Dreaming up a city

So this weekend’s writing job, while I do a bunch of other, non-writingy jobs, is to start dreaming up a city for one of my current projects.

I’m a big advocate of the setting-as-a-character-in-its-own-right school of world building. My favourite novels are the ones you want to keep re-reading because you just enjoy being in the world of the story so much. Think JK Rowling’s Hogwarts, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, Terry Pratchett’s Ankh Morpork, Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood, Diana Wynne Jones’ Moving Castle. And just to show this works outside fantastical stories, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden and Georgette Heyer’s Regency London. In fact, one of my big motivations behind writing The Beast’s Heart was to write myself a fairy tale world I could go and live in for a little while.

I have some sketchy ideas for this city, but so far it’s really just been a backdrop for the action in this new story. I want to level it up a bit, deepen it’s character, really bring it alive. I want my city to have twisty, shadowy alleyways lined with crooked buildings, cobbled streets and piazzas, a complicated clock tower, avenues of terraced mansions, moonlit shenanigans on rooftops, a river with treacherously damp water stairs, a monumental bridge lined with statuary, and a royal palace with towers and turrets. I want it to have all this and hold out the tantalising promise of more.

I have a whole Pinterest board of city inspiration.

I love looking at old photographs of cities in times gone past for inspiration.

I also love using old paintings and drawings for city inspiration. I find it interesting to look at what drew the artist’s eye. What was it about the city they thought was worth capturing? Rooftops? Stately buildings and squares? Shadowy spaces and archways leading…where?

And I’ve been mainlining illustrations by the likes of Anton Pieck and Arthur Rackham, who did delightful, fairy-taleish cityscapes.

What are your favourite literary cities? And what brings them alive in your mind?

Touchstones: the Forest

the_enchanted_woodI’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately. Following on from my post on Sapsorrow’s Dress, here’s some thoughts on another one of my personal story touchstones… 

Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood was the first ever chapter book my mother read to me. I remember her sitting down on my bed with this book with a completely intriguing cover, with twisty trees hiding fairy houses, hedgehogs scurrying around between spotty toadstools, and a hovering golden-haired, silver-winged pixie. I remember the anticipation I shared with the three Faraway Tree children as they leaned out their bedroom windows in their new house, and listened to the trees with the mysterious dark green leaves talking together (wisha-wisha) in the wood they so desperately wanted to explore

loved that book.

I’m not sure if The Enchanted Wood is what started my fascination with forests, but it certainly helped shape them in my imagination as places where adventure and magic happens.

Forests are, of course, generally held to be a symbol of the unknown. People entering forests in stories are almost always entering a period of uncertainty and danger. You just have to look at a bunch of fairy tale staples – Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. Stepping between the trees is usually an act of desperation or coercion – or foolishness.

And then there’s all the mythic stuff, such as Arthurian adventures like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the legendary Forest of Broceliande. The Forest is such a powerful storytelling symbol its use has carried right through from ancient times to the present day – take the great forests of Mirkwood and Lothlorien in The Lord of the Rings, the Forest Moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi or, of course, the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter, just to name the three most iconic fictional worlds of modern times.

What I love about story forests is that often even the standard rules of danger and malevolence are suspended. They are genuinely ambivalent places. Forests are almost definitely full of hungry wolves and wicked witches and ogres who want to crack open your bones and suck out the marrow. But a forest could equally turn out to be a place of strange sanctuary, or hold an unexpected treasure in its green heart.

