AssisiLook at the illustration for this post. What does this image conjure for you? What ideas does it spark? Take your time over the exercise. Then set those thoughts aside for a while and read on.

This week I finished the proof-reading for Heart’s Blood, which will be published in November (October in the UK.) Medical treatment has gobbled up much of my writing time this year, and these short-deadline editorial tasks haven’t helped. Even for an experienced writer it can be difficult to step back into the world of the story while dealing with the disruption of a significant illness. How do I attune myself to the mindset of my narrator? How do I think myself onto an island off the north coast of Ireland in the tenth century? How do I get that elephant in the corner to stop trumpeting about breast cancer and take a nap?

I’m using three tools: memory, text and pictures. I grew up in a part of New Zealand that was rich in vistas of sky and water. I understand the fascination of the sea shore with its myriad treasures to be discovered. I remember the bite of the wind, the swirl of kelp, the footprints of the birds that visited on their travels. I recall the mysterious keyhole rock, the fear of being trapped by the tide, the small tragedy of burying a beloved toy in the sand and losing him forever. While the landscape of my youth can’t quite do service as Ireland or Scotland, it is similar enough to put me in the right creative space.

Remembering that landscape, I considered how strongly our physical environment shapes our identity, attitude, philosophy. Our childhood landscapes are embedded in our psyche. That’s probably why I love the work of the late Orkney writer George Mackay Brown and of New Zealand’s new Poet Laureate, Cilla McQueen. Their writing has the power to transport the reader to a realm of light and shade, storm and stillness – an island landscape in which man and nature are inextricably linked. I re-read favourite poems by both writers as part of my reconnection with the world of my own story.

When I’m researching physical settings for novels, I usually go to see the places at first hand. I come home with many photographs, which I use not only to get physical details correct, but also to help shape the psychology of the characters. Nature is a significant element in all my stories. Creatures, plants, landscape, weather and seasons have a bearing on the way men and women think and act. Generally, my work is set in cultures where survival is closely tied to the workings of nature. Often the spiritual beliefs of the characters are bound up with the seasons, the elements, and nature-based deities. My Irish, Pictish and Norse people live by stone and stars, tides and turning of the year. The natural world is deep in their blood; they feel each change. That goes especially for the main narrator of the work in progress who, like me, is a druid. Looking over my photos from Orkney, the Faroe Islands and Ireland, I began to hear her voice again.

Let’s have another look at that illustration. There’s a story behind it, of course. The photographer was wandering through Assisi and saw an old wooden gate in a high wall. He was intrigued by various aspects of the gate, including the rough hole near the latch, so he took a series of photos, moving in each time. It wasn’t until he came up close that he realised the aperture framed a lovely image of the town: the tiled roofs, the dangling boughs with their clinging leaves, the blossom tree down the hill, the hazy sky. Oh, the magic of place! A single picture can be full of stories. I imagined St Francis strolling by, musing on the beauty of nature. I considered the people who crafted those lovely tiles – there could be a whole family saga there. I wondered how long it would be before the twigs burst into new leaf. I conjured up a pair of lovers communicating through the hole in the gate, like Pyramus and Thisbe. I thought of a woman cutting blossom sprigs to take home and put in a jug by the bedside of a sick mother.

What tools do you use to slip into the world of your book? Images, text, music, food?

Photo credit:
© Glyn Marillier

About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written seventeen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Her latest release, Raven Flight, is the second book in her Shadowfell series, set in a magical version of ancient Scotland. Juliet has two new releases coming out in 2014: The Caller, third and final book in the Shadowfell series, and Dreamer's Pool, the first novel in a new adult fantasy series, Blackthorn & Grim.