Jo here, pulling together Wenchly responses to the question, "Have you ever visited a place that's ended up in a book?"
I love the way in which anything from a snippet of conversation to a piece of music can inspire an idea for a book, and certainly I find that many places spark off story ideas for me. The most unusual would probably be Spitsbergen, in the Norwegian Arctic, which featured in Whisper of Scandal. Another unusual book idea sprang from a visit to Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. I love Suffolk and the town of Woodbridge in particular, and I set my Bluestocking Brides series in that area.
Woodbridge was a garrison town in the late 18th and early 19th century and quite a centre of Georgian society. There was a theatre and fine shops and a regatta on the river Deben. The picture is of the Woodbridge tide mill. Sutton Hoo, just down the road from Woodbridge, was the site of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial, thought to be that of King Raedwald. The site is extraordinarily atmospheric and I thought what fun it would be to feature an archaeological dig in a book. So the idea of The Notorious Lord was born, based on Sutton Hoo and with an archaeologist hero. I loved that book! It was such fun to write an Indiana Jones of the Regency.
Living on the other side of the world from the places I set my stories doesn't make it very easy to "borrow" specific places or pop across to do some research for a specific book. I tend to have a good general knowledge of some areas and districts, like London locations, Bath, and a few stately homes I've visited but outside of that, I generally use the web to find a particular place for a particular story or an event in a story. I collect photos of the location, and maps, and whatever else I can.
For The Winter Bride, I was looking for a place where my hero and heroine could break their journey and among the various choices I found Dean Gate, which has a Jane Austen connection. As my book also has a Jane Austen connection, I thought it a serendipitous choice.
Writers live in convoluted worlds where anything they see, hear, taste, or touch can trigger a story. I've had lines of songs or overheard conversations tweak my subconscious and cause characters to crawl out of the murky depths. But there is nothing like having the whole
array—stunning visual interest, intriguing sounds, luscious smells—to generate entire scenes of a novel. It's difficult to pick just one episode of this happening, but possibly the largest sensory stimulation for a novel I've experienced is the town of Paris, Kentucky, probably because it was a town I used to visit regularly.
Shelter from the Storm developed out of that ambiance. The old slave walls, Georgian mansions, rolling emerald hills, fresh mown grass and lilacs…and the tarpaper shacks hidden down dark alleys…exploded in my imagination. All it needed was one song—Tobacco Road —to produce a flow of characters and stories that developed into my saga of two lost people finding their way through love and war. Places are dangerous to the imagination!
All three of my contemporary novels are set at least partly in Baltimore, where I live, so I've used plenty of real places, from neighborhoods to country drives to local prisons. But that's just too easy. <G> Most of my books are set in Britain, and since I lived in Oxford for two years and traveled all over the British isles, I have a pretty good sense of what things look like.
When I'm writing a book, I usually conjure places that are a distillation of what I've seen and what the story requires. And yet–once upon a time, long before I started to write, we visited the
Outer Hebrides island of Harris and Lewis. (It's one island, with the north end called Lewis and the south end Harris. They tend to be talked about as if they're two islands; why, I canna say. <G>)
There, on a wild coast, we visited a crumbled old village of traditional black houses: primitive low stone houses with thatched roofs. (photo of a Lewis blackhouse by Dougie MacLean.) The ragged stone walls and collapsed roofs and rampant vegetation seemed like a perfect setting for a romantic suspense novel, with good guys being hunted by ruthless bad guys. And lo! It came to pass in Shattered Rainbows, when Michael and Catherine are running for their lives. But I placed that abandoned village on a fictional island loosely based on the Channel Isle of Sark, which is more typical of my settings. That's why we call it fiction!
JoannaThis reminds me of a night …
I was poking along the back roads of Normandy in my station wagon, Pygmalion. If you want to be strictly technical about it, I was lost,since somebody had up and moved St Valéry from where it was supposed to be.
It got dark. The roads got smaller and rougher and more desolate. (I was really lost.) I began to wonder what it'd be like to be scared and desperate, on the run, in these pine woods and scrubby fields. (Image: Creative Commons attribution Overland)Then I knew my character Annique, from The Spymaster's Lady, had come this way with Napoleon's soldiers in hot pursuit.
I saw my Fox Cub, my clever little vixen, all brains and nervous courage, outthinking her enemies, hiding in some ancient deserted building back of those trees. If she could just make it across the Channel, to England, she'd be safe. Or as safe as she could be, carrying the secret she was
One of my favorite places to visit is London, and Horse Guards, which was headquarters of the military brass during the Regency, figures prominently in my Andrea Penrose Lady Arianna mysteries, such as The Cocoa Conspiracy.
Lord Grentham, nemesis of both her and her husband, Lord Saybrook, is based there, and a number of heated confrontations take place within his office, which overlooks the massive parade ground to the rear of the building.
The Royal Horse Guards, an elite cavalry unit, still do daily maneuvers there, and I took some artistic liberties in imagining what the scene would look like from the upper floors.
Sometimes a situation inspires a story, whether it's imagined or a historic event; sometimes a character bubbles up first out of the story soup; and sometimes a place will stir up a new story, or at least a subplot or chapter. The power of a beautiful, haunting or mysterious place has brought me ideas many times, and several visits to Scotland have given me settings for a number of books.
An entire story springing from one place came to me one rainy day in Dunfermline, Scotland. I was there to research one novel (Laird of the Wind) and unexpectedly discovered another when I walked through the silent nave of the old Romanesque abbey and stood looking at the remains of the old chapel that once housed the tombs of Queen St. Margaret of Scotland and her husband, King Malcolm Canmore. Suddenly I wanted desperately to know more about Margaret and her Malcolm.
I then walked through Pittencrieff Park–the long path slopes away from the abbey grounds to lead through a lush, peaceful forest–and there I climbed the mossy steps of Malcolm's Tower, the ruins of an old stone fortress. ((photo credit: Malcolm's Tower, Kim Traynor, WikimediaCommons) Here these two 11th century monarchs–I knew about them, but had never thought of them in terms of fiction until that day–had once lived and loved and changed the fate and direction of medieval Scotland.
I came away from that first trip to Dunfermline with one book to finish, and another to begin. It was several years before I found the time to write Queen Hereafter, the story of the Saxon princess and her Scottish king. But that book very much began with a visit to a magical place, their long-ago home, once strong and unbroken, now a humble, beautiful ruin.
And now mine.
Back in 2000, when I was writing The Dragon's Bride,we took a trip back to England from Canada and drove along the Devon coast checking on locations for the book, which involved smuggling. I'd already pinpointed Beer, a small town that seemed to have the right geography and history. It did — to such an extent that it was the home and base for a famous one, Jack Rattenbury. As he was alive and operational in 1816, the time of my book, I changed the name to Dragon's Cove (there's a story to account for that.)
Once I'd changed the name I felt free to play with the details in any way I wanted, so I split the real town into two villages, Dragon's Cove and Church Wyvern, which had different characters, and I plunked the faux-medieval Crag Wyvern, seat of the earls of Wyvern, on top of those cliffs in the picture. That research trip gave us the idea of moving to the Devon coast, so though we don't live in Beer it's not far away, so we recently took a trip to take new photos, because the sequel to The Dragon's Bride, A Shocking Delight, will be out soon.
There are some other pictures here.
Question. Have you ever visited a place that inspired story ideas? Tell us about them, whether you wrote the stories or not.
Have you ever visited a place because you read about it in a book and wanted to see for yourself?
I'll give a copy of The Dragon's Bride to one commenter on this blog.
Cheers from sunny Devon — yes, spring is here!