Obviously forests represent the wild and the untamed; they stand in stark contrast to other habitats like farms and cities, where the landscape has been subdued and converted to serve a specific (human) purpose. It’s not just the adventure and possibility of danger they represent, though, that makes my heart sing. It’s also the pervading sense of peace that you feel on entering a real-life forest. The different suite of sounds. The smells, the quality of the light, the sense of coming back to a simpler, more fundamental existence that entirely lacks the trappings of civilisation.

mcubbin_lostIf my story brain’s touchstone is a European, fairy tale forest, Australian forests are an IRL touchstone just as potent. My mother took my sister and I on plenty of camping holidays out in the bush as a kid, and I have particularly fond memories of camps without parents in my teenage years, through school, Girl Guides and the Duke of Edinburgh Award. In fact, I think the first time I ever spent a night away from home in the absence of anyone more than a year older than me was on a Duke of Ed camping trip in the Namadgi National Park when I was about 16.

There is nothing quite so magical as waking up to the peace of the early morning Australian bush, when the air is still a bit misty and the sunshine is so new it’s more silver than gold. At this time of day the sun is just beginning to warm up the eucalyptus leaves on the trees and scattered on the ground, and the evaporating dew carries the sharp, clean scent into the air. This feeling, of what it is to be in a eucalypt forest, is the one of the things I tried to capture in my story Adventure Socks in CSFG’s anthology The Never Never Land. The main character is 91-year-old George, who is stuck in a dreary old-age nursing home. His only remaining pleasure is his memories of his wife, and the time they spent living in the Snowy Mountains. (Then George meets Maisie, a new resident who shakes things up a bit.)

He lay in his bed with his mind lost in memories. Hiking through lonely, lovely stands of ghost gums with Rose. Listening to the pure, chiming voices of bellbirds filling the air. Surprising a flock of brilliant rosellas from a tree; or getting a shock themselves when they discovered they were walking amidst a mob of kangaroos resting out the midday heat, stock-still in the shade. The roos had been indistinguishable from the weathered stumps of trees until he and Rose got too close and the nearest ones startled and bounded away.

– “Adventure Socks”, The Never Never Land

(If you’ve never been to the Snowy Mountains in Australia, you should go. It really is some of the loveliest country in the world.) I haven’t written many stories based in Australian forests, though. I’m very conscious that my experience of them (and most of the stories I’ve grown up with about the Australian bush) are predicated on the dispossession of Australia’s first inhabitants, the Aboriginal people. For me, forests are ancient, primal places and the ancient stories of Australia’s forests are not mine to tell.

Just quickly scanning over my files of stories – published and unpublished – there are plenty that are set in or feature a forest. Forests play significant roles in two of my novel projects (so far), and plenty of my short stories. Pretty Jennie Greenteeth, for example, in Strange Little Girls. It’s got a forest and, like all good story forests, this forest isn’t a nice place. It has a nasty secret. I’m trying not to give too much away here, but looking at the metaphorical meaning of the forest that I’ve outlined above, it’s interesting that in order for my protagonist (a 10 year old girl) to resolve the particularly horrifying problem I confront her with, I send her into this forest.

Malevolent secrets. Strange sanctuary. Treasure of a sort. Hmm.


Touchstones: Zena Shapter

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately, starting with Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited award-winning author Zena Shapter to share her thoughts on a touchstone that lies at the heart of many of her stories. And I’m really glad I did, because – Wow! Like many writers and consumers of fiction, I’m a big fan of living vicariously through other people’s experiences, and Zena has provided some amazing pictures below to keep me going for quite a while.

Thank you for agreeing to share your thoughts with me, Zena! What is your touchstone?

Thanks for inviting me to your blog series, Leife! My touchstone is actually an intangible thing – travel. Whenever I visit somewhere new, my senses come alive – aromas become more vibrant, sounds are stronger and I hear more of them, I absorb atmospheres, caress textures, breath more slowly and find myself analysing and recording every detail about the people and place until my notebooks are crammed full. I search for what’s different to ‘back home’, and celebrate the commonality of humankind across the world. These experiences never fade (and if they do I have my notebooks!) and they constantly inspire my writing, especially my longer fiction. They help me build worlds that are out-of-this-world! …yet grounded in reality.

Zena Shapter backpacking – Komodo Island – Iceland – Galapagos – Californa – Tanzania
Top: Komodo Island; Iceland. Bottom: Galapagos Islands; California Redwoods; Tanzania.


