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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Fri. May 31, 2013: Second Intense Day in NY

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Freedom Tower at Ground Zero

Friday, May 31, 2013
Waning Moon
Saturn Retrograde
Sunny and hot

Yesterday was another intense day. I’d forgotten that those are the only kinds of days that exist in NY.

It was all about downtown, from Battery Park up to the Village. Didn’t get in everything I wanted. My feet were still very sore from the previous day. I opted for comfort over vanity and wore my Timberland sneakers instead of cute shoes. Thank goodness I did.

We see a lot of photos of the Freedom Tower, but it’s a completely different experience to be there. The power of the building, and the love, care, and pride that went into it can’t be expressed in a photograph. I’m one of the people who didn’t want it built — I believe the entire site should be non-commercial, and I loathe the guy who has the lease on the property. Not once did he ever express sadness or horror at the tragedy of 9/11 — he only squawked about his money. He should not have been allowed to retain the lease on the property.

But the tower itself — the construction crew working on it understand what they’re doing. It’s not just a job for them. They’re pouring a lot more into it, and it shows. It affects the physical building and the emotional geography of the place in a beautiful way that it couldn’t if I bunch of guys who didn’t give a damn had been hired.

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The Bell of Hope at St. Paul’s

I was happy to see St. Paul’s — I’d been afraid it was squished in the buildings’ fall, but it wasn’t. I used to sit in the second floor Borders Cafe in the Towers and look over the ancient graveyard. Now, it has tributes to the fallen, and the Hope Bell, consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury the year after the tragedy.

Took lots of photos at Trinity Church, where a big portion of the harpy trilogy’s major turning point take place. I’d forgotten the odd layout of the church and how difficult it is to circumvent it. So I took lots of photos to get the geography right for those sequences, picked the spot where Kirval is murdered.

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Graveyard at Trinity Church

Found an interested grave of a young Naval Captain who died at 32 in a skirmish in 1813, and his widow, who lived to be 77. I will do some more research on them.

On down to Battery Park. Castle Clinton, the fort, is under renovation and not open to the public, but I got some photos of the exterior.

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I forgot how beautiful that waterfront is, with the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and how the NJ waterfront is being revitalized.

Headed up through Battery Park, where Carey (again, from the Harpy Trilogy) lives, and the waterfront section where he runs and where he meets Sascha, the siren. So I’ve got that all photographed and mapped out for both physical and emotional geography.

Walked up through Tribeca and Soho, where I stopped for lunch at an Argentinean Bistro. Their wine list was fantastic, but with the heat and all, I stuck to simple iced tea and a turkey sandwich with mixed green salad. Who knew a turkey sandwich could be so good? Eavesdropped relentlessly on some of the other diners, and have a LOT of self-impressed individuals to skewer in future work.

I found some possibilities for Valerie’s building (again, the Harpy Trilogy). There’s one in particular, which used to house a thread company — if it’s now condos, hers will be on the top floor (even though the building doesn’t have a terrace and hers does). The other possibility is not to have her live in that area of Soho, but further west, on Greenwich St. Several of their buildings have terraces that look out towards the river. The thread company building– no way could you see the river.

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One of the paths Carey runs near Battery Park in the Harpy Trilogy

Walked up to the Village. Absolutely sickened by the way NYU has torn apart the neighborhood’s historical buildings to build boxy, ugly, soulless behemoths. There’s no reason that a creative architect couldn’t refashion the historically valuable buildings of the area to work for the school. But, no, instead, the design is similar to the South Bank of London’s ugly buildings of the 1960s, only they front it with brick to pretend they’re trying to keep it in the tone of the area. Disgusting.

My favorite cafe (where I wrote many papers, many stories, and had many assignations) is now a cheap, ugly Mexican restaurant (there are plenty of wonderful Mexican restaurants in the city — you can tell this isn’t one of them). Since I plan to keep using my favorite cafe in that location in my work, I will have to put an author’s note in those books.

Wanted to hit Strand Books, but couldn’t stand the thought of walking much more. It was in the 90’s and humid (good thing I remembered the sunscreen). Instead, I slipped into Grace Church to regroup. Except some dunderheads were doing construction. I’m sorry, but it’s NEVER appropriate to swear in a church, and use your INSIDE voice, dumbasses! If it’s open for contemplation during renovation, YOU must work around that. That’s what they’re doing at St. Patrick’s — there are renovations going on (with scaffolding, et al INSIDE), but the workers are being very sensitive to the fact that they’re working in a CHURCH. If it bothers me, who is not a churchgoer, it must truly hurt those who belong in there.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, one of my favorite places in the world, is always under construction (because we, as humans, are never “finished”), and their workers are always aware of what they’re doing and where they are.

Headed across to Knickerbocker’s, a nice place on University and 9th, where I had a wonderful catch-up session with the guy who was my college professor and advisor. We had a GREAT time. It also made me realize how much he and my other favorite professor helped me find the language to articulate my beliefs and values, and gave me the tools I needed to pursue my passion — even if I wasn’t always sure what that was.
Great time.

