary expert, but I have done some cooking and generally know my way around the grocery store produce section. The vegetables and fruit for sale in the Singapore wet market were so far beyond my experience that I might as well have been shopping in Narnia or Chalion.

The memory of wandering among the food stalls, staring in wonder at the strange items has stayed with me over the years. That experience provided part of the inspiration for the food scene in the short story Hospitality, which is scheduled to appear in Emerald Cove’s upcoming shared world anthology.

Apparently, I was so astonished by what I saw, that I never even took a photograph of the market. (Hard to believe, considering I usually take photographs of everything, including the interior of our hotel rooms.) Because I only use my own photos in this blog, I cannot include a picture of that wet market. So I will close this blog with a picture of the not-quite-so-exotic-food-establishment that John and I also visited during the trip. While I cannot say that the food there inspired any fantasy stories, the “Fish McDippers” were tasty and I wish they had them in the U.S.

There is a reason that John and I always eat at least one meal at McDonalds in every country we visit, but that is a story for another day.

-Susan 7/16/2021

p.s. Sue is still working on the cover art for the shared world anthology mentioned above, and it looks great so far!

Fortifications, Walls, and Battlements

A portion of the Great Wall of China.

After I wrote the blog post about castles a few weeks ago, I started considering other types of structures that can be important in fantasy literature. One of the easiest to overlook (no pun intended) is the stone wall. Ranging from hastily constructed piles of rocks to elaborate edifices seen for miles, fortifications can provide both defense for the characters of a story and interesting background landscape.

A portion of Hadrian’s Wall in England.

Even in the real world, old stone fortifications often carry a mythic quality. At one time, it was said that the Great Wall of China was the only man-made structure visible from space. Hadrian’s Wall in England has been included in works of fiction. The “long walls” that connected Athens with its port city of Piraeus are the stuff of legends.

Fortifications around the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Fortified cities are common in fantasy literature. Who can forget the seven levels of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings? I often think of the scene of Pippin and Beregond eating lunch beside the battlements, when I visit fortified cities during my travels.

One of the old towers on the Island of Rhodes.
Battlements on the Island of Rhodes.
A portion of Themistocles’ Wall in Athens. (My scanning software “restored” the color of the old photograph, but I am not photo-editing savvy enough to remove the glare from the display glass. Sorry!)

Fortifications can sometimes be found in unlikely places. When my beloved co-author and I traveled to Athens many years ago, the first archaeological site we visited was not the Acropolis. Instead, it was the portion of Themistocles’ wall on display behind glass in the basement of our hotel.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 7/9/2021

p.s. People seem to be enjoying these photo-blogs so far. Would you like me to continue with them or would you prefer that I return to the more nuts-and-bolts discussions about writing? Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts. Are there any other fantasy-related topics you would like to see in a photo-blog?

Visiting the Stones that Speak

Carvings on a stone pillar at Karnak, Egypt.

Last week, my blog discussed ancient ruins and fantasy novels. Today, I want to write about a special subset of that topic: carvings and rock art.

A portion of the Alta rock carvings in Norway.

Humans have been communicating by leaving words and pictures on stone for thousands of years. As a fantasy writer, I find petroglyphs and rock art particularly intriguing. There are stories hidden within the carvings, some of which we can only guess at.

Petroglyphs at Ginko Petrified Forest State Park in Washington.

If you are an aspiring fantasy author, it can be a great experience to visit the places where people recorded their messages for later generations. It is easy to imagine that those ancient people were story-tellers, just as we are, with tales every bit as fantastical as the ones we love.

The Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs, Hawaii

One of my favorite ancient “stones” is the mysterious Phaistos Disc. (It’s actually made from fired clay, not stone.) I’m sure there is an interesting story behind the stamped glyphs on the disc, but its symbols remain enigmatic and very different from other ancient writing and rock art that I have seen.

The Phaistos Disc at the Heraklion Museum on the island of Crete.

Petroglyphs and ancient writings don’t even have to be real to catch the imagination. The “writing” on the walls of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, for example, always adds enjoyment to what would otherwise be a boring time standing in line.

-Susan 6/25/21

p.s. As always, all photos in this post are mine. The Phaistos Disc picture is almost 30 years old and was scanned from a print of a photo shot in available light with a 35 mm camera. I am embarrassed by the picture quality, but even more embarrassed that I managed to cut off the top of the disc when I took the picture.

The Literary Lure of Ancient Ruins

One of the structures in the archaeological reserve at Cahal Pech, Belize.

“On the top they found, as Strider had said, a wide ring of ancient stone-work, now crumbling or covered with agelong grass.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Looking out from one of the cliff-dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colorado.