When did travel first emerge as a source of inspiration for you? Where did it come from?

The first time travel inspired me was when I was twenty-one, working in a Birmingham publishing company after reading English at University. I hadn’t travelled much at that point, and a friend asked me to go away with her for the weekend. It was January, miserably cold, we were both newly single and needed to get away. We went to a travel agency and asked about last minute deals. In England you can make rock-bottom bargain travel plans if you wait until the day before you want to go and aren’t fussed about where. We ended up with tickets to Tenerife, in the Canaries Islands off the west coast of Africa, and a few days later landed in a completely different climate and culture. It was a transformative experience, changing my mindset, career choices, and life view – it felt like magic!

Zena Shapter Easter Island, Chile
Easter Island, Chile

Why do you think this experience affected you so strongly?

I couldn’t believe how much the act of stepping away from what was familiar enabled me to assess that familiarity objectively. It gave me the space and opportunity to really think, assess and see where I needed to make changes in my life. I also loved the experience of discovering and exploring, walking down streets and over landscapes new to me. I wanted to travel more. After that trip I went back to Birmingham, applied for sponsorship that would enable me to return to University and re-train as a solicitor so I could afford to travel more often. In hindsight that decision may itself have been a mistake, because I’m an artist at heart, though it did enable me to travel more. The first of my working-class family to go to university, my parents were also chuffed I went twice!

Zena Shapter Mount Bromo
Standing on the edge of Mount Bromo, Java

How have your travels inspired your writing? Have you ever written directly about these experiences, or do they lurk in the background of your stories?

Travel for me is a transformative experience. There are countless challenges, especially when you’re backpacking, and each one enables you to grow as a person. The characters in my stories do the same. Challenges touch their lives and they have to adapt to survive. In this way my stories, like travel, are about transformation, and sometimes this is reflected in a physical journey my characters undertake from one place to another. I also love giving readers the thrill of discovering a new place!

Zena Shapter – Iceland – Towards White
A trip to Iceland inspired my upcoming novel, Towards White.

How does your travel touchstone embody or reflect other things that interest you as a writer?

I was talking about this with my agent just the other day! Looking at some of my recent works I realised that ‘control’ was a common theme. What is control and when do we have it? I enjoy questioning our ability and inability to be in control, pitting my characters against both mind control techniques and self-control issues. When I travel I look at cultural approaches to these questions too, examining how people in other countries use mass media, advertising and political spin to gain control, as well as how individuals strive to take control of their own lives. The history of a place, the events that made it what it is today, also interests me as a writer, and I gain a fuller sense of that when I physically travel there.

Zena Shapter – petra_siq – Jordan
Three months pregnant here in the Siq, Petra, Jordan.

How has your relationship with your touchstone, or the way you’ve drawn inspiration from it, changed over time?

Travel takes time and costs money. So yes, the responsibilities of raising a family have over time meant a decline in my ability to travel. Every few years or so I try to fly from Sydney back to England to visit family, and stopover along the way – never in the same place of course. Those stopovers are all too brief, yet enough to assure me that travel is still my inspirational touchstone. I always come home with another notebook and countless photos of the people I’ve met along the way – they’re bound to turn up in a story soon enough.


Zena Shapter writes from a castle in a flying city hidden by a thundercloud. She is the winner of twelve national writing competitions, including a Ditmar Award, the Glen Miles Short Story Prize and the Australian Horror Writers’ Association Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in numerous online and print venues including the Hugo-nominated Sci Phi Journal, Midnight Echo, Award-Winning Australian Writing (twice), and Antipodean SF. Reviewer for Tangent Online Lillian Csernica has referred to her as a writer who “deserves your attention”. In 2016 her co-authored science fiction middle grade novel Into Tordon was published by MidnightSun under the pseudonym Z.F. Kingbolt. Her solo novel Towards White will be published in 2017 by the International Fantasy Writers’ Guild (inspired by a trip to Iceland, see photo above!). She is the founder and leader of Sydney’s award-winning Northern Beaches Writers’ Group, a book creator and mentor, creative writing tutor, editor, social media consultant and workshop presenter. Connect with her online via ZenaShapter.com

The Dress

Every now and then I see something so beautiful it almost makes my heart stop.


