Inspiration from Place #UpbeatAuthors

Note: This was a previously-committed to post for the #upbeatauthors group. If you want to read about my response to Hurricane Harvey, it is the post above this one. I am not ignoring the suffering.

Trish Milburn‘s topic for the day is “Places that Inspire”. That covers a lot of ground. I can find ANY place I visit inspiring. I keep detailed travel journals when I go anywhere, and write up the details, especially sensory details. I collect maps and historical information. I collect contact information for chambers of commerce and tourism boards, so when I write about a place, I can go back and get the emotional geography correct.

Because setting is a character in my work (and I teach courses on it), it’s important to me to get the physical and emotional geography of a place correct. I’m pretty good at discerning when an author hasn’t visited a place and hasn’t done enough research to understand its unique feel/personality. Yes, it’s fiction, and it’s important to use imagination. But, if you are going to use a real place, or do what I call “stretching geography”, where you add the fictional places that support your story into a real environment, you need to get the physical and the sensory details right.

That’s a lecture for another day. 😉

For today, I am going to share with you some of the places that have inspired specific pieces of work. I’m having trouble posting photographs, but clicking through the links will get you all kinds of great images and information.

New York City
I grew up in a suburb of New York City, and spent plenty of time there. After a year of college elsewhere, I transferred back to NYU for film and television production, and then, after two years in San Francisco and a miserable year in Seattle, I moved back and worked my way up in theatre until I worked on Broadway. I loved the city, especially Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, the various New York Public Libraries, NYU itself, and all the neighborhoods. I lived through 9/11, in which 42 people I knew (firefighters, mostly, and cops, and people I’d gone to school with who worked in the towers). New York is an important part of my work.

It’s the primary setting for the Nina Bell Mysteries, which are in the 1990s, following a college graduate trying to build her life in the arts. She lives on E. 6th Street, and is an NYU alum, and works at theatres similar to the Public. I use my diaries from those years to make sure I have the geography right, and the events and how they affected those of us trying to ignore said events.

It’s where TRACKING MEDUSA, the first Gwen Finnegan mystery starts and ends. The book starts in the Gramercy Park area, and has major events at the main New York Public Library and a chase scene inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(The book re-releases in January 2018. Visit http://gwenfinneganmysteries.devonellingtonwork.com for more information).

PLAYING THE ANGLES, the first Coventina Circle mystery, releasing on October 2, takes places in various NYC locations, most of it in the Broadway neighborhood, since much of the action takes place backstage on a Broadway show. So that’s midtown. I used to live in the area, on the corner of 42nd St. and 8th Avenue, over a strip club which is now a comedy club, across from the Port Authority bus terminal, and a short walk to the Broadway theatres at which I worked. I’d regularly walk back from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so I could spend time in Central Park. ANGLES also has scenes in Greenwich Village and Morag’s Upper West Side apartment. The second book in the series, THE SPIRIT REPOSITORY is mostly set in Greenwich village, around the publisher for whom Bonnie works, and the bookshop that Rupert owns, with forays to the Upper West Side and down to the Bowery. Most of the books in the series will have NYC locations, although I plan to get them out of the city at times! (http://www.coventinacircle.devonellingtonwork.com)

SAVASANA AT SEA, the first Nautical Namaste Mystery that releases in November, starts in New York City, at Union Square, where yoga studios have bloomed in the last few years. It also has locations at the cruise ship piers, and Sophie shares a brownstone in Brooklyn, inspired by one owned by a friend of mine.

I love the city deeply; I just don’t want to live there any more!

SCOTLAND
I have a deep love of Scotland. Two of my shows have been produced at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and I lived in Edinburgh for a month at a time with each. I’ve visited the city frequently, and travelled a good deal throughout the country: St. Andrews, Skye, the borders, but especially Ayrshire, where I’ve rented an apartment in Culzean Castle through the Scottish National Trust a couple of times.