Ancient ruins, both real and fictional, have always sparked my imagination as an author. They combine the mysteries of centuries past with the excitement of modern discovery. Their half-standing structures carry a multitude of stories within them, both new and old.

In fantasy fiction, ancient sites can serve as setting and background (as in the Tolkien quote above), or they can be an integral part of the story (as they are in the Indiana Jones movies).

Doorways at the Chaco Culture National
Historic Park, New Mexico.

The addition of ancient ruins can add history and depth to a fictional world. They raise a host of questions, just as they do in real life, that even the characters in the novel may not be able to answer. Who lived in those structures? What were their lives like? What ended their civilization? In fantasy novels, you can also add the query: did humans live there or someone else?

The sun going down at Luxor, Egypt.

When a fantasy author includes an ancient site in a novel, how much of the background behind the fictional ruins does the author need to know? Clearly Tolkien knew the complete background of every site he included in his stories, but is that required for every fantasy novel?

Reconstructions of storage jars at Akrotiri on the island of Santorini.

The answer depends on the purpose for which the author has added the ancient site to the story. If it is used as background or setting, the author should know enough to make the location plausible in the fantasy world. If the ruins will serve as an integral part of the plot, on the other hand, the writer probably needs to develop the history underlying the site.

The Terracota Warriors, Xi’an, China

Given my love of archaeological sites, it is not surprising that part of the plot in 60th Hour includes discoveries made in a hidden chamber below a set of ruins. It is far more surprising to me that our soon-to-be-released novel Prophecy’s Malignant Son does not include any ancient ruins. Clearly, John and I will have to work on that in the sequels.

-Susan 6/18/2021

Five Places to Inspire Writing

Venice, Italy, one of my favorite “storybook” places in the world.

Readers really seemed to enjoy the “Castles!” blog a couple of weeks ago, so I’ve decided to try a short series (maybe the next two or three Fridays) of places that can inspire writing and, in particular, fantasy novels. As I’ve mentioned in the past, travel can be a great inspiration for fantasy world-building and for writing in general. Even though global travel is still mostly off-limits at present, we can all look forward to a time when the world will open up again.

So, to start off the series, I’ve chosen five places that made me feel as if I was walking through a story when I visited them.

Venice, Italy– Yes, the city really does have canals…and gondolas…and beautiful piazzas. The first time I stepped onto a stone bridge to cross over a canal, I knew I was in a magical place. The city seemed to be full of twisty alleys with new things to discover at every turn.

One of the many carved structures in Petra, Jordan.

Petra, Jordan– If you’re like me, you first learned about Petra from a fictional archaeologist who didn’t like snakes and once got chased by a giant boulder. There is more to Petra, however, than the “Treasury” (which is the place used in the movie). Just walking through the narrow gorge to reach the famous site is an adventure. There are also many other beautifully carved structures, although the Treasury is the best preserved.

An artifact in the British Museum. I’m think it’s from the Sutton Hoo collection.

One cautionary note: Remember that you have to climb back up the gorge once you are done. It almost killed my dear co-author to walk back up the trail too fast in the heat of the day!

London, England– I love London! The city has always seemed like a larger-than-life place to me. You can’t walk for ten feet without seeing a street name or locale with a literary or movie reference. The British Museum, alone, is the stuff of legends.

Looking down on the beautiful village of Cesky-Krumlov.

Cesky-Krumlov, Czech Republic– Over the years, I’ve visited many beautiful, fairy-tale villages. Cesky-Krumlov is definitely one of the best. The river winds around ornate, old-fashioned houses and shops. As you walk through the streets, you can easily imagine yourself in another time or place.

A photo taken somewhere along our snowy route to Triberg. (Sorry for the photo quality — it was scanned from an old photo album.)

The Black Forest, Germany– “John, are you sure we’re on the right road?” Sometimes you enter those fairy-tale moments unintentionally. Back in the days before cell phones, when tourists still relied on paper maps, John and I were trying to drive from Stuttgart, Germany to Triberg. We had planned our route in advance, only to learn that there were long delays on the main road due to construction. A helpful person at a restaurant told us of a route we could take via backroads to arrive at our destination more quickly.

Of course, he gave us the directions in German. John understands some German…some…enough to get us on the correct road…I think. It was a little, windy, one-lane road through the mountains, with snow-covered forests on both sides. After driving for a while, we realized two things: first, we were the only car we had seen for a long time, and second, we had no idea where we were. It was very beautiful, with snow drifting down from the tree branches, but part of my mind was thinking of all those stories that ended with the words, “And they were never seen again.” Maybe not the best type of fantasy story to land in.

Fortunately, the directions were good and we did eventually reach our destination. In retrospect, it was a lovely adventure. Triberg is definitely worth a visit.

-Susan 6/11/2021