*Rapturous sigh*

Here it is again, the Night Goddess dress, from Alice Corsets in the Ukraine.


Now, there are a million and a half beautiful dresses in the world. I’ve got a whole Pinterest board dedicated to them. But this dress, this dress, has haunted my imagination since I was a teenager. It’s like Alice Corsets plucked it directly from my starriest, most fairy taleish dreams. And it’s not just me. When Alisa Perova, of Alice Corsets, posted these photos of her most recent creation, she was flooded with inquiries from people who had fallen in love with it, wanting to purchase it. (She’s currently booked up for new orders until June 2017!)

I asked her why she made it and where she got her inspiration from. Alisa makes a lot of wedding gowns for brides wanting something non-traditional (as well as outfits for other spectacular occasions, such as the Wave-Gotik-Treffen and M’era Luna music festivals in Germany). The idea for this dress, she told me, came when she was watching the 1940s movie Ziegfeld Girl. Instinctively she knew stars were an ideal theme for an alternative wedding dress.

At that moment I understood I was going to position my dress as a wedding gown.

– Alisa Perova, Alice Corsets

Clearly she knows her stuff, because the pictures she’s posted have garnered thousands of likes on Instagram and been repinned on Pinterest over 30,000 times.

sapsorrow-dressIt got me thinking, though, why did I have such a strong reaction to this dress? Like I said, a dress that sparkles with all the stars of the night sky has occupied a special place in my imagination since I was about fifteen. So much so that  I even made my own version of it for a costume party when I was about 20 (seen here modelled by my daughter). (Yep, I’ve still got it, 20 years later…)

I know exactly where I first encountered it (of course it was a fairy tale). But why has it remained such an iconic image for me, out of all the dresses I have encountered over years of copious fairy tale consumption? There are a bunch of universally recognised fairy tale icons: poison apples, glass slippers, roses and thorns, soaringly inaccessible castle towers to name but a few. But the night sky dress is my own particular fairy tale touchstone.

I’ll explore why in my next post. 😉

In the meantime, have some more luscious creations from Alice Corsets to pore over.





The Museum of Broken Relationships

What a fascinating idea…

A new Museum of Broken Relationships will be opening in Los Angeles in May, and they are seeking donations of things that remind people of their once-broken hearts.


It started as a collaborative project between two Croatian artists, Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, after the end of their four-year relationship.

You can read more about a selection of the objects it contains here.

The stories it would hold…!

Candy bar scenes

Image by Simon Howden, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Image by Simon Howden, courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’ve been indulging in some candy bar scenes this week. These are typically the scenes you hold off writing, because they’re the fun ones; the ones that signify major plot points or key emotional stepping-stones for your characters. You’re supposed to hang them out in front of you like a reward you get after the rest of the wordage is down.

I find, though, these are also the scenes that help me keep a story on track. They’re the ones that set the character of the whole novel, and the touchstones I keep returning to when I feel like I’m losing my way. Getting a candy bar scene down ahead of time can help me focus on where the bit I’m actually up to in the plot is heading. They’re also the points at which my characters shine brightest – where their personalities and motivations are most clear. So they also keep me focused on how I am developing the people inhabiting my story.

Typically, these are the scenes where my Muse kicks into overdrive, so they are addictive. I tend to find they leave me a bit wrung out, though. And often when I come to incorporating them into the story as a whole (imagine a kind of literary connect-the-dots), I find they are heavy on emotion, but lacking in the kind of world-building depth that really brings a story to life. That’s fine, though. That’s what first drafts are for, after all.