The area is amazing — friendly people, beautiful scenery, great food. A basic conversation in passing can be the seed of a story.

A big chunk of TRACKING MEDUSA is set in a fictional town in Ayrshire, not far from Culzean, where Gwen and Justin confront Gwen’s past and discover the secrets of the Medusa statue.

Eastern and Western Scotland are very different from each other, in atmosphere, in geography, in sensory detail. The jet stream allows Culzean to grow tropical plants. The coast around St. Andrews can’t mistaken for the isle of Arran in the west. And the Highlands are a world unto themselves (not to mention that the signs are in Scots Gaelic first and sometimes English underneath). Someone from Glasgow speaks differently than someone from Edinburgh than someone from Skye. The cadence is difference, the timbre is different. Yes, there’s a “Scottish” accent different from English or Welsh or Irish, but there are also regional differences within it. Each one is delightful in its own way, but easy to pick up a false ring in a piece.

It’s very obvious when a writer sets something in Scotland and has never visited — it comes across more like a Rennfaire in upstate New York than genuinely in Scotland.

Northumbria
This is Hotspur Percy country, which is why I originally visited when I first graduated high school, and I keep coming back. The border shifted — it’s England, it’s Scotland, it’s England, it’s Scot– you get the idea.

Northumbrians have a thick north England accent, thicker than Yorkshire, but different from Scotland. They are very proud of their area.

My favorite places are Alnwick (now famous because the castle is used for Hogwarts) and Alnmouth. But my ultimate favorite is Lindisfarne, Holy Island, still cut off by the tide twice a day.

Lindisfarne has the ruins of a Priory, where illuminated manuscripts were created, and a castle. Two hotels, several pubs and shops, holiday cottages, a few people, a lot of sheep. When the tourists leave and the tide comes in, and it’s cut off, it’s magic.

I first learned about Lindisfarne when I was a kid, reading HIGHLIGHTS FOR CHILDREN magazine, when they had a story about monks saving the illuminated manuscripts. I vowed to visit, and did, right after high school. I can’t stay away. I have photographs that show the erosion of the ruins over the years.

A section of TRACKING MEDUSA is set there, at some of my favorite places, including the Abbey, the beach, and the kilns.

I’ve also visited the battle site of Otterburn. It was autumn when I was there; no one else around. I walked through the darkening woods, it got quieter and the birds stopped chirping. You could feel the weight of the dead. I had similar sensations when visiting Glencoe and Culloden in Scotland, but because Otterburn is smaller, more isolated, and more overgrown, it stayed with me more strongly.

Prague
Prague is an amazing city, centuries of history handled like they happened last week.

Locals sigh and talk about how nothing has been the same since The Battle of the White Mountain. I thought that was in WWII, and understood how it could still have an impact. Then I looked it up at it was in 1620! That gives you a good sense of the emotional geography of the place.

One also always has the sense of being watched. It’s not “Big Brother” or left over from Soviet occupation. It’s all the statues on the roofline that stare down at you.

I plan to use Prague as a setting for several pieces, but it’s in an upcoming serial novel about filming a television show, and part of the pilot is shot in Prague. There’s a lovely sequence on the Charles Bridge between Old Town and Mala Strana, because it’s so different on either side of the bridge.

Cape Cod
One of the reasons I moved here is because the place inspired me so much. My family’s visited since 1968. The National Seashore at Eastham and Race Point Beach in Provincetown are two big favorites, as is the Aschumet Sanctuary with all its holly trees, closer to where I actually live.

I’ve set a lot of pieces on Cape Cod. Morag’s family has a house here in PLAYING THE ANGLES. I’ve used it in quite a few short stories, and in an upcoming novel called THE TIE-CUTTER (Ayrshire, Scotland, is also heavily involved, as is Iceland).

Living here and visiting are very different, so I encourage any author who writes about the place to do more than a flying visit, if you expect me to believe your characters are more than summer people! No matter how many years I live here, I will always be a washashore, which is fine with me. It’s also a term I’d never heard in all the years I visited, but everyone made it clear to me once I moved in!

