Finding inspiration in a Covid world

Lack of travel = lack of ideas?

I’m not an especially confident traveller. I’m the sort of person who obsesesses over when the plane is taking off and wants to arrive at the airport 48 hours earlier. I catastrophise about traffic jams and trains getting stuck due to a leaf on the track. When my wife drags me out of Norfolk, though, I always appreciate it and find the change of scenery refreshing, not least with regard to my writing.

Covid-19 has messed that up, in the way that it has spread around the globe messing everything else up as well. Not being able to travel for leisure is a piffling inconvenience compared to the difficulties and pain the diseases has inflicted on others, I’m well aware, but for this newsletter I wanted to muse on how travel, and physical locations, feed into our work.

I’d also love to know what places have influenced your work, so let me know down in the comments.

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When the real world is as good as a fantasy world

I lived in Hong Kong for a few years when I was very young, in the early 80s. Though I don’t recall much of it directly, it’s still embedded in my brain through family photos and reminiscing, and I returned with my dad in 1999 to visit just before the handover. The island showed up in A Day of Faces, which surprised me as much as anyone, given that the story is set in a (very) alternate universe. Hong Kong wasn’t planned to be in the book, but when I needed my characters to go on a serious road trip it surfaced as an exciting destination. I probably wouldn’t have considered Hong Kong as an option if I hadn’t been there myself.

My honeymoon in 2011 took me to southern Spain, where we toured around Andalusia. One of the places we stayed was Ronda, a mountaintop city that is spread across a gorge on two raised mesas, overlooking a relatively arid landscape.

It’s proper Lord of the Rings. I mean, look at this place:

For context, the buildings on the right are a tiny part of the city, most of which is on the left-side mesa. The mega-bridge on the middle is enormous and crosses the gorge, with a river and waterfall running beneath.

Ronda became the primary inspiration for the capital city of Treydolain in my epic fantasy novel The Mechanical Crown, which I started serialising in 2016. The concept of a city split across two mesas, connected by enormous, ancient bridges was too delicious to not use. The geography and physicality of the city play into the story significantly. If I hadn’t had the good fortune to go to Ronda, how would the book have changed?

An ancient, ruined school of magic

Last week I left Norfolk for the first time since March 2020. It was the first family holiday we’d risked since Covid-19 destroyed the old world. We went up to Yorkshire, about a four hour drive, so nothing too ambitious. But the thing about the UK is that everything is really tightly packed, so you don’t have to go very far to find yourself in drastically different terrain.

Norfolk is very flat - big skies, big, wide landscapes and broads. Yorkshire is undulating and winding and a mix of beautiful and desolate. The purple-infused high dales are stunning chunks of emptiness (save for some sheep), while the hills and valleys seem to go on forever, navigable only by tiny single lane roads on which you pray to not encounter a truck coming the other way.

Here are Aysgarth Falls:

You might recognise these from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, if you’re of a particular age. Don’t be surprised if long, wide waterfalls show up in my next book at some point.

This is Fountains Abbey:

My next serial features a fantasy world called Palinor, in which there are numerous magic universities. Fountains Abbey is likely to become the template for one of these, albeit in a pre-ruined state. The scale of the place, even in its current form, is astonishing. The ambition of the monks who designed and built the place hundreds of years ago is hard to comprehend.

Here’s a photo (not taken by me!) which better illustrates the layout of the place and how it straddles a river:

I can’t wait to have magic wielders striding up and down this place:

There’s something about being in a space which can’t be replicated by Googling some images or pinging about on Street View. I’m very comfortable with staying at home and working digitally, but there’s no denying that my writing has benefited hugely from travel over the years.

About the next book

It’s been a while since I completed my last project, No Adults Allowed. I’ve taken a mini-break both to refresh my creative batteries and just for general positive health reasons, but I’m eager to get on with the next serial.

I haven’t actually taken time away from writing, I’ve just been in planning mode. There are two things I’m working on, which I’m hoping to start sending out soon - I’m targeting around the end of August for launch.

First up there is a completely re-written, updated and revised edition of my How To Write Serialised Fiction guide. It’s significantly expanded, not least because it has half a decade of extra knowledge in it. I go into far more detail about the serial form, and have lots of tips drawn from my own experience about planning, structuring, designing and writing an online serial.

I’ll put it on via the newsletter, and will also make a handy PDF/ebook version available to subscribers. That’ll all be free, of course.

Then we have the next fiction project. I’ve been developing it for most of the year. I don’t think I’ve revealed much about it, so here’s a few tidbits:

It has a possibly temporary working title of Tales from the Triverse and is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it blend of science fiction, fantasy and crime drama. You know, one of those. Tonally, if you’ve read the comic Gotham Central by Ed Brubaker you’ll have a sense of where I’m going.

The plan is for it to be available for free on Wattpad (and maybe elsewhere), but there’ll be an option of early access via this very newsletter, available to paid subscribers. I’m aiming to make the monthly subscription around the same price as buying a single coffee, and there’ll be an annual subscription which will be an even better deal. As well as early access, subscribers here will also get bonus stories and extra material, which I think will be immensely fun.

This is a new approach for me, having spent the last half-decade almost exclusively on Wattpad. It’s an attempt to build value around my writing in a new way, and I’ll be sharing my findings as I go.

Incidentally, as well as on Twitter you can also find me hanging out on a couple of fantastic Discord servers. There’s the National Centre for Writing Discord, which I co-run with my colleagues. It’s a lovely place. And then there’s Elle Griffin’s remarkably energised Substack Writers Unite, which is laser-focused on Substack, serialisation and online writing generally.

See you around. And don’t forget to let me know what places have inspired your writing!

Thanks,
SKJ

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