For me, the key issue is balance. If I write all my candy bar scenes all at once, I just end up with a bunch of disjointed, high energy scenes that don’t actually tell a story. I confess, this was pretty much how I approached writing in my teens. I’m not sure if it was the teen thing, or an overdose of candy, but the other problem I experienced with this approach is that what I ended up with was also kind of melodramatic and silly. Also, I ran out of energy to write the bits that knitted the story together as a whole.

But if I just try to slog it out from beginning to middle to end, I get lost in the fog of the present and can’t see where I’m going, or how to get there.

I like to think of it as finding my way by following a kind of trail of candy through the forest of my unwritten draft.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Research: the perils of doing it whilst tired

I’ve been concentrating a lot lately on Novel Project #4, which is set in London in the 1760s. There’s loads of reserach material to forge through, and I have to admit it is, at times, distracting.

Today I’ve been focusing on familiarising myself with 18th Century London – trying to work out what shops existed and where, what were the nice areas to live in and what were the not-so-nice, that sort of thing. Owing to this period holding an enduring fascination with readers and writers, there is a wealth of information available, which is fantastic.

You just have to make sure you’re reading it properly.

For example, the following paragraph, on a site describing the residents of Buckingham St since its establishment in the late 17th Century, gave me something of a start:

The “Lady Kilmurray” shown in the ratebooks of 1680–1 must have been an undertenant of Dearham’s. She was probably the daughter of Sir William Drury of Besthorpe, Norfolk, and the widow of Charles Needham, 4th Viscount Kilmorey, who had died in prison in 1660 for the second time.

On re-reading it, I worked out I’d missed a line, which rendered the paragraph somewhat more conventional:

The “Lady Kilmurray” shown in the ratebooks of 1680–1 must have been an undertenant of Dearham’s. She was probably the daughter of Sir William Drury of Beesthorpe, Norfolk, and the widow of Charles Needham, 4th Viscount Kilmorey, who had died in prison in 1660. Her second husband, Sir John Shaw, baronet, died in March, 1679–80, so that she was a widow for the second time.

Bridget, Viscountess Kilmorey, whose first husband had sounded so very interesting.

Bridget, Viscountess Kilmorey

And here’s her second husband, Sir John Shaw.
Sir John Shaw, Baronet

Some inspiration: floating candle ceremonies

Here is some inspiration I’ve been using lately for a scene in Novel Project #3.

Hue City, central Vietnam: girls in traditional dresses float candles in the river in prayer for loved ones who have passed on.
Hue City, central Vietnam: girls in traditional dresses float candles in the river in prayer for loved ones who have passed on (National Geographic).

I’ve been looking at floating candle ceremonies from around the world.

Fenghuang, in China: people float candles in the river at Lunar New Year for good luck. The candles represent their wishes for the coming year.
Fenghuang, in China: people float candles in the river at Lunar New Year for good luck. The candles represent their wishes for the coming year.

There are so many different reasons for this beautiful gesture.

Floating candles to commemorate the bombing of Hiroshima (click on the picture to find out more)
Floating candles to commemorate the bombing of Hiroshima (click on the picture to find out more)

For expressing hope for the future, commemorating the past, or even just celebrating the present.

School children float candles on the Limmat River and eat gingerbread and drink hot punch to celebrate Christmas in Zurich, Switzerland, .
School children float candles on the Limmat River and eat gingerbread and drink hot punch to celebrate Christmas in Zurich, Switzerland.

The Never Never Land


How could this have slipped my mind? My only excuse is that I’ve been crafting a new story, so my brain has been very much off in another world entirely in the last couple of weeks.

On 3 February, the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild announced the table of contents of their upcoming anthology The Never Never Land, and my story Adventure Socks is in it!

Congratulations to everyone involved. The lineup is fantastic, and includes a bunch of authors I’m very proud to sit alongside, as well as some new names.