Any place can provide inspiration, if you look for it. Take time and get to know your home region. When you travel, don’t just post on social media and take video with your phone — experience the place directly, and then it will resonate in your writing.

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Thurs. May 30, 2013: Busy NY Days and Having to Wear Shoes

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The small pools at Rockefeller Center

Thursday, May 30, 2013
Waning Moon
Saturn Retrograde
Sunny and hot

Yesterday was a wonderful, albeit exhausting day. Up early, left Brooklyn at a reasonable hour, rolled into Rockefeller Center.

First stop: Christie’s Auction House. They had a viewing for the upcoming Latin American Art Auction. It was amazing. There’s a reason Christie’s has such a stellar reputation — not only are the pieces stunning, but they are well-curated, and the staff is pleasant.

Of course, I gravitated immediately to Matta’s work. His paintings have spoken to me since I was in college and saw them when my roommate studied him in Art History class. If there’s a Matta, I find it instinctively.

There was also work from a Cuban painter named Tomas Sanchez that I loved — his use of light and color and the four elements. And Emilio Sanchez’s use of light reminded me of Edward Hopper.

What a great way to start the day!

Headed up Fifth Avenue. Stopped at St. Patrick’s (under renovation) to visit the Brigid altar. Stopped in St. Thomas’s because I attended the ordination of one of the first women priests (Anglican) there when I was in high school. I thought it was somehow appropriate that, when you stand in front of the church’s 9/11 Memorial, you can hear and feel the subway moving underneath.

Further up to the MOMA, where I found a card of the Edward Hopper painting that inspired one of my short stories. Bought it and will frame it when I get home.

Up to the park, where I had coffee and a nice chat with one of my students. Then did the Broadway matinee sweep, but didn’t really want to bother anyone during the shows.

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I swung by my beloved Belasco Theatre to take photographs — nothing’s running in it right now, but that theatre holds a special place in my heart. It’s a little gem, and I wish a bit more would be invested in it to preserve it. The history, the stories, the atmosphere of it are completely unique to any theatre in which I’ve ever worked.

Headed for the NY Public Library, where I spent quality time with Patience and Fortitude, and used the reading room to get some work done. Got some background written for something I want to work on.
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To the Harvard Club, where the Indie Next Generation Awards Ceremony was held. The Harvard Club has many strict rules and nut dispensers, and that’s all I’m going to say on that topic. But our function was lovely — how can you not love a place that hands you a glass of champagne as you walk in? I met a lot of great people, caught up with my agent, and got to applaud the authors. I’m glad I was a part of it as a judge.

Once I left the Harvard Club, I went back to Broadway, backstage at NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT, to catch up with friends. It was great to see people and catch up and all that good stuff.

From there, I headed up 9th Avenue to Molloy’s Pub. Got there before any of the people I was meeting, so had dinner (hey, it was past 8 PM & I hadn’t eaten since breakfast). Joelle Charbonneau joined me after her signing at Books of Wonder and we had a good natter about the business, and then Costume Imp joined us when he got out of work at the ballet (they knew each other in college). So we had a great time.

By the time Imp and I got back to Brooklyn and settled, it was nearly 1 AM.

Up early again this morning — the concentration today is downtown and the Village. Walking the old neighborhoods, getting the changes photographed and logged in for the HEART SNATCHER trilogy, HUNTING THE DREAMSTALKER, and a couple of other things that use contemporary NY as a background.

I should wear the cute shoes that go with the dress, but my feet are swollen from yesterday, so to hell with it, I’m wearing the sneakers. The Knickerbocker Club (where I have a meeting with a former mentor this afternoon) is just going to have to deal. 😉

I’m not used to wearing shoes anymore. I don’t wear them at home, except to run to the store or to go out for a meeting. An hour, two hours a day, tops. Having to wear shoes all the time is much harder than it sounds!

Devon