Headed back on the subway, picked up Chinese food, and was back at the brownstone in the early evening. Pretty much collapsed after dinner. Wrapped my feet in cool washcloths, and dozed off and on until Imp got home. The Puerto Rican Street Cat was worried about me, and checked on me every few minutes, taking up sentry duty at the door. Heat exhaustion, I overdid it.

During the bouts I was awake, I re-hydrated as best I could, and rested.

Slept well. My hosts have a sad situation here that has to be dealt with this morning, so I moved my appointments to later in the day in order to stay here and support them.

It will be another busy day and tomorrow — I get to go HOME. I’ve had a wonderful trip, but I want and need to be HOME.

PS — Thanks for all the shoe support! Or should I say, shoeless support!

Devon

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Ashumet Holly Sanctuary

Thursday, March 17, 2011
Waxing Moon
Saturn Retrograde
Supposedly sunny
St. Patrick’s Day

Well, yesterday was full out, but it was fun. Got some work done in the morning (although not enough — familiar refrain).

Out the door on time, dropped something off for my mom, wound up at the Cotuit Library early, but they were kind and took me in out of the rain. I stayed in a corner looking at books until they were ready for the event (I could have offered to help, but they have a system, and it would have slowed them down, at that point).

Anyway, the lunch was terrific, and the event was a lot of fun. Author Carol McCleary talked about her new book, THE ILLUSION OF MURDER. She writes a mystery series featuring one of my personal heroines, Nelly Bly, one of the first all-round investigative journalists and a champion for women and children’s rights. When I saw this in the events calendar I had to go — I’ve got the first book still in a box (the box is marked TBR, but, well, it’s still a box), and already had the second book on pre-order. So I was very excited to attend. Carol is a lovely, lively, smart, funny woman and had the whole audience with her for each moment. Makes me even more eager to read the books. And, of course, the lunch spread was great — it always is. And I met some really great people and there was some talk about future events and my possible involvement. I love supporting fellow authors and celebrating their new releases — when one succeeds, it brightens the future for all of us.

The woman sitting next to me was a fellow NYU grad, fascinated by film, daughter a librarian in NY, used to attend the Y where my mom used to work, goes to the track in Saratoga with her current (third) husband — one of those great synchronicity things. She told me some great NY theatre/opera stories from the times slightly before my own — I’ve filed them away in the brain, and I’m sure I’ll use them one day. It was a great conversation.

It was a lovely way to spend the late morning/early afternoon, even in this miserable weather. I also found some great books in the library, which I checked out and lugged home.

And, when I got home — I did my follow-up. I’m always emphasizing to my students how important quick follow-up is when you meet new people, and then I putter around and put it off. Not this time — I did it properly! 😉 And I even heard back from Carol a few hours later — it’s great to find kindred spirits, as Anne of Green Gables would say!

Came home, did my follow-up, commented on some of the student work, made the business cards and post cards I needed to take to the dinner.

Drove to the dinner, felt rather at a loss because I didn’t know anyone. Not one familiar face in the room. And I’m not a naturally outgoing person. I’m shy and awkward around people I don’t know. But a table full of friendly fellow writers invited me to join them, and we were off to lots of good conversation and interesting stories. They also taught me how to do things like pronounce “Cotuit” properly.

I also got to meet J. Bean Palmer, who writes the children’s series featuring the Cape Cod Witch. I first found the books at the gift shop in the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay and think they’re absolutely delightful, so it was great to meet the person who wrote them!

Jim Hill was the speaker, with a lively presentation on the uses of social media. And I met another charming woman who is also the chair of the New England Chapter of the Herb Society of America, who has one of the best and most inventive ideas for a children’s book I’ve ever heard. And she lives only a few blocks away — talk about synchronicity. There was another lovely woman whose first book is published next week — I meant to get info and didn’t run into her again. I told her to schedule something for release day so it’s not depressing if her publisher doesn’t fuss over her appropriately! A release day is a celebration!

All in all, a terrific evening at a rather odd chain restaurant that dealt with a larger-than-expected group of lively writers as well as they could.

What I love about people here is they don’t get all defensive about their writing — people are happy to talk about it and happy to support each other. Because we ARE all in this together, and when one of us is successful, it’s good for all of us. People NEED stories — it’s hardwired into us. Publishers and marketers can pretend there’s a limited need, but they’re looking at their own agenda, not how people are built.

I look at my students’ work in the current workshop — every single one of those books is unique enough and creative enough and intriguing enough to deserve publication. And I bet the bulk of the work the writers at tonight’s dinner is the same. We just have to keep at it, encourage each other, and use each individual victory to make us all more determined.

I’m going to schedule this to publish now, and try to tackle some more student work before bedtime — I will be out of the house and headed to Boston to the Flower Show early tomorrow, and I don’t want to leave my students dangling. Oh, and I did the post-dinner follow-up immediately — I better walk my talk, right?

I took a wrong turn coming home — down Phinney’s Lane instead of ShootFlyingHIll Road (locals will get a chuckle out of that) — in other words, I took the long way home through the fog. I hate driving in fog, but this is the Cape, and there is FOG, so I better learn how to fucking deal. 😉

Onward.