I have to thank my fiddle teacher, the extraordinarily gifted artist Jacqueline Bradley, for the inspiration for this one. She makes sculpture using familiar objects in quirky, unexpected and thought provoking ways. While this story is not a direct response to any specific piece of hers, the idea behind it sprang from a conversation we had and feels to me like it has perhaps captured a tiny spark of the homely, whimsical spirit of her work.

The fear of not being original

On Wednesday night, at the monthly Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild general meeting, we had a fascinating presentation from author Russell Kirkpatrick. I’m gonna say it was about story shape, because that’s what he said it was about. But that’s kind of like saying Lord of the Rings is about hobbits.*

Somehow Russell talked us through sculpting the shape of a story using an analysis of wave files from his extensive and eclectic music collection, with a particular focus on prog rock. I’ll just leave that there.

One thing that really jumped out at me, though, was a point he made at the very beginning of his talk. This was: don’t let the fear of not being original stop you writing your story. He illustrated this with clever 1 second grabs from three wildly different songs. This showed how a particular element that has current, on-trend appeal might get picked up and used, not just in different songs, but across a range of music genres, either because it is currently looping in the common creative consciousness, or, if you’re more cynical, to deliberately broaden the appeal of a song. Probably even both. And what’s more, they get resurrected, as samples, years later for new works, by new artists in new genres that didn’t exist back then.

This struck a chord with me (see what I did there?), because earlier that day I had been thinking about an online news headline I’d seen. This is it, complete with the pic that accompanied the story:

A curious Ohio boy who sneaked into an abandoned house over the weekend discovered a mummified corpse hanging inside a closet, unnoticed for nearly five years

A curious Ohio boy who sneaked into an abandoned house over the weekend discovered a mummified corpse hanging inside a closet, unnoticed for nearly five years.

You can see the appeal, can’t you? There is story there. Layers of it. I spent my entire ride, both to and from work yesterday, immersed in it.

Imagining the boy: a bundle of trepidation and curiosity, creeping through the dusty, creaking, damp-ridden dark; peering into empty rooms, lit only by murky shafts of light leaking through boarded-up windows. Seeing the cupboard, wondering if there was anything interesting inside…

Or thinking on the story behind the guy who died – a homeless man who had bought the house for cash after inheriting a sum of money from his mother. What was it about finally owning a place to live that drove him to such despair that he took his own life?

And that’s just based on what was in the news article. There are endless possibilities for making stuff up from there. What about the police officer who had to attend the property after the call from the boy’s mother? Did she see something off-kilter that lodged in her mind and had her waking up in the middle of the night months later, wondering about the verdict of suicide?

Or…is there something else entirely? Something lurking under the floorboards of the house, scuttling through the roof space. Something bitter and steeped in spite that talks to you in your sleep and leaches the peace from your waking hours. Or perhaps it is the house itself. What happened there that sank into the fabric of the peeling wallpaper? That spreads across the sagging ceilings like black mould, and taints the very air with a grief you breathe from the moment you step inside?

The scope is endless!

But, it’s hardly original, is it?

Despite the fact that this one actually happened, I reckon you could probably find a dozen crime novels built around the premise of “Curious Kid Discovers Body In Abandoned House” without trying too hard. And probably another dozen each of psychological thrillers, horror stories, kid’s adventures and paranormal romances to boot.

And you know what? They’ll all be different. Some will be great. There will be memorable characters, sadness that stays with you and killer twists. And some will be pretty ho hum.

But at the core of each of them is that same identical 26 word hook (or one-second sound grab). Because the potential for story here is just so immense.

So, yeah. Maybe there’s a thing in your story that’s not so original. Write it anyway. Make it good. If it’s good enough, it probably won’t matter that we’ve seen it before. We can just lose ourselves in it all over again. The frisson of familiarity might even be what makes it for us.

Madonna’s Express Yourself v Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, anyone?


*Russell is from New Zealand. I kind of had to mention hobbits.