Devon

Join Lori Widmer and me on March 26 for the one-day online seminar The Confident Freelancer. More info here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2010

Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Waning Moon
Pluto Retrograde
Neptune Retrograde
Uranus Retrograde
Hot, humid, sunny, sticky

The humidity wasn’t a problem yesterday until later in the day, although the heat soared. Today, I doubt we’ll be that lucky. Now they’re saying we’ll break 100. That’s pretty rare around here.

I wanted to put studio time in, but the website wasn’t updated, and no one answered the phone, so it was a pretty good bet they were closed.

I got out a couple of queries for the plays. I finished the draft changing BEHIND THE MAN from a three-act interactive piece to a two-act proscenium piece. I expanded it a bit in Act I and have to add some more in Act II — it’s still a little short. And I need to work on the new material. It’s not yet seamlessly integrated with the other material.

I started the same transformation on THE MATILDA MURDERS. My dilemma there is that one of the jokes in the interactive version is that all the characters interact/acknowledge the audience except Nate, and he starts to wonder if he’s crazy or if they’re crazy. I’ve been trying to make that work in the two-act structure, but it doesn’t. I may have to lose that whole element. That makes the gap between the three-act and two-act versions wider, which is a good thing, but means I have to come up with extra business to replace the business I’m cutting, and, again, make the play longer.

It’s a fascinating process.

Finished Susan Turnbull’s ALMOST FRENCH. In many ways, it works better for me than Elizabeth Gilbert’s overpraised EAT, PRAY, LOVE. Don’t get me wrong — I think Gilbert’s writing is beautiful. But, to me, she went on this incredible journey and ended up in the same place she started. The man was a different individual and the location was different, but she hadn’t really made progress. The entire focus of her existence was still on a man. Yes, she spent time on her own, but one never got a sense that she developed as an individual. It was always in how she related to the men on her journey. And then, the second book of hers that came out a few months ago, is a justification as to why she agreed to marry this new guy after swearing she’d never get married again. Don’t plan to read it. It’s none of my business. It’s her life, not mine. I don’t care what she does, and if she wants to change her mind, that’s up to her. But she’s doing it publicly, and in my opinion, she’s being well-paid to be a hypocrite. It doesn’t matter on a personal level because we are not a part of each other’s lives. I think it’s great she’s a success, good for her, it’s hard to make a living in this business. So, she found out her “ethics” on the matter of remarriage weren’t all that strong when push came to shove and she’d have to make actual compromises for her supposed “principles.” I don’t need to spend my hard-earned money reading her justification. Turnbull, on the other hand, although she comes to Paris because she’s fallen in love with a guy, actually builds a life AND a partnership, and, for all the growth and change she manages during the six years before her marriage, she also stays true to an essential core of herself, even when she makes mistakes, even when it’s not always pretty, even if she’s not always right. And I really like and respect that about both her and her book. She doesn’t make excuses or justifications. She simply IS. She’s doing the best she can, she’s learning along the way, and she’s taking joy in the journey. For a memoir, there’s not a whole lot of naval-gazing going on, and yet she has a wonderful journey of self-discovery.

Roughed out two comedy sketches, one political, one more universal, about scumbag landlords. They still need work — the political one needs more zap leading to the end, and it’s very vicious. I may need to dial down the viciousness, yet still be witty enough to get my point across. But they were fun to write. I want to write two more, polish them, and that will be my first bunch sent to the comedy group.

Started reading Adriana Trigani’s LUCIA, LUCIA, which is a lovely novel. I’m throughly enjoying it. Although most of it is set in the Greenwich Village of the 1950’s, enough of it remained when I went to NYU in the 80’s to enjoy the landmarks. Some of them are still there, but NYU is rapidly buying up all the lovely historical buildings, ripping them down, and building soulless dormitories. I’m sometimes embarrassed to be an NYU alum; it used to mean something, one could take pride in it, but now — they’ve been such poor stewards of the grace and history of the Village for the past twenty years that it’s disgusting.

Will try to get some writing done and read at least a bit of the play sent over by my acquaintance before it gets too hot to work and I have to shut off the computer. We have to “conserve power” — either the air can be on or the TV or the computer. Let’s see, now, Con Ed raises our fees by 17% every year, but can’t provide the power we need. Something’s not only twisted about that, but fraudulent. Their JOB, their reason for existence, is to provide the power we need because we’re paying for it. Fingers crossed they don’t screw us like they usually do — there’s no place I can take the cats to cool down if the power goes out.

No studio time for me today. It’s not even 7:30 in the morning, and I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. I do not do well in heat and humidity. I am a Winter Girl all the way!

Elsa is hanging in there. She’s not making huge progress, but she’s eating better and interacting more and making decisions. She’s not backsliding, although the heat and humidity are tough on her, too. Still waiting to hear back from the vet about her new medication. Getting a little tired of having to wait at least a week every time I make contact.

Stay cool, stay hydrated.

I’m going back to the page.

Devon